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Hike Through an Autumn Rainbow at San Juan National Forest’s Island Lake

Picture the Alps without the crowds, and you have Island Lake.

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“This spot has the postcard grandeur of the Alps,” says photographer Kennan Harvey. And that’s about where the similarities end, because unlike the Alps, we guarantee you won’t be shoulder to shoulder with other visitors. Alas, no mid-hike espresso either, unless you pack it in: Island Lake is 4.2 miles from the nearest trailhead. Check conditions (snowfields may persist through June) and head out via the Ice Lake Trail into its namesake basin, which fills with an array of wildflowers every summer, before climbing to the bright blue lake itself—equally colorful Island Lake is just .7 miles past the upper Ice Lake. If you do it as an overnight (recommended), set up camp near Upper Ice Lake in a cirque below five Thirteeners near mile 3.5, then continue .7 mile north to Island Lake in the morning. Cast for small cutthroat, see if you can withstand the frigid water long enough to swim 100 yards to the island, or just sit and take it all in. “This is American wilderness. It’s endless,” Harvey says.

 

The Trail

Start from the Ice Lake Trailhead at South Mineral Campground near Silverton. Parking is extremely limited, so plan to arrive early. The first half of the trail is below timberline, passing through mixed evergreen and aspen forest (wonderfully colorful in the fall). The first lake, Lower Ice Lake, is just below timberline, at the foot of an impressive ridgeline at mile 2.5. Once you’ve passed Lower Ice Lake, briefly switchback up a cliff before the trail levels out into Upper Ice Lake Basin around mile 3.5. The alpine tundra here fills with wildflowers in mid- to late-summer, when the snow melts, and it’s well worth stopping to take in the views—after over 2,000 feet of elevation gain in 3.5 miles, you might need the breather, too. A host of Thirteeners surround the basin, from 13,780-foot Golden Horn to 13, 767-foot U.S. Grant Peak. Continue following the trail north past Upper Ice Lake to reach Island Lake at mile 4.2.