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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
From the San Juans to the San Juans
They are separated by more than 1600 kilometers. One barely rises above sea level while the other boasts six peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One is most easily accessed by kayak or porpoise, while in the other it is difficult to escape the incessant drone of Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs that trawl the vast network of old mining roads. One is beset by a deluge of by rain eight months out of the year, whereas the other is inaccessible except by ski, snowshoe, or helicopter for six. To the untrained eye, the San Juan Islands of NW Washington and the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado couldn’t be more different. My current job situation has me living about an hour away from the mountains for 3 months out of the year, and an hour or less away from the islands for the other 9 months. And viewed through the lens of a camera, I have discovered that there are more similarities that you might expect. The first of which will probably be rather obvious:
They both posses stunning scenery:
View from Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island looking southwest across the water towards the Olympic Peninsula.
Rosy Paintbrush in an alpine meadow near Red Mountain #1 (yes, nearby can be found Red Mountain’s #2 and #3. The old miners were a creative bunch.) in the San Juan Mountains.
Both offer opportunities for “extreme” sports:
A paraglider enjoys a serene aerial view of the San Juan Islands and several tankers headed for the oil refineries in Anacortes, WA.
Descending a scree-filled colouir after summiting 14.150′ Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains. While most of the climb is straightforward and requires only a hefty amount of scrambling, there is one tricky section near the summit during which a fall would likely mean the end of one’s mountain climbing days…or any other days for that matter.
Both were shaped and sculpted by vast quantities of ice:
Glacial striations in slate high above the Uncompahgre Gorge in the San Juan Mountains. The parallel grooves in the rock were carved by rocky debris trapped along the base of a long-gone glacier that was partially responsible for scouring out the gorge.
A Washington State Ferry passes a cliff of glacially scoured rock in the San Juan Islands. Glacial striations identical to those in the previous photo are ubiquitous throughout the San Juan Islands, evidence that the area was buried beneath more than a mile of ice during the peak of the last glaciation, about 15,000 years ago.
And finally, both are home to curious wildlife:
An American Pika investigates a bush at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.
A Blood Star investigates a California mussel below sea level in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In case you didn’t know, that’s what starfish look like when they are curious.
The Spectacular San Juans: A Trip to Yankee Boy Basin
Note: I’m reaching back into the archives here. I have about 10 posts in my drafts folder, all in various stages of completion and many from this past summer, that I’ve decided it’s finally time to post. This is one of them. And yes I know this is my 2nd consecutive post with glacial and geological undertones. I’m not sorry, glaciers are totally radical man!
On my lifetime list of most spectacular landscapes, Yankee Boy Basin in the San Juan Mountains ranks quite high. I’ve seen expansive fields of wildflowers with different species spanning every color of the rainbow plus some. I’ve seen 100 foot high waterfalls that have undoubtedly been the setting for numerous Coors commercials. I’ve seen craggy, majestic mountain peaks and pinnacles sculpted over millions of years by the work of a posse of many abrasive glaciers. I’ve seen aqua blue lakes appear seemingly out of nowhere as they fill from the meltwater of a lobate rock glacier. I’ve seen ribbons of crystal clear snow melt water plunging in an endless stream of cascades straight down the side of a mile wide glacier cirque. Never though have I seen all these things in one place. Yankee Boy Basin truly has it all. It rivals anything I ever saw in the mountains of New Zealand. Throw in the fact that I saw up-close and in person just about every glacial and periglacial feature I learned about in geomorphology class and it doesn’t get much better. Miraculously, you can actually get here with minimal effort, especially if you have a 4WD vehicle (or, in our case, the ability to rent one), and don’t mind driving on roads that look like this:
Mind you, merely walking around on a level surface at nearly 13,000 feet involves a fair bit of effort and energy expenditure. Altitude acclimatization definitely makes things easier but even then, running around in excitement is definitely not recommended since I imagine the scenery would not be as greatly appreciated if you are passed out on the floor of the basin. Amazingly, over 1500 individuals each year blatantly ignore this advice during an annual 17 mile footrace up and over nearby 13,114′ Imogene Pass. In an additional twist that can only be explained as a classic example of male one-up-manship, in the early 1990’s, some folks decided that running 17 miles at extremely high altitude was not torturous enough and thus the Hardrock 100 was born. Participants in this masochistic race traverse 100 miles of rough terrain at an AVERAGE elevation of over 11,000 feet, climbing up the passes and peaks in the vicinity of Yankee Boy Basin. The total elevation gained and lost during the race is a mind-boggling 67,984 feet. Yeah, altitude does crazy things to people.
One of the neatest features of Yankee Boy Basin is a 50 yard wide body of water called Wright’s Lake. Wright’s Lake is bounded on the east by a terminal glacial moraine which forms a small ridge meaning that the lake does not come into view until you are practically wading into it. I had not seen any pictures of the lake prior to the hike so I was unsure what to expect. After smoking my little brother up the short trail from the road, I came around the edge of the moraine to see an enormous rock glacier flowing down from Gilpin Peak 1000 feet above me and terminating at the edge of an aquamarine blue lake, a sight which exceeded even my most hopeful expectations. The sight of a lake sourcing a not-insignificantly sized stream with no immediately obvious source of replenishment is an odd one indeed until you realize that the wall of talus on the far side of the lake is cored with ice.
Rock glaciers are interesting beasts. They are essentially glaciers covered with a layer of rock that serves to insulates the ice which continues to flow downslope under the influence of gravity. To completely cover a glacier in rock, one naturally needs a lot of rock. The peaks in the San Juans generally consist of extremely crumbly, scuzzy volcanic tuff and ash deposits. Gilpin Peak, the summit from which the rock glacier descends, is no exception as it looks like the whole mountain could slough off into the valley during the next stiff breeze. Debris from the peak above the glacier falls from the sheer cliffs ringing the basin and accumulates on the surface of the ice. The insulating effect of the rock has allows these small remnants of ice (the San Juans were home to much more extensive glaciers during the most recent glacial period) to survive here even though the current climate in the San Juan’s is too warm and dry for traditional glaciers to survive.
From Wright’s Lake, it is about 1.5 miles and another 1500 feet up to the summit of Mt. Sneffels, one of Colorado’s famous 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet high) and one that is not on anyone’s list of “easiest to climb”. On this day, the notoriously nasty conditions on the summit of Sneffels was apparently even from a quarter mile below. From the lake you could easily hear the wind whipping around on the summit ridge and thunderstorms were approaching from the west.
As I finally get around to finishing this post in early January, I am struck by the thought of how this amazing landscape is now buried under many, many feet of snow. While I am sure that the San Juan’s are equally inspiring in the winter, perhaps even more so to many people, thinking about this gives me an even greater appreciation for such places, given just how short of a window we have each year to experience alpine landscapes such as this one. The winter of 2011-2012 was an incredibly dry one in Colorado, and many places such as Yankee Boy Basin were mostly snow-free and accessible by May or June. In a normal snowfall year, vehicle access to these high altitude basins is often impossible well into July or even August, leaving potentially as little as 6 weeks before next winter’s snows begin to reclaim the land once again.