Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Speechless in the San Juans: A Day at Ice Lake

It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.

I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).

As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.

Panorama of Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Ice Lake reflecting Vermillion Peak, Golden Horn, and Pilot Knob

Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.

While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.

Several lakes in Ice Lake Basin

Ice Lake (blue) and unnamed lake (green) with U.S. Grant Peak (13,767′) towering overhead.

Clouds reflected in a pond in Ice Lake Basin.

Late afternoon clouds reflected in a small pond in Ice Lake Basin

Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!

Pink Paintbrush in Ice Lake Basin

One of many colors of Paintbrush found in Ice Lake Basin.

Rock Mountain Columbine

Hey look! Colorado’s state flower, the Rocky Mountain Columbine!

Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak

Unnamed lake below Vermillion Peak (13,894′)

Golden Horn reflected in Ice Lake

Golden Horn (13,769) reflected in Ice Lake.

Lower Ice Lake Basin

Some of the views on the way up to Ice Lake. Here Corn Lily grows rampant in Lower Ice Lake Basin.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.  

Ice_Lake_Basin_Panorama

Can’t remember ever being this sad about having to hike back to the car. Will have to come back and spend the night someday!

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4 responses

  1. Laurie Scholl

    Hi Zach: I’m a WI friend of your Grandmother Kate and I so appreciate your blogs. Don’t know what’s better; your photography skills or your writing skills. I’m looking forward to seeing Colorado through your eyes.

    Laurie

    August 27, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    • Hi Laurie, Glad to hear you enjoy the photos. Thanks for reading!

      August 28, 2014 at 8:43 am

  2. Fantastic pictures of an amazing place! Love the flowers!

    August 27, 2014 at 9:31 pm

  3. Pingback: Top 10 from 2014 | Pyroclastic Pixels

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