SILVERTON, Colo. (AP) — While reports of crowding and resource damage in Colorado’s public lands have been commonplace during the coronavirus pandemic, what unfolded over the summer in the spectacular Ice Lakes area of the San Juan Range near Silverton has to be among the most egregious.
Campfires were built on sensitive high alpine tundra, fueled by wood pilfered from historic mining structures. Human waste was left around the perimeter of Ice Lake and neighboring Island Lake. Campers unable to find legal campsites near the trailhead below set up tents on roadsides or overstayed 14-day limits on legal sites, The Denver Post reports.
Then, adding insult to those injuries, in late October a wildfire burned nearly 600 acres near the Ice Lakes trailhead.
“People seemed to be psyched because they were experiencing their public lands, which is a good thing, but the sheer amount of use in that canyon was astonishing,” said Jed Botsford, recreation staff officer for the Columbine Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest.
The Ice Lakes trailhead is located about six miles west of Silverton. From the trailhead, a hike of a little more than three miles, with an ascent of about 2,400 feet, leads to one of the most spectacular settings in Colorado. The Ice Lake Basin and aquamarine Ice Lake at 12,300 feet is ringed by 13,000-foot peaks.
Five years ago, Botsford said, a busy day on the Ice Lakes trail might see 250 hikers.
“This summer it was 400-600 hikers a day, every day of the week,” Botsford said. “That high alpine environment up there cannot handle that amount of people walking off-trail, and that’s what was happening. We were seeing camping not only in the lower basin but actually at the lake itself. And, of course, camping above treeline, you don’t have very much cover, so people were going to the bathroom literally right next to their tents, which they set up right next to the lake. We had human waste all over, between the rocks at the edge of the lake and 100 yards back.
“People were also building fires directly on the alpine environment. Once it’s burned, it doesn’t come back for decades. We know they were burning things besides normal firewood that you would collect in a forested environment, because we were finding nails from historic structures in those fire rings. They were tearing apart historic mining structures and burning that. It blows your mind, doesn’t it?”
Overuse impacts were felt not just in the Ice Lake Basin, but down below in areas near the trailhead. Designated campsites were full daily from the beginning of summer until the end, Botsford said.
“We pumped the toilets in those campgrounds four times more than in any other season, and those are 750-gallon vaulted toilets,” Botsford said. “We were also seeing people in those designated campgrounds staying way long, way past the 14-day rule. They were there four, six, eight weeks, not leaving when they should have left after two weeks.”
Then there were the parking problems. The lot at the trailhead can handle 60-80 cars.
“We were seeing that lot maxed out by 7 in the morning,” Botsford said. “Then people were parking up and down the road on either side, so there was no possibility for larger vehicles. If there was ever a need for emergency management such as an ambulance at the campground or the trail, there was no way an ambulance could get by because the road was blocked.”
People who arrived intending to camp, only to find legal campsites filled, resorted to parking along the road in the Mineral Creek canyon where the trailhead is located.
“We saw people camping literally on the edge of a dirt road with 150 cars going by all day long, dust falling on their tents and in their food,” Botsford said.
Public lands in Colorado saw huge increases in visitation this summer as other opportunities for summer fun were restricted or eliminated. At the Ice Lakes trailhead and down canyon, forest rangers saw license plates from all over the country.
“A large portion were from Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah,” Botsford said, “but we were seeing plates from Florida, New York, Washington state.”
Some of the hikers were woefully unprepared for a high alpine hike like Ice Lakes and unaware of what such a hike might entail. Botsford said they were showing up in the heart of summer monsoon season — meaning afternoon rainstorms were likely with the possibility of lightning — with 12-ounce water bottles and tiny backpacks.
Crowding abated around mid-September, a month before the Ice Lakes fire, and it’s a good thing it didn’t happen before visitation dropped. More than 20 hikers on the Ice Lakes trail were stranded on Oct. 19 when the fire erupted near the trailhead, and they had to be evacuated by helicopter. That fire was fully contained Oct. 27. The cause is still under investigation.
Because of fire damage, lots of erosion is expected in the burn area. As a result, Botsford said, the Ice Lakes trail is expected to be closed until July 31.
Beyond that, forest service officials are considering a permit system to access the Ice Lakes trail, similar to the system employed the last two summers at Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs. Another option is a shuttle system from Silverton to the trailhead to reduce parking problems, similar to one used in the summer months at the Maroon Bells near Aspen. Anything like that would include a public comment period before going into effect.
“We will be reaching out to the other national forests that have permit systems in place to find out their lessons learned,” Botsford said. “We will work hand in hand with San Juan County and the Town of Silverton, because everything we do up in that area affects them and their economy. We want to make sure we’re all on the same page. A big part of that would be public input.”