Adventures Colorado love mountains United States

The Land That Time Forgot: Ice Lake Basin Backpacking Trip

By on July 26, 2014

Every once in a while you go somewhere that completely exceeds your expectations. This happened to me the first time I went to North Dakota (although that wasn’t hard since my expectations were set very very low), the first time I set foot in the Vatican, and the first time I stood on top of the world (which was actually a mountain – Pikes Peak).

Last weekend Jason, Moose, and I took a three-day, two-night backpacking trip to Ice Lake Basin in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Jason had sent me a picture of Island Lake, which is next to Ice Lake Basin a couple of weeks ago, and then, while obsessively pouring over the coverage of the Hardrock 100, I saw a picture of Island Lake again. I knew we had to go. And last weekend was the perfect time in between our crazy schedule of adventures.

Jason had to work on Saturday so we didn’t end up leaving his house until around 1, which meant we got to the trailhead around 5:30 – still plenty of daylight to make it up the 3.4 miles and 1988 feet of elevation gain. Luckily for us, our two friends Rob and Brendan had driven to Ouray the night before and hiked up during the day to secure our campsite. They also brought their dogs, Aspen and Teneya, so Moose could play with his favorite ladies. The hike up was steep, and seemed even steeper with a 35 pound weight strapped to my back! We still managed to make it up in a little over 1.5 hours, stopping to take pictures of the lower basin on our way up to the upper one. 

We stayed up a little later than I’m used to on Saturday night. After a rehydrated three cheese chicken pasta meal, with a gingersnap honey stinger waffle for desert, we stayed up while Jason and Brendan tried to capture a perfect shot of our campsite and the Milky Way. I think they both did a great job (Jason here and Brendan here). I think I ended up going to bed around 10:30 – way later than my normal 8 pm bedtime!

The Sunday morning alarm seemed to go off earlier than I wanted it to, but Jason really wanted to get a picture of sunrise so he woke up and headed out to get the perfect shot. Moose was awake so it was impossible for me to go back to sleep, so I woke up and took some sunrise pictures too. I had seen the lakes the night before, but only briefly before setting up camp. By the time we were done it was too dark to see much of anything. In the soft light of a new day, the basin was breathtaking. The main ice lake was crystal clear and the most perfect shade of turquoise. In a review I read before the trip someone said that ice lake was an even more beautiful blue than the Caribbean. I wholeheartedly agree. The ground was covered in a magnificent bouquet of wildflowers in every color of the rainbow and grass so green it looked fake. In every direction jagged peaks stood proud, still sporting an impressive amount of snow considering it is late July. In all, the scenery painted a picture more perfect than anything I could have ever imagined. And Jason managed to capture sunrise in a picture so beautiful that it makes me want to cry with joy when I look at it.

After sunrise and a breakfast of rehydrated granola with milk and blueberries, we said goodbye to Rob, Brendan, Aspen, and Teneya since they had to drive home for work the next day. After they left, Jason, Moose and I headed out to Island Lake, which was a short hike (less than a mile and about 400 feet of elevation gain) from our campsite. Just like with ice lake basin, Island Lake was so beautiful it hurt. 

Sunrises like this are a great start to the day!

After taking some pictures, and making myself a crown of wildflowers, we hiked up to Grant Swamp Pass which is part of the Hardrock 100 course. We had to bushwhack a little bit to get to the trail that lead to the pass. While it’s definitely not the most difficult train I’ve ever ascended, there were sections where I was sliding back down almost as fast as I could ascend and I was very happy that a misstep would not mean falling off a mountain. The view from the top was worth every step. On one side was island lake basin in all it’s glory. On the other, was swamp canyon. Looking down into the canyon and seeing the trail up to Oscar pass on the other side that Hardrockers have to navigate made me question my desire to someday attempt that race. Especially considering my remarkable ability to get lost even on well marked courses and trails. But maybe Hardrock is in my future. We won’t know until the day comes that I decide to run a qualifier and throw my name into the hat. Hmmmm…now which of the very few qualifiers looks like the most fun?!?

When we got back to ice lake basin after visiting Island Lake, thunderclouds were surrounding us on three sides. We decided to play it safe and take shelter in the tent. Which turned out to be a great idea. Thunderstorms raged around us on and off for about four hours while we took naps and quickly jumped out to take pictures of the dramatic clouds in between storms. Finally around 5 pm the storms passed and we could once again enjoy our temporary home.

We had an early rehydrated mexican-inspired chicken and tortilla dinner and decided to try to capture pictures of sunset, although both of us were doubtful that sunset would amount to any more than the sun disappearing behind the mountains. Boy were we wrong! First the sun cast its last rays of the day on the valley and the lower ice lake basin, bathing it a warm glow. Then the sky behind ice lake exploded with pinks, purples, and blues. It was a spectacular sunset to end a spectacular day. We went to bed in awe of our surroundings and content with the world.

The next day dawned early, but unfortunately the sky was too cloudy to see the sunrise. We made a breakfast of rehydrated eggs with ham and peppers, which was actually pretty good, while we packed up camp and got ready for the hike down. The hike down was way easier, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find a way to end up on my butt. I still have a bruise from a nice slip that landed me on my butt on a slippery rock. We passed a bunch of people coming up the trail for day hikes, which was surprising considering it was a Monday morning. After making it back to my car, we stopped for coffee and bagel sandwiches (you can really work up an appetite hiking downhill) and then headed back to Jason’s house. It really was a perfect weekend and I can’t wait to go back. Ice Lake Basin was incredible and the pictures, although beautiful, don’t do it justice.

In other news, I’m running a marathon this weekend. It was completely spontaneous that I signed up for this race. I had debated about it a little this weekend after finding it even existed last week and then on Tuesday I decided to pull the trigger and register. It takes place on Copper Mountain, where I had run two Warrior Dashes, a snow-themed obstacle course race, a duathlon, and snowboarded a couple of times (it’s also where I tore my rotator cuff while snowboarding in 2010). Over the course of 27ish miles, the course ascends over 10,000 vertical feet and climbs to the top of each of the three 12,000+ peaks that make up Copper Mountain Ski Resort. Luckily the course has a generous 10 hour cutoff. Hopefully I make it!

Also this weekend will be the first time I meet Jason’s parents. Hopefully they like me! Wish me luck with everything this weekend. Maybe I won’t need it but it never hurts to have a little extra luck! Happy adventuring friends!

Finally, a new recipe that I just had to share:

Chicken and Brie Tacos
1 chicken breast, cubed
1 large green chili, roasted and chopped (keep seeds for extra heat)
10-12 button mushrooms, roughly chopped
25-30 skinny asparagus spears, cut into quarters
1/2 sweet yellow onion, roughly chopped
1/2 wheel brie cheese, top and bottom rinds removed, cut into thick slices
olive oil to coat ingredients
salt, pepper, garlic to taste
pre-packaged Dole Asian Blend Chopped Salad Mix
Corn Tortillas
Prepared rice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
2. Combine chicken breast and veggies in a bowl and toss with olive oil and seasonings
3. Transfer to a baking dish and top with sliced brie cheese
4. Bake for 30-40 minutes until cheese is completely melted and chicken is cooked completely
5. Lightly grill corn tortillas
6. Top tortillas with chopped salad mix, rice, and chicken, veggie, and brie mixture
7. Enjoy!

This recipe also works great as a salad. Just omit the corn tortillas.