On any given day in the summer, more than 100 people set out on the Ice Lakes Trail in the San Juan Mountains, just outside the town of Silverton. The impact from these crowds, officials say, is taking a heavy toll on the landscape that leads 2,400 feet up to the alluring turquoise blue, alpine water bodies.
“That’s one of the trails where we’ve seen a huge increase in use,” said Mike Lambert, public service staff officer with the U.S. Forest Service. “And a lot of the hikers on the Ice Lakes Trail are folks who don’t have a lot of education on backcountry ethics.”
The concept of public lands being “loved to death” is one afflicting many trails and areas around Colorado as more people move to the state, and things like social media make it easier to discover places of natural beauty.
Many public land managers and outdoor advocates, however, celebrate more people enjoying the outdoors and argue trails can withstand high use as long as it’s done in a responsible way.
“I’m not a big fan of the term, ‘loving things to death,’” said Mary Monroe Brown, director of Trails 2000. “I think we can put together a management plan that allows people to utilize trails to get to beautiful vistas in a way that’s sustainable. And that needs to be coupled with education.”
Southwest Colorado is a tourism destination, Monroe Brown said, and that draws people from other parts of the country who may not have access to public lands or aren’t raised with outdoors ethics.
“When we have opportunities to educate ... we need to encourage people to get outdoors, but in a way that is responsible,” Monroe Brown said.
Which brings us back to the Ice Lakes Trail.
Use of the trail – a 7-mile round-trip hike considered an intermediate/difficult trek – has increased significantly in the last decade, Lambert said.
“People see pictures online, and they’re (the lakes) are beautiful, so they want to get out there,” he said.
Indeed, a quick search on Instagram for the hashtag “IceLakes” turns up hundreds and hundreds of people posing in front of the incredible blue waters. Various websites dedicated to outdoor adventures give the hike a solid 5-star rating.
In fact, one of the only negative reviews came from someone annoyed with the crowds.
“I didn’t actually hike this trail because the parking lot was packed on a Tuesday!” one commenter wrote on AllTrails.com. “No way. No thank you.”
But all that use is starting to deteriorate the natural beauty that draws people to Ice Lakes in the first place.
Lambert said visitors are cutting their own trails, which is bad for vegetation and causes erosion issues on existing routes. Fire rings are showing up in areas where they shouldn’t be. People are littering, leaving behind toilet paper and not properly disposing human waste.
“There are a lot of incredible trails in our area,” Lambert said. “But Ice Lakes has taken the brunt of increased use.”
Help, however, arrived this summer.
The San Juan Mountains Association, formed in 1988 to develop educational programs and volunteer projects on public lands in Southwest Colorado, started thinking about out-of-the-box solutions to help ease the impacts at Ice Lakes.
The result: SJMA, through a partnership with Outdoor Research and the aid of Backcountry Experience, was able to bring a tiny home to the parking lot of the Ice Lakes trailhead, where a cycle of volunteers can shack up and use it as a base for making first contact with hikers about to set out on the trail.
The tiny home catches people’s eye, said Brent Schoradt, executive director of SJMA, and gives volunteers a chance to educate hikers about best practices in the backcountry.
“People tend to think hiking has no impact, so this gives us an opportunity to give them a stewardship and conservation message,” he said.
Kelly Rubin, a volunteer, said she fields a range of questions, from how long the hike will take, updates on trail conditions and whether bears are a problem. No one, however, asks about proper hiking practices or leave-no-trace principles.
“One thing I’ve noticed is the amount of toilet paper is getting out of hand,” she said. “So I always say, ‘Let’s have the poop talk.’”
By 9 a.m. on a Friday, she had already seen 50 people take off up the mountain.
“Even after living here for decades, I never understood just how busy it is,” said Rubin, who has lived in Durango since 1986.
Schoradt and Rubin both said the response from hikers to the volunteers at the tiny home has been incredibly positive. Hopefully, that translates to improved conditions on the trail.
“People come from a long way and want a personal connection (with nature),” Kelly said. “They want to be more aware.”
Lambert said it should be relatively easy to see if the tiny home effort has had an impact by monitoring conditions on the ground, seeing if new trails are being cut and looking at how much litter is around.
“It’s a perfect set up for Ice Lakes,” he said. “That’s what we really needed up there.”
When trail conditions deteriorate beyond a certain threshold, that tends to kick off a conversation whether a permit system, which regulates and reduces the amount of visitors, is necessary.
It happened in Colorado as recently as 2017, when a permit system was put in place for Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen after human waste became too big an issue, contaminating water sources.
That conversation hasn’t started for Ice Lakes, Lambert said, but it’s a reason to act and be proactive now, so it doesn’t get to that point.
“It’s always on the table as a consideration we have to think about,” he said. “If the landscape is experiencing a downward trend, and users aren’t getting the type of experience they are expecting ... we have to seriously look at how we want to manage that area differently.
“But right now we’re in the stage of education, and helping people understand their personal impacts, and as long as we’re successful there, I don’t anticipate management changes.”