Clear Lake 4×4 Trail in the San Juans

We visited Clear Lake near Silverton, Colorado for the first time on July 4th of this year. Jess and I wanted to take his parents on their first above-the-treeline 4×4 trail for some amazing scenery. The Colorado 4×4 trail guide book that we had along with us rated this trail as easy…and I would agree up until the last bit. We started up the trail with our Jeep Grand Cherokee in familiar territory having hiked up to the Ice Lakes Basin last summer. We took Hwy 550 from Ridgway down to County Road 7 just north of Silverton. We followed CR-7 for just over 3.5 miles and headed off to the right up County Road 12. The first few miles of CR-12 were easy driving through the forest. Once out of the forest, the views opened up and we were in the alpine. We could see southwest toward the beautiful Ice Lakes Basin. Soon we arrived at a waterfall next to the trail and stopped to take a few pictures. Marmots were everywhere!


Waterfall below Clear Lake with a parking area off of a switchback that has room enough for 2-3 vehicles


Looking southwest toward the Ice Lakes Basin
Canon 6D, Tamron 24-70mm
ISO-100, 45mm, f/9.0, 1/160 sec


Looking to the south/southeast from near where we parked
Canon 6D, Rokinon 14mm
ISO-100, 14mm, f/8.0, 1/250 sec

After leaving the waterfall, the trail quickly became rockier and the switchbacks became steeper and tighter. We made it through the last switchback, by far the sketchiest of them all, and then we attempted to cross a slick, slanted boulder. One of the front tires was spinning in a hole full of loose rock while the other was trying to get up over the rock precariously tilting us toward the drop off. After a couple unsuccessful and rather nerve-wracking attempts, we safely backed down the trail and found a wide spot to pull off so we could hike the rest of the way. Maybe next time when we have something better than stock tires on our Jeep or maybe if we have a side-by-side instead we’ll attempt again someday.


Looking up the trail to the sloped boulder that stopped us from continuing further. Sketchy, sketchy.
Canon 6D, Tamron 24-70mm
ISO-100, 24mm, f/5.0, 1/250 sec


The hole they tried to fill with rocks. Needless to say, that didn’t work.
Canon 6D, Tamron 24-70mm
ISO-100, 24mm, f/3.5, 1/250 sec


Hiking up the remaining stretch of trail to the lake
Canon 6D, Tamron 24-70mm
ISO-100, 24mm, f/6.3, 1/250 sec

After a little ways up the trail leveled off and it was easy walking the rest of the way. Before arriving at Clear Lake, there was a really nice, small, shallow lake with great mountain reflections. In fact, I much preferred this smaller lake for photos when we were there.


The lake just below Clear Lake
Canon 6D, Rokinon 14mm
ISO-100, 14mm, f/8, 1/200 sec


Lots of snow melt filling the streams
Canon 6D, Tamron 24-70mm
ISO-100, 24mm, f/8, 1/200 sec

As we got closer to Clear Lake we noticed that there was still a decent amount of snow on the ground. The road that we would have had to drive on had we made if over the rocks below was covered in snow (photo below) and we would have had to stop anyway. Through the snow on the right in the photo below and just up over that little hill is where Clear Lake lies.


We walked through that snow on the right covering the road to get up to the lake.
Canon 6D, Rokinon 14mm
ISO-100, 14mm, f/8, 1/200 sec

It was a beautiful sunny day when we were there but didn’t stay too long to explore. The water didn’t look nearly as green as I thought it would. Next time we go I’d like to hike up on one of the mountainsides and get a higher vantage point. We had the entire place to ourselves. The only people we saw along the trail was a couple down at the waterfall when we headed down and a guy playing his guitar at a campsite along one of the switchbacks down in the forest.


Clear Lake
Canon 6D, Tamron 24-70mm
ISO-100, 24mm, f/10, 1/200 sec


A few flowers in bloom near Clear Lake
Canon 6D, Tamron 24-70mm
ISO-100, 38mm, f/10, 1/200 sec

As we headed back down, it was nice to see the expansive San Juan mountain views. More and more vehicles started showing up along the road as we neared the bottom. Many were parking along the road for the alternate Ice Lakes hiking trail starting point. Back down on the main road (CR-7) vehicles lined the road; all there for 4th of July camping.

We spent about 1.75 hours getting from the beginning of CR-12 up to the lake (including our hike time). Clear Lake was nice and I’d like to visit again some day but perhaps not in a full-sized vehicle with stock tires. I’d like to see it about a week or two later when a little bit more of the snow has melted off the road and more flowers are in full bloom.


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