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What happened to an Ice Lake permit system?

Officials consider other solutions, including a parking reservation system
Ice Lake trail sees an average of 300 to 400 hikers on a typical weekend. Officials struggle to preserve and protect the trail. (Georgia Landeryou/Durango Herald)

Gigantic peaks tower over a crystal clear aquamarine lake, their imposing presence enhancing the ethereal atmosphere of the Colorado high country.

With every flicker of light, the water dances and shimmers, reflecting the sun’s rays like a thousand sparkling gemstones.

This scene lies at the summit of Ice Lake, one of Southwest Colorado’s most popular hiking trails just west of Silverton. The base of the trail is an entirely different picture.

The parking lot, 2,430 feet below the summit, overflows with cars before 8 a.m. on a typical weekend. Vehicles unable to secure a space in the designated lot form a steady line that stretches for about a mile down South Mineral Road. “No Parking” signs stationed along the route attempt to mitigate the congestion.

“During the pandemic, our numbers blew up, about 600 to 800 people a day,” said Meghann Burke, San Juan Mountain Association stewardship program manager. “It’s died down since then, but over Fourth of July weekend we were hitting above 400 people.”

Burke has spent the last two summers as a forest ambassador for the San Juan Mountain Association. She sits underneath a tent at the Ice Lake trail head, promoting Leave No Trace principles and educating visitors about the hike.

A San Juan Mountain Association tent sits at the base of the Ice Lake trailhead. A forest ambassador monitors the trail and educates visitors on Leave No Trace. (Georgia Landeryou/Durango Herald)

“Have you guys been up here before?” she asked a group of hikers beginning the strenuous climb at 2 p.m.

They said it was their first time.

“OK great, the trail is 3.79 miles one way to Ice Lake, it's about a 2,400 foot elevation gain and it takes most people between five and seven hours round trip,” she said.

The footfall on Ice Lake trail saw a significant surge in 2020, as COVID-19 prompted people to embrace the wonders of the great outdoors. However, the sudden influx led to numerous challenges.

Jonathan Erickson, recreation program manager for San Juan National Forest, said the primary concerns revolve around individuals straying off designated trails and forming unauthorized or “social” paths in the Ice Lake basin. This harms the delicate alpine tundra. Overnight campers and day hikers are also failing to pack out human waste and toilet paper.

“We're regularly hauling out trash from around the lake,” he said.

So what was the initial solution to preserve and protect the famous Ice Lake trail? A permit system. However, this idea has remained dormant on the shelf for the past three years.

Ice Lake falls within the Columbine Ranger District, which manages 691,310 acres of the San Juan National Forest. Erickson said their resources are spread thin, as the district is currently focused on 13 improvement projects across La Plata and San Juan counties.

He said their main focus right now is the Durango northwest recreation project and Junction-Falls integrated resource management (J-FIRM) project.

“If we went out and tried to do the same level of planning for all of these sites it would, you know, be decades before we were able to get from one point to the next,” he said. “That's the challenge at the moment, is dealing with the sheer number of issues on our plate.”

Ice Lake isn’t the only location facing challenges with growing recreation use. Coal Bank pass is overflowing with vehicles regularly, as well as Engineer Pass and Molas Pass.

“The dance is about how to provide thoughtful public access, without being overly regulatory, while protecting the landscape and the resource,” he said.

However, a permit system remains a strong possibility for the Ice Lake trail.

“The pace of things can be really frustrating for members of the community that care about a place like Ice Lake, it can be frustrating for our partner San Juan Mountain Association, and certainly is frustrating for us because were observing and living with a situation that feels unsustainable,” he said.

Increased visitation causes an obvious parking problem. The long line of cars along the already narrow South Mineral Road and the overcrowded parking lot create congestion and potential hazards, especially for emergency vehicles.

“One tool that we’re considering, is assessing the situation from a parking management approach. It would still take a level of planning but a different level than restricting individual use, like a permit system,” Erickson said.

Before the clock strikes 8 a.m., cars who can’t find a spot in the parking lot trail down South Mineral Road for about a mile. (Georgia Landeryou/Durango Herald)

If the forest service does adopt a parking reservation system, Erickson said it would resemble one recently implemented at Lewis River in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southern Washington. This area experienced similar problems to Ice Lake, and visitors are now required to reserve parking tickets through recreation.gov prior to their trip.

The forest service has also considered expanding the parking lot at the trail head to accommodate more vehicles, but Erickson said that doesn’t solve the increasing number of people using the trail.

“We're all living with lots of different situations across our landscapes,” he said. “I anticipate that we will see incremental changes until we have a full blown system to help manage that site (Ice Lake).”