When I first experienced the San Juan Mountains in Colorado I was twenty years old and on a cross-country bicycle trip. It was my first time “out West” having spent most of my life until that point over on the East coast.
We already biked up and over the southern part of the Rockies – the mountains that everyone associates with Colorado – so I was surprised when I rolled into Ouray, CO and was greeted with these spectacular mountains.
They call it the “Switzerland of America”. I’ve never been to Switzerland so I cannot refute nor endorse this statement.
Needless to say, it’s gorgeous. When my cross-country bike trip ended, I was back home and my Grandfather asked me what some of my favorite places were. Ouray, CO, nestled in the San Juan Mountains, was one of my favorite spots.
Little did I know, he actually took his honeymoon there! They loved it so much that they ended up staying a few extra days.
These mountain are enchanting. When I was planning out the driving route of my most recent Colorado trip, I knew I wanted to experience these mountains again, and this time stay a little longer and explore a little more.
Below are photos and trail info on some of my favorite places in the area. (If you’ve been and have anything to add, please let me know in the comments below!)
1. Mineral Creek Trail – Ouray, CO
This hike gives you some spectacular views of the little town of Ouray and the surrounding mountains. The trail follows Bear Creek. I went up a few miles to the first old mining area and then turned around.
Trailhead: From Ouray, drive South on Million Dollar Highway. After about 5 minutes, you will see a trailhead parking area on your left. Park there and then walk cross the street to the trailhead.
2. Cascade Falls – Ouray, CO
This waterfall is visible from town and it’s only a 1/4 mile hike to get up to the base of it. I took a “shower” in this waterfall and it was COLD. Then I sat in the sun until I was dry. It was a glorious afternoon. Be careful though, the rocks are slippery when wet.
Bonus: Check out the hot-springs while in Ouray! The Wiesbaden hot springs are my favorite. They have caves!!
Cascade Falls Trailhead: Drive up to the end of 8th Avenue and park in the parking area.
3. Ice Lake and Island Lake – Silverton, CO
Let me start off by saying that this is one of my favorite hikes I’ve ever done. The pictures speak for themselves. As I wrote on Instagram, if there’s magic in this world, I’m pretty sure it’s here.
Ice Lake (pictured above) and Island Lake are both accessed via the Ice Lake trailhead which is just North of Silverton, CO off of Million Dollar Highway (see below for exact details). The hike is not particularly long, but it’s strenuous and at elevation.
According to the trailhead sign, you climb the height of two empire state buildings in New York City! My recommendation: start early.
Along the road to the trailhead, there’s free camping and a paid campground if that’s more your thing. I camped along the road the night before and then got up early and started hiking. I didn’t see many people and I even had some time to myself up at Island Lake.
On my hike down, there were a lot of people going up. Go early, trust me. Better yet, pack your backcountry gear and spend a night or two up at the lakes. That’s what I wish I had done.
Ice Lake is the first lake you see. From there, most people seemed to hike down but Island Lake is not much further and in my mind, it’s a must-do.
Yes, it really is that color!
- From Silverton, CO, drive North and turn left on Forest Road 585 towards the South Mineral Campground. Drive about 5 miles. The Ice Lake Trailhead will be on your right across from the campground.
- From Ouray, CO, drive South and turn right on Forest Road 585 towards the South Mineral Campground. Drive about 5 miles. The Ice Lake Trailhead will be on your right across from the campground.
- Here’s how to find the Island Lake trail from Ice Lake: If you stand facing Ice Lake, walk to your right and cross the outlet stream. You should see a faint trail heading up the side of the mountain. It’s about a 10 min hike from there.
4. Blue Lakes – Ridgeway, CO
While this trailhead is kind-of a bitch to get to (a long dirt road), it’s totally worth it. Again, if you have the time, I suggest making this into an overnight backpacking trip. Once you set up camp at lower blue lake, there’s more hiking to upper blue lake. I did not go there on this trip… wanted to save something for next time ;)
This trail is about the same length as Ice Lake above, but it’s definitely easier. When I got to the lake, I sat down and drew some mandalas as the sun rose over the mountain.
While I was drawing, I met a guy who has done this hike a few times. He told me to follow the trail up to a look-out point. It was definitely worth the little extra climbing. To find this spot, just follow the trail up towards the upper blue lake pass and you’ll see a little side trail to your right. Email me if you need more specifics, but it’s not hard to find!
So incredible! I’m grateful that these places exist for us to respect and enjoy.
I did all these hikes over the course of a few days. They are close enough to each other that you don’t have to spend a lot of time in your car driving and you can spend more time in the mountains camping.
These hikes are one of the highlights of my Summer. I hope you get out there and enjoy this land.
If you go, close your eyes, breathe the air, tune into the sounds around you and let all the wonders of nature into your heart. Say a quick prayer of gratitude because we are truly lucky to experience such beauty.
With love from the mountains,