Mei Xu Photography | Ice Lake Backpacking

Ice Lake Backpacking

February 18, 2014  •  3 Comments
After conquered two 14ers in one day, my husband and I gained some confidence and decided to try something we had never done before: backpacking and camping above timberline. Our friend Bob, an experienced hiker and photographer, gave us some suggestions for the locations and equipment required for backpacking. After a few trips to REI, we were ready to go. The destination of our first backpacking trip was Ice Lake of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. We chose Ice Lake over other locations because of its elevation gain (2430 feet) and its distance (3.5 miles) which we believed would not be too difficult for backpacking. Ice Lake is also one of the most popular trails in Colorado with many wildflowers blooming in the summer.

On July 26, 2013 we left home in the early morning; on the way to the trailhead of Ice Lake we had a very good Chinese buffet at a Chinese restaurant in Montrose. During the lunch, we joked we would miss those nice food in next two days. After almost 7 hours driving, we arrived at the Ice Lake trailhead. When we got off the car, mosquitoes gave us a lot of welcome hugs. Fortunately we had mosquito repellent "off!" with us and were able to scare them away.

We started our two days journey at around 2:30 PM. For the first half mile of the hike, the trail was not steep and we enjoyed the valley view along the trail. Then we got into the forest and the trail became much steeper. With the weight of my camera, tripod, and camping equipment, I had to stop quite often to catch my breath. The steepness of the trail and the load of the equipment really made the hike more challenging. After 2 hours into the hike, we arrived at the lower basin of Ice Lake. I was so exhausted that I tempted to put everything down and camped at the lower basin. But we did not feel the view around the lower basin was good enough for photographing, after 20 min break, we decided to march on and continued our hike toward the upper basin, no matter how exhausted we were.

From lower basin to upper basin, the trail is non-stop zig zig, it is very steep with elevation gain of 700 feet in just 0.6 mile. We had hiked 14er and 13er in the past with the same or longer distance and more elevation gain but we never felt this tired. After another 2 hours hiking from lower basin, we finally reached our destination.

WOW was the word we used when we first saw Ice Lake. The view was amazing. Ice Lake with emerald blue waters was nestled in a magnificent cirque of sculpted ridges and peaks soaring well above 13,000-ft. Our efforts definitely got rewarded.

After quickly setting up our tent around Ice Lake, we continued hiking to Island Lake. I read some nice comments about this lake on the web, so I would like to check it out to see if it would be good for sunrise shooting. Island Lake is 0.7 mile away from Ice Lake. It is called Island Lake because there is a small island in the middle of the lake. It is a beautiful lake, but the color is not as blue as Ice Lake. I also was not able to find a nice angle for photo shot so we headed back to Ice Lake.

It was getting dark. We cooked some instant noodle and had a quick dinner with our headlamps. After we finished the dinner, the stars came out and the Milky Way was so clear that it illuminated the mountains and Ice Lake. It was our first time to see the Milky Way at such high altitude with zero pollution. It was fantastic. I couldn't wait to setup my tripod and started shooting.

It was an amazing night. At the very beginning the sky was cloudless, the Milky Way was strong. After a while, the moon and clouds came out but no wind. The upper basin under the moonlight were so gorgeous. Unfortunately I was the only one seeing it, other people including my husband were in their dream and missed out this beautiful phenomenon.

After a few hours shooting, I went to sleep and got up at 5 am for sunrise. I went to a small pond a few hundred yards from the Ice Lake for sunrise shooting. The light was not great at the first touch on the mountains; I was a bit disappointed and thought that was all I could get in the morning. So I took my camera off the tripod to review the pictures. A minute later, I removed my eyes from the monitor and looked up at the mountains, I was shocked. The mountains already turned to golden red. I never would have thought the light changed so quickly. I put my camera back onto the tripod as fast as I could, reframed and shot. Even though I got some trouble with my lens and filter because of the mist, I finally captured the beautiful moments.

It was an unforgettable morning.

After the breakfast (of course it was instant noodle again), my husband and I debated if we should finish shooting and go home. Eventually the weather made the decision for us. It was monsoon season, the rain started hard around noon. We had to hide in the tent for hours. It was non-stop raining, lightning and thundering. It was a bit scary because we were above the tree line and exposed to lightning with no protection. Many people who camped around us had moved down to the lower basin to avoid the storm. While in the tent I still dreamt of seeing rainbow after the rain stopped, but this dream never came true. It was raining the entire afternoon and into the night with no sign of letting up. We were cold and hungry. We couldn't cook in the tent and just ate energy bar for the dinner. Although we were a bit scared with the storm and thunder and a few occasions of coyote hauling, we eventually fell to sleep.

The next morning it was still raining, we had no choice but headed down in the rain. The rain was cold and the creek became river after almost 20hr of rain. Instead of crossing the creeks like we did 2 days ago, we now had to walk across the rivers. The waterfalls by the lower basin were weak 2 days ago and now became very strong. They looked prettier, but I had no mood to shoot them. It took us about 3 hours to get to the trailhead and when we finally got to the car, we were proud of ourselves and said we did it.

It was a total different experience with backpacking than one-day hiking to 14er. What an experience! We will do it again this summer.



Vicky LU(non-registered)
Great photo shootings. I love them all. I look forward to seeing your latest pictures.
Joe Boyle(non-registered)
Your pictures on earth shots last week drew me to your website and the photos drew me into this entry! The photos look amazing and I look forward to reading the rest of this entry in depth! Great work!
Thank you for the wonderful recounting of your experience. I am new to your work and look forward to checking in now and then. As a Coloradan I relate to your joy and wonder and excitement of photographing the beauties of our state.
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