Colorado / Hiking trails

3 Reasons to Hike the Ice Lakes Trail in the Fall

upper ice lake basin near silverton colorado

One of my favorite Colorado hikes is the Ice Lakes Trail near Silverton. I was visiting the area last September and happened to be there just a few days after the trail had just reopened.  The trail was closed for nearly a year due to the Ice Fire that burned for about a week in October of 2020.

While this is a popular summer hike, I have three reasons why you should hike the Ice Lakes trail in the fall.  

*all images were taken by me and are subject to copyright

About the Ice Lakes Trail

Located in the San Juan National Forest, near the town of Silverton, Colo., the Ice Lakes Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the state. With one trip up to the lakes, it’s easy to see why. While the trail has a rating of hard, it doesn’t stop adventure seekers from reaching its summit. 

Due to the fire that tore through the area nearly a year ago, the first quarter mile or so of the trail revealed much burn scar and down trees. Signs of burnt lumbar, new growth, and scarred tree trunks were all around.

ice lakes trail silverton colorado
Some of the burn scars are visible at the start of the trail.

Best known for its lower and upper basins, the upper Ice Lake Basin is by far the star of the show. You’ll come across the first basin about mid-way through the hike. You can’t really get to it and it is small, but there is a nice view from afar.

The trail starts out gradually and crosses some streams, but nothing that is too challenging. Then you enter into some steep switchbacks within a shaded forest of trees. Here is where I came across some yellowing aspens and the remains of a historic cabin.

historic cabin on ice lakes trail in colorado
A short social trail leads to a historic cabin at the beginning of the hike.

Around mile two you will enter the lower basin area. Here you can feel the expansiveness of where you are. Riddled with flowers in the peak of summer, the basin is surrounded by sheer rock walls with multiple waterfalls pouring out from the upper basin.

Once you cross your last stream and begin the climb out of the basin, the trail gets steep and rocky. The views keep getting better but the trail gets rough. A quick and grueling climb seems less daunting with hiking poles. But once at the top, it is a short flat walk to where you get the first glimpse of upper Ice Lake. 

hiking the ice lakes trail in the fall
View of the lower basin from the top.

Upon reaching the lake you can walk around it to get a closer look. A few social trails bring you to various vantage points for different views of the lake. I took the time to photograph the area and enjoy my lunch. Some people were swimming in the lake, while others were fishing.

upper ice lake basin
Upper Ice Lake Basin.

Its gradual color change from clear white at the shoreline to a light blue (azure), then to a deep cobalt blue makes you feel like you are looking at the ocean from the shores of the Caribbean. But the views of towering rocky peaks of the San Juans, instantly remind you that you are not at the beach. Numerous 13ers surround the lake including Golden Horn and Pilot Knob. It is quite a spectacular scene. 

Reasons to hike the Ice Lakes Trail in the fall

hiking the ice lakes trail in the fall
Another angle of the upper Ice Lake Basin.

Fewer people

In general, by the time mid-August rolls around, there are typically fewer people on the trails as school is back in session and summer travel for families is over. Although, this isn’t really a hike I would take children on! I did hike this during the week at the end of September and only ran into a handful of people.

Autumn in Colorado generally brings fewer crowds to the trails and small mountain trails. Making it one of the best times to check out popular hikes before the first snow of the season.

Because this trail is so popular, hiking it during the shoulder season is your best bet in beating the crowds. 

Fall colors

While there aren’t a lot of aspens with glowing yellow leaves (there are some), it was more the varied tundra once you get above the treeline that was quite the show. I can tell from others’ photos that in the summertime (during July) the area is covered with wildflowers but that is pretty much gone by fall. But what is left is a golden ground cover that offers a varied terrain of color that follows you up to the first Ice Lake Basin and even the second basin.

Cooler Temperatures

It goes without saying that if you are hiking in the high country in Colorado during the fall season, you will experience much cooler temperatures. If you time it just right, fall temperatures make for the perfect day hike. 

It’s also great because summer afternoon thunderstorms are typically a thing of the past come fall. Meaning you don’t have to start at 6:00 am to get off the mountain by noon. So, you can enjoy a later start, a leisurely hike to the top, and cooler temperatures for more energy to tackle the climb.

I started the hike around 9:45 am and ended at 3:45. Right in the heat of the day but it never got above 70. It was perfect. 

Tip: I would also try to go on a sunny day, as that is when you will capture much of the turquoise color you see in so many of the photos. 

Where to stay

grand imperial hotel Silverton Colorado
The historic Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, Colorado.

There is camping at the South Mineral Campground at the trailhead, but spaces were limited. Or if you are looking to stay in town, the Grand Imperial Hotel is a nice option. The Ice Lakes Trail is a 15-minute drive from the Grand Imperial Hotel in downtown Silverton. The historic hotel is a true gem dating back to the town’s mining boom days.

The Details

  • Trail length: 8.3 miles RT
  • 2,877 feet in elevation gain
  • Time to complete: Roughly five hours
  • Trail type: out and back
  • Rated as hard according to AllTrails

For more of my favorite hikes in Colorado, follow along with Small Town Stops.