Have you heard of the San Juan Lakes and National Forest in Colorado? We love these mountains so much, and we are not alone.
Our fellow travel blogger, hiker, and backpacker, Tiff from Follow Tiff’s Journey, is also an avid Colorado adventurer and has got the inside scoop on the best lake hikes!
The San Juan National Forest is a vast and diverse wilderness area in southwestern Colorado, covering over 1.8 million acres of land. It is home to a wide range of ecosystems, including alpine tundra, subalpine forests, montane forests, and dozens of beautiful alpine lakes.
The lakes in San Juan National Forest are surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, and the hikes to these lakes offer breathtaking views of the rugged peaks, alpine meadows, and pristine forests.
Some of the most popular lakes to hike to in the San Juan National Forest include Ice Lakes Basin, Blue Lakes, Highland Mary Lakes, and Emerald Lake.
Many of the lakes in San Juan National Forest are located at high elevations, ranging from 9,000 to over 12,000 feet. Hiking at these elevations can be challenging if you’re not used to the high altitude, as the air is thinner, and hikers may experience symptoms of altitude sickness.
However, the effort is worth it for the stunning views and the sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching the destination.
Top 3 San Juan Lakes Hikes
Because the alpine lakes in the San Juans are all at higher altitude, the snow melts later and the wildflower season blooms later as well. If you time your hike for late August – early September, you’re more likely to encounter some wildflowers, but this will of course vary per year.
These are the top 3 lakes you need to visit on your next trip to the San Juan Mountains:
1. Ice Lakes Basin: Ice Lake and Island Lake
Ice Lake Basin is one of the most popular alpine lake hikes in San Juan National Forest.
The picturesque alpine basin located near Silverton is home to two of the most stunning and vibrant alpine lakes: Island Lake and Ice Lake.
The basin is renowned for its crystal-clear blue-green colored lake, surrounded by towering peaks with red mountains composed of sedimentary rocks and minerals, vibrant wildflowers, and rugged wilderness.
The basin is a popular destination for hiking, backpacking, and camping, attracting outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world. You can hike to both lakes on the same trip and if you plan to camp, Island Lake may be less crowded than Ice Lake.
Ice Lake Basin is a must-visit destination for anyone visiting the San Juans for the first time.
➡️ Trailhead: The hike begins at Ice Lake Trailhead just seven miles west of Silverton, next to South Mineral Camground. There is a large dirt parking lot but it can still fill up quickly on the weekends and cars end up parking on the road leading up to it.
The hike to Island Lake is 3.2 miles from the trailhead with about 2,500 ft of elevation gain. The hike to Ice Lake from the trailhead is 3.79 miles with roughly 2,400 ft of elevation gain.
For a detailed hike report, check out FollowTiffsJourney’s blog for everything you need to know to backpack the Ice Lake Trail.
2. Blue Lakes
Blue Lakes in Telluride is another very popular alpine lake hike in the San Juans but don’t let the crowds stop you from seeing the lake for yourself. There are three lakes with turquoise colors on this trail with vibrant colors: Lower Blue Lake, Middle Blue Lake, and Upper Blue Lake.
PRO TIP: Overnight camp on this trail and hike a Colorado 14er the next day (Mt. Sneffels 14,157 ft), for a challenge and a notable accomplishment! Mt. Sneffels is also the high point of Ouray county!
The views of Upper Blue Lake from above are a classic view on this hike.
➡️ Trailhead: The more common and easier trailhead to access the Blue Lake Trail is the same as the Dallas Creek Trail near Ridgeway.
The hike to Upper Blue Lakes is just over 4 miles one way with roughly 2,400 ft of elevation gain.
3. Columbine Lake
Columbine Lake is one of the best kept local secrets of the San Juan National Forest that is no longer much of a secret. The color of the lake is like a Gatorade blue – you’d almost think you were in Canada!
➡️ Trailhead: The trailhead is close to Million Dollar Highway (550), 7 miles north of Silverton. It is on a narrow dirt road (Chattanooga) which has limited pullouts near the trailhead, of you can park further down at the beginning of the dirt road.
The hike is just under 4 miles one way with about 2,200 ft of elevation gain.
San Juan Lakes Map
Here is a map of where all the trailheads are located.
Where To Stay Near San Juan National Forest
The main cities to stay near San Juan National Forest, from North to South, are Telluride, Ridgeway, Ouray, Silverton, and Durango. Ouray and Silverton are the most central towns but also the smallest.
There are also numerous campsites around if you’re looking for more of an outdoors experience or budget-friendly option.
📍Mountain Lodge in Telluride – This luxury lodge has a rustic cabin look and feel so you will still feel the luxuries of a hotel while you’re tucked away in the mountains.
📍Abram Inn & Suites in Ouray – Stay in the Switzerland of America – This hotel is located at the north end of Ouray, CO and in a central location to access the San Juan Lakes listed above. It is small but has plenty of room to decompress between your activities and get a good nights rest as it is very quiet and clean. It is also walkable to Ouray Ice Park for ice climbing in the winter and via ferrata in the summer.
📍The Bent Elbow– This is a great choice for a budget-friendly hotel that is in a central location to the San Juan Lakes.
More Things To Do Near San Juan National Forest
Although alpine lakes and 14ers are amongs the more popular things to do in the San Juan National Forest, there are may other things to do in the area if you’re looking for a variety to plan your trip.
You can explore the colorful Red Mountains, climb a via ferrata route, and even enjoy a soak in natural hot springs!
✔️Explore Red Mountain
Red Mountain in Colorado resembles Rainbow Mountain in Peru! It contains 3 peaks, all in the 12,000 ft range, and accessed from the Million Dollar Highway.
The iron ore rocks and minerals create hues of red and orange on the mountains, surrounded by the lush green forests and peaks of the San Juan Mountains.
Red Mountains 1 and 2 offer a good overlook of the entire Red Mountain range from the bottom, while Red Mountain No 3 is the highest and a short hike will lead you to the top of the range.
Did you know there is a free Via Ferrata in the San Juan Mountains? Most via ferratas in the US requires you to use a paid guiding service, but if you have the knowledge, gear, and experience, you can actually climb the Ouray Via Ferrata for free!
Ouray is home to several hot springs that are known for their soothing and relaxing properties. Here are some details about some of the visit-worthy hot springs in Ouray:
👉 Ouray Hot Springs Pool: This is the main hot springs attraction in Ouray. It features a large outdoor pool filled with natural hot spring water that is heated to around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool is surrounded by stunning mountain views and offers a variety of amenities, including water slides, diving boards, and a hot tub.
👉 Box Canyon Hot Springs: This hot springs is located in a secluded box canyon and offers a more natural experience. The water is heated by the geothermal activity in the area and flows into a series of small pools that are nestled in the rocks. The hot springs is surrounded by stunning mountain views and offers a peaceful and tranquil setting.
👉 Orvis Hot Springs: This is a clothing-optional hot springs located about 15 minutes south of Ouray, Colorado, and one of my personal favorites. The hot springs features seven soaking areas, each with its own unique characteristics. The temperatures in the soaking areas range from 98 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit, with some areas featuring jets and bubbles for added relaxation.
In addition to its soaking areas, Orvis Hot Springs also offers a variety of wellness services, including massages, acupuncture, and yoga classes. The hot springs is open year-round, making it a popular destination for visitors to Ouray and the surrounding area.
The Wrap-Up: Hiking The San Juan Lakes, Colorado
If you’re visiting Colorado in the Summer or early Fall, make sure to check out some of San Juan National Forest’s alpine lakes.
Island Lake and Ice Lake, Upper Blue Lake, and Columbine Lake are some of the bluest and most scenic San Juan Lakes worth checking out. They all require high altitude hiking but if you’re acclimated, they are all moderate-level hikes.
Island Lake, Ice Lake, and Blue Lakes all get crowded on weekends though so try to go on a weekday if you can!