Why you should put "finding clear lake" on your bucket list!


Are you looking for a unique Colorado experience? Do you want to experience everything the Southwest Colorado wilderness has to offer the way the locals do? Then you might be interested in checking out one of our secluded alpine lakes. If this is up your alley, read on.

I don’t have the time or resources to write a guidebook on the dozens of beautiful alpine lakes at our fingertips (not literally, they’re actually pretty challenging to get to which is why they’re so spectacular). I would, however, like to tell you about the first alpine lake I precariously accessed (on my third try) and how it became my favorite camping spot in the mountains.

For local explorers, the hike near Silverton, Colorado to Ice Lake Basin is a favorite for its beauty and its gorgeous wildflower and waterfall access. This is a strenuous hike unless you’re fairly in shape. I did this with a few friends that were visiting from sea level and they found it very challenging but rewarding! The beauty of this hike grows with every vertical foot you ascend (to the tune of 1,600 feet in 2 miles). I could go on about the visual treats you encounter on this hike but this is just to build to what I want to share with you about a neighbor-lake that can be accessed via vehicle, Clear Lake.

Clear Lake is a gorgeous body of water, with an eerie, aqua-blue hue you can rarely find outside the Caribbean. You cannot reach this destination except in the summer months, after the winter snow has melted.  If you would like to get a preview of this pretty drive, check out this video.  I would recommend doing this in a high-clearance vehicle with 4wd, as the road gets a little hairy in places. 

Offroading 101: 4WD Etiquette

To get to Clear Lake you head North from Durango on Highway 550 (part of the San Juan Skyway).  You will journey over several mountain passes that offer breathtaking scenery, but our destination puts these views to shame (I promise). When you reach the historic mining town of Silverton you will veer West, continuing on Highway 550. This stretch of the San Juan Skyway is referred to as the Million Dollar Highway and takes the mountain-pass driving up another notch with views from Red Mountain pass as you ascend into Ouray. Unfortunately, we are not going that far this trip.  Long before you reach the white-knuckle stage you will take a left onto County Road 7, shortly after you leave Silverton (2 miles).

This is a dirt road and where the real adventure starts. You will take this as it passes a few campgrounds and a little before you travel 4 miles you’ll see a wooden sign pointing up a road on your right that states Clear Lake is up the road 4 miles and you will need 4-Wheel Drive. This is where you will start your hairy ascent to the magical lake in the basin above. This is not for the faint of heart and it took me three attempts to make it to the top as it was the first 4WD road I had ever driven.  The reward at the top is worth the back-sweating and neck-craning though, and if you go on a week day you could get to the top to find you don’t need to share your camp site. 

Along the way you will likely encounter a cluster of cars at the first very sharp hairpin turn. This is a shortcut on the hike to Ice Lakes. A short hike down the trail will bring you to an amazing waterfall that feels like it’s on top of the world.  Continue up the road after your pit stop. From here, curves get tighter, the road gets narrower and the views get more incredible.  Your courage is tested more aggressively as you near your destination but you’ve traveled far and the goal is in sight! Tell me if you have made this drive?

Read on to learn from my mistakes or for entertainment purposes.

Attempt A: This was made while I had friends visiting from the Midwest. We loaded up my Tacoma and headed in the direction of this magical destination. Before our ascent we stopped to resituate a few things and drop off one of the vehicles. At this point we are traveling up the Clear Lake road, loaded down with 5 humans in the cab and a bed-full of luggage.

I won't lie, I was a little out of my element, having moved to the mountains from flat, Minnesota only a year earlier. Undeterred, I knew this was what my truck was made for.  

As we climbed above tree line and the road narrowed, we found a random person walking on the road (as fast as the truck was moving). We crept past the rando only to have her walk up to the window (while we’re still driving) and hand us a jacket we had dropped.  This was an alarming transaction, considering it’s improbable to drop a jacket while driving without intentionally throwing it out the window.

We pulled over (aka stopped and put the parking brake on) to investigate, only to find the tailgate gaping open to a nearly empty bed. The empty bed that had been full to the brim before we started getting vertical. 

At this point we assumed all of our luggage was scattered down the side of the mountain we had just been admiring (stupid mountain). We, not so quickly, turned the truck around to see what we could retrieve from the mountain.  This maneuver called for a 16-point turn with a high likelihood of going over the edge.  We “raced” as fast as the potted, switchbacked road would allow, only to find all of our belongings in a neat pile near the start of the road, all accounted for. We had conquered the mountain after all. We abandoned the excursion to soak our stressed bodies at the Wiesbaden in Ouray.

Attempt B: My Aunt and grandmother had ventured from Minnesota and North Dakota to visit me. My grandmother had moved to the mountains of Colorado in her youth and was very excited to return. I figured I had the perfect adventure for them after they rode the Durango train to Silverton.

As we climbed the road to Clear Lake, I recounted the near-disastrous fist attempt to reach the lake. As we passed the “scene of the crime” from the last adventure, the road only got bumpier and less pleasant. I think I was down-shifting because I knew those extra gears after D were meant for doing something related to ascending or descending (I have since learned to shift properly). Grandma and Aunt Joy kept exclaiming things and I could tell they were about as comfortable being my passengers as I was driving up a mountain in 4wd. We got a nice stopping point that appeared to be where the road ended (because the remaining route looked impossibly steep and narrow).  We took a few photos and poked around the ruins of some long-abandoned structure and Grandma informed me that she had no desire to climb on and I had to agree.

I have, since then, mastered this drive and love showing it off to visitors or escaping for a night to camp by its starry shores.