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Part 1: Trailhead(s) to the Lower Basin, including
part of the Hardrock course


"Hiking opportunities abound in the San Juan Mountains, of varied lengths and difficulties
providing something for everyone. No matter where you choose to hike [or run],
you will be mesmerized by the beauty and will return wanting more."
~ brochure published by the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce
One of the prettiest runs/hikes you can take in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton is on the Ice Lake Trail, which I've highlighted in orange on the map below.

Hardrockers get to enjoy a half a mile or more of it in the section between Ice Lake Creek and Grant-Swamp Pass (where the blue and orange lines coincide) but most of the runners never take the trail through the Lower Ice Lake Basin or the upper basins during their training runs.

I encourage them -- and anyone else who loves alpine basins -- to keep going as far as possible on the Ice Lake Trail sometime. I think it's even more splendid than Island Lake, Grant-Swamp Pass, and the view across Swamp Canyon to Oscar's Pass.

Heresy? I don't think so. Check it out for yourself on a pretty day like I had today and compare the two routes. The lower basin is very runnable and getting to the upper basins is a great workout at 11,000+ to 13,000+ feet in altitude, depending on how far you venture.


Jim and I have used the Ice Lake Trail half a dozen times or more to reach Grant-Swamp Pass, which is on the Hardrock Hundred (HRH) race course.

If you look at the photo header on this and every page of this year's journal entries, you'll see Jim and Cody on the trail going up to the pass -- with one of the upper Ice Lake basins in the background! I took that photo on July 24, 2009.

One time in July, 2007 I explored the Lower Ice Lake Basin and the falls in the next photo on my own while Jim went up to the pass, but it wasn't until last July that we both continued on up to Ice Lake, which is in the next higher basin. That's part of the missing six weeks in last year's journal, which I hope to eventually upload. Some of the photos from that run/hike are on our Picasa site (click on "More Photos" at the top left of each web page).

Not a good idea to head up into that storm above tree line!  (July 6, 2009)

We almost didn't make it to Ice Lake last year. A storm was approaching from the west when we got to the serious climb that begins at the series of waterfalls full of run-off from the lakes in the high basins (photo above). We reluctantly and briefly turned around.

The storm soon passed, however, and the sky was bright blue again in a few minutes. We retraced our steps to the waterfalls and continued up another mile-plus into the next higher basin to Ice Lake, which sparkled like a turquoise gem in the sunshine. Jim plopped down on the soft tundra lichens and moss above the lake (next photo) to take a nap at about 12,200 feet while Cody and I explored a bit higher.

Jim and Cody sit on a bank above Ice Lake.  (July 6, 2009)

I knew there were even higher basins and more lakes above Ice Lake -- and I was determined to explore more of them someday. You can see them on the map above. I marked Ice Lake with an orange dot. Just look at all the other lakes and ponds below Pilot Knob, Vermillion Peak, and Fuller Peak!

And that's not all of them. Some are too small to include on the map. It's a watery world up there.


Today Cody and I went more than a mile farther up into the basin below Fuller and Vermillion Peaks until incoming gray clouds forced me to turn around. I still didn't get as far up into the basins as I wanted, but I'm happy with the new territory I got to see.

I knew there was a 30% chance of thunderstorms in the Silverton area today and I got a much later start than usual -- it was about 10 AM when I left the trailhead. I took Jim to meet the HRH trail marking group north of Silverton, watched them cross Mineral Creek, then drove back South Mineral Creek Road to the main Ice Lake trailhead.

It was after 1 PM when I turned around in the upper basins because of the storm clouds. Typical summer day in the San Juans!

No dry feet at 13,000 feet; what isn't covered in snow is wet in the tundra.

Even without the approaching storm (which passed over with no lightning and very little rain and sleet, fortunately) it would have been increasingly difficult to continue much farther today. There is still some snow on the ground and the turf is very wet at this elevation, which I estimate to be about 13,000 feet. I didn't have the GPS with me today. Jim was wearing our Garmin 305 while he helped mark the HRH course from the major Mineral Creek Crossing at Hwy. 550 to the Ice Lake Trail. More about that in a subsequent entry.

I'm going to divide my Ice Lake hike into several journal entries because the trail sections are so distinct and the pages will be easier to open with fewer photos on each one. This was a 350-picture day (!!) but I won't bore you with quite that many shots.

I was overwhelmed with scenery today and had no idea I took that many pictures until I downloaded them on my computer. I thought perhaps half that number. When I was downloading the photos Jim took today, I asked him how many he thought he took. He guessed 30; it was 58 (which is a lot for him). Our skewed perceptions were similar!

I'm not sure if digital cameras are a blessing or a curse for a photo-nut like me. I enjoy composing the shots and reminiscing later. And I get enough positive feedback from readers to continue sharing the pictures. Jim jokes, however, "Don't encourage her!" It does slow me down and takes more time to edit them later.

Fortunately, Cody doesn't mind how many times I stop to take pictures. Good boy. With all our stops and breaks and photos and wandering around today, it took me about 5 hours to go about eleven miles.

And you know what? I had a fantastic day!

I hiked strongly uphill, playing leap-frog with most of the people ahead of me (there was a good crowd out today, but folks were spread out along the trail). I'm starting to feel pretty well-acclimated to the altitude now. The only reason most hikers passed me was my frequent photo stops; I out-hiked all but the fastest young men.  < grin >


The Ice Lake Trail is out and back; folks can choose any distance up to about ten miles round trip -- or farther if they go off on a few of the side trails, explore the upper basins, or include parts of the Hardrock course that intersect the Ice Lake Trail (Grant-Swamp Pass and the Kamm Traverse). Without the GPS I estimate Cody and I covered at least eleven miles today.

The main trailhead for the Ice Lake Trail is at the large parking area across from the South Mineral NFS campground four miles back South Mineral Creek Road. The elevation here is about 9,800 feet.

A hiker in front of me on the Ice Lake Trail about a quarter mile from the main trailhead

There is a secondary trailhead about a mile up the road to Clear Lake. You can see it going out to the left (west) from the first serious switchback on FSR 815 on the map above. The advantage (?) of starting there is two-fold: you eliminate about a mile of switch-backing trail and several hundred feet of elevation gain.

From both trailheads you may get your feet wet, however; Clear Creek crosses both trails.

Tiny crimson columbines next to Clear Creek

Within about half a mile from the trailhead, the longer, lower route from S. Mineral Creek Road -- the way I usually go -- crosses the creek below a couple of pretty waterfalls. The water crossing is about fifteen feet across. There are several skinny logs across it that some folks use to try to keep their feet dry:

Since I'm not the most coordinated person in the world I just plow through the ankle-deep water so I don't slip off the logs. For me, it's safer and the water feels good on my feet.

The view of the waterfalls above the creek crossing is nice:

One of many falls as Clear Creek drops to S. Mineral Creek

The creek crossing on the short, upper spur trail coming from Clear Lake Road is more of an adventure.

The trail crosses the water right at the bottom of a pretty good-sized waterfall and the "trail" has become more eroded with each passing year. The rocks and logs are slick. It's hard to pass next to this falls without getting your feet wet in the creek and the rest of you wet from the water spray:

Spur trail crossing of another one of Clear Creek's falls

If you're on this short trail, you'll join the lower Ice Lake trail less than a hundred feet after the waterfall. Keep going straight and slightly up.

If you're coming up from the lower trail, you'll take a sharp left to continue on the Ice Lake Trail to the basins. For an additional treat, however, briefly follow the trail to the right so you can see the upper falls that hikers/runners go through from the secondary trailhead:

See why they're likely to get wet?

Enjoy the water, then turn around to the trail intersection, go straight, and continue up toward the basins.

"Up" is the key word here!


The Ice Lake Trail has some plateaus on its way up to the lower basin but it's mostly relentlessly uphill, sometimes rather steeply. There are quite a few switchbacks which help make the grade moderate overall.

In this section, the main thing making the trail strenuous is the altitude. If you are acclimated to high elevations and used to hiking in mountains, this is not a difficult trail.

Most of the trail from South Mineral Creek Road to the Lower Ice Lake Basin, a distance of about 2 miles, is very runnable downhill. Strong, acclimated runners can run some or most of the ascent, too.

The trail surface alternates between very smooth grit to rocks and/or roots. Some parts can be treacherous coming back down where there are loose rocks/grit or if it's been raining.

Looking back down the Ice Lake Trail toward the intersection with the
Hardrock trail where it crosses Ice Lake Creek and leads to the Kamm Traverse

In the previous photo you can see some examples of the conglomerate rocks that are so common in the San Juan Mountains. They are a mosaic of various kinds of rocks that adhered together eons ago during one of the upheavals that formed the mountain range. Here is a close-up of one of the rock formations along this trail:

The lower section of the Ice Lake Trail passes through both pine forests and aspen groves, giving way to mostly pines and shrubs as it climbs over 10,500 feet. Even in mid-day there is quite a bit of shade in the first two miles of the trail:


Many kinds of flowers enjoy the shady spots; these are but a few of them:

A type of vetch?

Wild geraniums

White globeflower

Indian paintbrush likes sun or shade. It comes in many colors from cream to deep red.
Interesting fact:  the colored parts are leaves that are protecting the tiny flowers inside!

Forested sections are periodically broken up by sunny meadows full of other kinds of flowers this time of year:

Several hikers switchback up the mountainside ahead of me.

Unknown shrub with interesting flowers

Top of a giant gentian spire (they are three to four feet tall in this area)

The next photo shows a view of Ice Lake Creek from the Ice Lake Trail. This is a little bit below the spot where Hardrock runners cross it on an intersecting trail coming from the Kamm Traverse. The creek is wider than it looks here, and runs quite fast. I crossed it once and will never go back! Thank goodness the Ice Lake Trail does not cross it:

Falls on Ice Lake Creek

The views back down toward the main trailhead on South Mineral Creek Road are scenic as you climb higher and higher:

The Hardrock course follows the Ice Lake Trail for half a mile or more. This is part of it, looking back down the trail:

Shortly after that the trail makes a wide right turn and the vista opens up as you reach the Lower Ice Lake Basin. We are now at about 11,200 feet in elevation.

This view is toward the west end of the lower basin and into the upper basins. Peaks in the distance include Fuller, Vermillion, Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob:

At this point, the Ice Lake Trail forks to the left and a cairn marks the less-obvious trail to the right that Hardrockers follow up to Grant-Swamp Pass.

I turned around at the juncture to take the next picture. I'm looking back down the Ice Lake Trail that I've just climbed. Hardrock runners will turn onto the trail where the red X is located to get up to Grant-Swamp Pass. That's a right turn in clockwise loop years like 2010:

In counter-clockwise years the runners reach this juncture and turn left to go down the Ice Lake Trail for less than a mile before heading down to the Ice Lake Creek crossing.

Today I stayed on the Ice Lake Trail and entered the beautiful world of the Lower Ice Lake Basin. Pictures from the lower basin are featured in the next part of this series . . .

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil