A hike to Ice Lake and two waterfalls, San Juan Mountains, Silverton Colorado
Looking back at the mountainside
The last hike we did on our San Juan road trip was a hike that started next to the S. Mineral Campground where we were staying, called the hike to Ice Lake. There was no mileage on the sign, so Josh and I had no idea how far this hike would be, and the rain was obviously going to come in, but we continued to hike up in hopes to reach the lake anyway. After a short while of hiking, the trail crosses over the river and we completely missed the left turn across the river and we continued up the steep side of the mountainside next to the waterfall. We then realized this trail was a short social trail just to view the waterfall, which is one of the bigger waterfalls in Colorado that I have seen. I snapped numerous waterfall pics and then we hiked back down the steep mountainside to find the trail that we had lost. It didn't take long before we realized that the trail crosses the larger creek/river and we skipped across the rocks to get to the other side.
Getting there: From Silverton, drive 2 miles north on the Million Dollar Highway/Hwy 550 and turn left onto CO Rd 7. There is a brown national forest sign before the turn, so it's very easy to find. Continue down CO Rd 7 for 4.4 miles until you reach S. Mineral Campground. Don't take the fork in the road to the right before the campground, stay straight or left on the main dirt road, until you reach the campground. The parking lot for the hike is across the street from the campground.
Views from the first waterfall
Specs: There are pit toilets at the campground, as well as a water spicket in the summer months. The hike is moderately difficult, with a main trail the entire way to the lake which is approximately 5-6 miles round trip. This is per the forest ranger we talked to as we were leaving the campground combined with information that I found online. There are two Ice Lakes, lower and upper, a shorter hike to the closer lake is around 5.5 miles, and to hike to both lake the trail is more like 7 miles round trip. We didn't reach the lake due to the freezing rain which came in quickly.
The Journey: Josh and I leisurely stayed at our campsite all morning and cooked breakfast, cleaned the Chalet, snapped photos and relaxed in the beautiful cool fall weather. But, I was itching to hike and I had scouted out a trail right by the campground. I kept bugging Josh to go before the weather came in and he finally decided he was ready before just noon; we grabbed our gear, the dogs and started up the trail as the sun became hidden by the clouds. I joked that he was just waiting for the weather to get bad so we could take a shorter hike and was a little grumpy that we might not make it to the lake.
We started up the trail and entered the forest, immediately we noticed the trees here were much taller than the trees on the Front Range, with much thicker trunks too! There was also no fire ban here, and it was obvious the San Juan's get much more rain and moisture than the Front Range does. We walked through the forest which reminded us of Oregon, until we reached a steep incline up the side of the mountain by the river. It was here that we missed the main trail, but the social trail to the bottom of Red Creek waterfall was well worth it. The waterfall was huge and it looked awesome with the spray hitting the rocks and fall colors against the cloudy sky. I have several photos of this here.
Near the 1st waterfall, much bigger in person
We quickly realized our hiking error and we climbed back down, crossed the river and continued up the trail. Eventually the trail takes the hiker above the waterfall that I was climbing on below. It was even bigger than we could see from below, and I stood very near to the steep cliff taking photos while Josh anxiously held my pack from a few feet away. (he is a little afraid of heights) The waterfall cascades down the mountain above us, and continued down the mountain below us. It was very cool!
From there the trail continued up the mountainside some more, and we left the forest behind for high mountain meadows and large rocks. There were bare aspen trees all over the mountainside, and had we been here 1 month prior, we would have had amazing color all around us. But, I reminded myself that we had enjoyed so much of the fall colors this year, and I shouldn't be upset we missed the peak. We could hear another waterfall in the distance, and I thought that maybe we'd see the lake soon. Eventually we got to the second very large waterfall on the hike. It was near an old mine that we checked out before trying to get a glimpse of this next waterfall. But we were in a grove of trees and couldn't see the waterfall, we could only hear it. We walked through the trees and off the trail, near the mine debris, just to peek out and see the waterfall, which was thin and tall as it cascaded down the mountainside in a rocky crevasse.
After snapping some shots, we walked back to the trail and continued up it again; it was at this point in the hike, out in the elements, that we realized the rain had already started and the wind was picking up. Josh, who is always much more cautious than I am, decided we should head back. But I convinced him to eat our lunch on a peninsula above the second waterfall while we checked out the scenery and I took more photos. Quickly, we got cold, ate some crackers, and started back down the trail since we were unprepared for the rain without any gear at all. I was really bummed we didn't make it to the lake, I really hate to start a hike and not get to the finishing point, but we didn't know if the lake was just over the next ridge, or miles away.
Looking DOWN over cliff.
The clouds got worse as we hiked back down the trail and made it back to camp in just under an hour. We probably hiked 3.5 - 4 miles round trip to the second waterfall, and didn't make it to Ice Lake. Here is some further information on the hike from another site.
The scenery was amazing on the hike and we didn't even make it to the lake, plus it was a cold day, with clouds, and well past the peak of color in the fall; but after looking at some photos of other bloggers and hikers I was amazed at the amount of wildflowers, green grass and lushness. I cannot wait to hit up the San Juan area next summer, but that seems so far from now! I am SO not ready for winter, but I do love the holiday season.
Even though we didn't get to stay in the San Juans long enough, it was still a great trip, the area is so lush and mountains are uniquely shaped with lots of lakes and high altitude meadows.
If you live in the area, or have hiked here, I'd love to get your opinion, comments or even photos of the area.
Click map below to input your personal directions to campground and parking lot for the Ice Lake trailhead.