Backpacking to Island Lake in San Juan National Forest

HIKE TO: Island Lake & Ice Lake
TRAIL: Ice Lake Trail
MILES: 7.61 mi
TIME: 2 night (2:38 hr in to Island Lake; 1:55 hr out from Ice Lake)
DATE I WENT:  8/30/19 - 9/1/19
DIFFICULTY: somewhat strenuous
ELEVATION: 12,403 ft 
ELEVATION GAIN/ LOSS: 2525 / 2483 ft 
HIKE PERMIT: no (might change in near future)
LOCATION: San Juan National Forest, Colorado
Backpacking to Island Lake and Ice lake in San Juan National Forest
photo credit: @agellerphoto

For Labor Day weekend, August 29 – Sept 2, 2019, I took a little road trip to finally hike in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. This blog is only for the highlight trail of the trip: Island Lake and Ice Lake in San Juan National Forest.

We were expecting the trail to be very crowded because it’s a major holiday weekend which would have sucked after traveling from 850 miles away, but we were pleasantly surprised and had almost the entire place to ourselves in the evenings.

Can I camp at Ice Lake or Island Lake and do I need a permit?

Yes, you can camp at either lake for now and do not need a permit. But some volunteer rangers were talking about banning camping up there in the future because the area is a tundra being destroyed by camping footprints so try to camp in areas that have previously been camped on.

How long is Ice Lake Trail? How long is the hike to Island Lake, Colorado?

The hike to Island Lake via Ice Lake Trail is 3.23 miles directly from the parking lot near Silverton, CO

Hiking to Island Lake in Colorado

[Day 1] We arrived Friday [Aug 30] around noon, started hiking by 1:52 pm and arrived at the majestic Island Lake 4:32 pm. To give you an idea of how much this trail kicked my butt, my Garmin Fenix tracker recorded the total one-way hike time to directly to Island Lake to be 2:42 hr, but only 1:09 hr of actual moving time. I kid you not, I’ve never taken so many breaks in my life. It doesn’t help that I packed an extra 6 lb of packraft weight either… I was hurting.

The trail starts at the South Mineral Campground and heads straight into the forest at a steady ascent. You’ll reach a waterfall one mile in and have another mile to go before you reach the junction that splits off to Ice lake and Island lake. Most people hike clockwise to Ice lake first and then Island lake after, but my friend recommended we go counter-clockwise first to Island Lake to get all the elevation over with which I’m glad we did.

The trail is fully exposed from the junction up to Island Lake since it climbs above the tree line. The unmarked but clear junction is about 2.2 miles from the trailhead and quickly climbs on a narrow dirt path for awhile on the side of the mountain before heading in through the mountains more where you’ll get your first water source (around 4:06 pm for me). Once the trail starts to really flatten out, you know you’re about five minutes away from the beautiful turquoise lake.

Camping at Island Lake + Packrafting

We camped on the top of the hill facing northwest at Island Lake and had one neighbor the first day, and only four other campers around the lake (but none next to us) the second night – that’s pretty amazing for a Saturday night on Labor Day weekend! PS – it’s very exposed and hard to find a covered area to use the restroom… but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Don’t forget to pack it out!

After setting up our campsite upon arrival, we had an early dinner, watched the sunset, and early bedtime.

[Day 2: Sat 8/31] For the second day, we were thinking about day hiking to Ice Lake, but it took so much effort and energy to make it to Island lake which I’ve been wanting to see for years that we decided to have my very first ever zero-day in the mountains at just enjoy Island Lake. After traveling for one full day and the strenuous hike up with my packraft… it seemed like the right choice. We woke up to the heat of the sun but stepped outside to the chill mountain air, spent the entire day hanging out at camp, enjoying the lake from all sides, had a snowball fight, and even paddled to the island in the lake on my new packraft (definitely worth hauling up)!

followtiffsjourney floating in kokopelli rogue lite packraft in island lake, san juan mountains colorado

To be honest, though, I’m constantly on the go, always moving, and got very restless spending all day in one place. But it was nice to learn to slow down a little and just enjoy my surroundings.

The weather at night hit a low of 38 degrees but the daytime got as warm as high 60s/ low 70s… it was just a super windy weekend. When the sun was out, the temps were perfect, but when the clouds took over (which was often), the chill came.

Hiking to Ice Lake Basin and Back Out to Trailhead

[Day 3] After catching the sunrise, we packed up at 7:45 am [Sunday, Sept 1] and headed to Ice Lake before looping off the mountain. The trail over is short, only 30 minutes (shorter if you don’t stop for all the photos of the wildflowers) and all downhill from Island Lake to Ice Lake. There was just one really sketchy section of the ridge that’s narrow with a lot of loose little rocks and my fear of heights, or more like my fear of slipping and falling, got the better of me and I crawled. Vanessa was so patient and even offered to hold my hand… those are the type of friends I’m extremely grateful to have in the mountains <3

The entire mountain was covered with wildflowers everywhere! It’s so much that we even saw some tents pitched on them. The volunteer ranger at the trailhead actually recommended we camp down at a lower basin such as Ice Lake to help preserve the tundra, but we wanted to camp away from the dozen-plus tents we knew would be here and I think where we camped was actually on less vegetation than many of the tents at Ice Lake.

fields of wildflowers on ice lake trail colorado

Ice Lake exceeded my expectations – the blue hue in the deep section of the lake and the aqua color of the shoreline were unreal… the morning reflection of the rainbow-colored mountain from all the wildflowers made it all more surreal.

ice lake silverton co

We didn’t stay at this lake very long since we wanted to jump on another trail for our last night in the San Juan Mountains, so we were on our way within half an hour after a quick snack, and got off the trail from Ice Lake to the parking lot in just under two hours.

Shop my gear used on this trip:

The Wrap Up: Hiking Ice Lake Basin and Island Lake in San Juan National Forest, Colorado

Ice Lake and Island Lake are both popular hikes on the Ice Lake Trail in the San Juan Mountains. The 7.6 mile loop takes you to both alpine lakes and Ice Lake is a more popular camping destination so if you plan to backpack and are looking for some solitude, camp at Island Lake instead. Early September is still a great time to hike and camp in San Juan National Forest.

Thanks for reading!

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave any questions and comments below.

10 thoughts on “Backpacking to Island Lake in San Juan National Forest”

  1. Hello! Thank you so so much for sharing all of this! I want to do this hike/camping soon, do you know if bears are an issue to be worried about at all? If so, what did you do for food storage?
    Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Kira, I don’t know how the bear situation is there right now, didn’t have any issues when I went. I don’t think they’re known for bears there but you can call the ranger stations.

  2. It was so informative reading your post!I’m planning to do this trip around the same time you did it , 8/28-8/29. I‘M very new to hiking and backpacking and most of the pictures I’ve seen do make it look like the area near the lakes is very exposed. You touched upon it slightly but I’m really wondering how to go when nature calls without any tree cover or shade for some privacy. Were there some spots that were covered? In addition to that, were there a lot of tents around ice lake when you went there? Did you catch any afternoon storms while you were there?

    1. Hi Anila, I’m glad you find this blog post helpful 🙂 There was zero coverage to pop a squat near Island Lake, it’s a little hilly and some medium-sized boulders you can try to hide behind but you’re still very exposed and there’s no escaping that. We somehow got lucky and saw less than a handful of tents for the holiday weekend, but when we hiked out of Ice Lake, there were a ton of campers. It’s definitely more open, flatter, and easier to find camping spots at ice vs island. No storms while we were there, but so darn windy all weekend. Definitely recommend you check the weather updates as your trip gets closer though.

  3. Leslie D Esparza

    I have done a lot of camping research recently, and this is easily the most beautiful and most helpful post I’ve come across. Thank you! I’m currently planning an “Eat.Pray.(self)Love.” type of camping trip for my birthday next month. 🙂 I’m a fairly INexperienced camper/hiker. When I read your blog post on your journey to Lake Island, I knew that was EXACTLY the type of experience I was looking for. Sadly, the Ice Trails are closed right now. Do you know of any other place similar to Lake Island that would be a good place to hike/camp?

    1. Hi Leslie,

      Sorry I’m, just now seeing your comment and I hope you had a wonderful birthday! Unfortunately, I am not very familiar with Colorado trails but there are some comparable ones in the Eastern Sierra of California!

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