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Clear Lake & Ice Lake Basin

Friday – Sunday, August 10-12, 2012

I had really wanted to go backpacking in the San Juan Mountains this weekend, but was unable to find anyone that was able to go with me. Since this would only be my third backpacking trip (first time in the mountains), I was a little hesitant to go by myself, but a few days before the weekend had finally arrived I decided that I would take a solo trip up to Ice Lake Basin. I figured that it was a popular area and that I probably wouldn’t be the only one camping up there anyway.

After work on Friday I headed south to the San Juan Mountains and drove up to Clear Lake to spend the night before starting my first solo backpack trip on Saturday morning.

Evening clouds reflected on a small lake below Clear Lake.

Reflected Clouds by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

My campsite up near Clear Lake with some sunlight breaking through the clouds and lighting up the peak in the background.

Morning Camp by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After setting up my camp near Clear Lake I hiked around the basin to take some photos as the sun was setting.

A mountain peak across the valley lit up and reflected.

Peak Reflection by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A small cascade along Clear Creek.

Clear Creek Cascade by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Once the sun was down I headed right to bed…I would be getting up early the following morning to catch the sunrise. There was no one else up at Clear Lake that evening so I had the place to myself and it was very peaceful up there. I slept well.

While sitting next to Clear Lake the following morning waiting for the sunrise, I turned around and saw this scene. You can see my Jeep and camp on the other side.

Clear Lake Camp by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Then I turned around and caught the alpenglow on the surrounding mountains.

Clear Lake Alpenglow by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

It’s amazing just how much the light can change the scene in just a matter of minutes during the sunrise and sunset. This photo was taken just a few minutes after the previous one.

Clear Lake by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Here’s another example of how much the light can change a scene in a matter of minutes. This photo was taken just a little bit after the previous two, when the sun was higher up in the sky and filtered through some clouds.

Outlet by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Once the sun was up it was time for a quick breakfast and then to break down camp so I could drive down to the Ice Lake Basin trailhead…which happens to be further down on the same road that took me up to Clear Lake.

While driving down to the trailhead I had a nice view of Ice Lake Basin surrounded by a few 13,000 foot peaks including Fuller Peak, Vermilion Peak and Golden Horn. I would be backpacking up there shortly.

Ice Lake Basin by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Before reaching the trailhead below, I stopped to photograph another waterfall on Clear Creek.

Falling by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

While continuing the drive down, I spotted this interesting scene on the mountain across the valley.

Checkerboard by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Since I started at the upper trailhead to Ice Lake Basin (it knocks off a few hundred feet of elevation gain, but parking is limited), I had to cross Clear Creek at the base of this waterfall. It was no problem at this time of the year, but could probably get a little tricky during spring runoff.

Water Crossing by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Following the trail into Lower Ice Lake Basin.

Lower Trail by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

I setup my camp in that group of trees in the background. It was the last group of trees in the lower basin before the trail climbed steeply to the upper basin.

Lower Camp Location by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Setting up camp. This is the first time I’ve used the rain fly on my Big Agnes Copper Spur UL1.

Lower Ice Camp by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After camp was setup I continued my hike to the upper basin, with a much lighter pack. Here’s a view back down into the lower basin as I climbed higher.

Lower Ice Lake Basin by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

The trail leading into the upper basin. Ice Lake is just over the hill.

Upper Trail by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

I finally reached the very blue Ice Lake.

Ice Lake by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

The lake looked like different shades of blue with the changing light filtering through the clouds.

Ice Lake and Peak by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Ice Creek leaves Ice Lake and makes it’s way down to the lower basin.

Ice Creek by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Sunlight and shadows on the surrounding mountain peaks.

Mountainside by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

After exploring part of the upper basin for a while and then relaxing by Ice Lake, I made my way back down to camp so that I could have some dinner and rest some more. A little before sunset I headed back out to photograph some of the waterfalls and cascades that were not too far from camp.

This cool waterfall was actually right behind my campsite.

Camp Falls by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A closer look at the cascades.

Cascade by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

I think this scene would look even better with some colorful wildflowers. I was too late for them this year since they bloomed so early.

Ice Creek Fall by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

A closer look at the waterfall.

Fan by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

When the sun dipped below the horizon, I hiked back to camp and went to bed early so I could get up at 4:30am the following morning to hike back up to the upper basin to catch the sunrise at Ice Lake.

After hiking back to the upper basin under the stars, I reached Ice Lake and waited for the sun. Unfortunately, there were no clouds this morning, but the peaks did light up nicely.

Ice Lake Sunrise by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Sunburst over Ice Creek.

Over the Top by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Another photo of Ice Lake after the sun had come up further in the sky and the light had changed again.

Ice Lake Ripples by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Once the sun was finally up I had some breakfast next to the lake and savored the solitude, since I was the only one up there this morning.

Hazy conditions in the distance as I hiked back town to the lower basin.

Morning View by IntrepidXJ, on Flickr

Once I reached my campsite, I slowly started to break down camp and load up my pack. From there it was an easy all-downhill hike back to the Jeep. I took it slowly and enjoyed the scenery. My first solo backpacking trip was a success and I’m glad I decided to go. I had a great time and will have to get back up to Ice Lake Basin in the future when the wildflowers are blooming.

>> Clear Lake & Ice Lake Basin Photo Gallery


  1. Rachel Cohen
    Rachel Cohen August 20, 2012

    Fantastic set of images Randy! What an adventure!! 🙂

  2. Sean
    Sean August 20, 2012

    I always enjoy your photographs but this set was particularly pretty.

    I just took up backpacking a few years ago and it’s landscapes like you have in your photos (plus the good back-country fishing) that has me, (pun-indented), hooked.

    From a photography-standpoint, I really like the combinations of colors and textures in this set. Makes me want to get to the San Juan’s!

    You should put Wheeler Geologic Area on your radar. I’d be interested in seeing the pictures you take there.

    • Randy Langstraat
      Randy Langstraat August 20, 2012

      Thanks Sean! Wheeler has actually been on my to-do list for a couple of years now….I just never seem to get down that way. Maybe next year…

  3. Chen
    Chen July 30, 2013

    Hi, do you know when is the best time for wildflowers in Icelake Basin? I did not see many of them in your photos, so is it too late in August? Thanks!

    • Randy Langstraat
      Randy Langstraat August 1, 2013

      I would normally guess that they are best in mid to late July. This year they were a bit early in the mountains, but August is usually too late.

  4. Tom & Janet Wilkinson
    Tom & Janet Wilkinson August 5, 2013

    My wife and I just returned from Ice Lake and Lower Basin – flowers were in full bloom. Different species with every bend of the trail. The hike up from the car lot was very difficult for me (57 yrs old and a bit overweight). I rested at the lower basin, while my wife and son (27 yrs old) hiked up to Ice Lake. They said it was a one of a kind experience and view. My wife had a very difficult time hiking that section, but was very glad she stuck with it. Met some wonderful people and their pets during the hike – fun to see Llamas carrying overnight gear for campers. Views were outstanding – bravo to all who care for the trail, respect nature and leave no trace.

  5. Lola M.
    Lola M. May 5, 2014

    I stumbled upon your site while browsing others’ backpacking experiences with this hike and I have spent HOURS admiring your photography! I absolutely love your “Trip Reports” which have inspired me to research some new destinations.
    If you find yourself on this trail again, you must visit Island Lake! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Randy Langstraat
      Randy Langstraat May 5, 2014

      Thanks Lola. I didn’t make it to Island Lake on this trip, but I am hoping to get up there this year.

  6. Cooper L
    Cooper L July 29, 2014

    Hi Randy,
    Great pictures, looks like a beautiful area to backpack into. Did you happen to see any fish/trout in either of the lakes?

    • Randy Langstraat
      Randy Langstraat July 31, 2014

      Thanks Cooper, unfortunately I don’t know the first thing about fishing or fish, so I can’t really answer your question. I didn’t pay attention to see if there were any fish in the lakes, I was too busy taking photos!

  7. Stephanie
    Stephanie January 22, 2015

    Can’t believe you missed Island Lake! We were up there about 2 years ago but started hiking from the lower trail head. We are hoping to go back this year and take the road to Clear lake. Do you happen to remember what the distance was from the trail head by Clear Lake up to Ice Lake? Thanks for your help.

    • Randy Langstraat
      Randy Langstraat January 23, 2015

      Just didn’t have time for Island Lake on that trip. Hoping to get back this summer for another overnighter and will hopefully be able to make it this time. I don’t recall the distance, but it really doesn’t save you much distance on the hike, mainly just a couple hundred feet of elevation gain.

  8. Stephanie
    Stephanie January 23, 2015

    Thanks. That’s what I was thinking. Maybe we’ll run into you on the trail. We will be up their 4th of July weekend with a 2 year old on our backs.

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