"How do you know the ice is safe?"
Skating on Colorado's alpine lakes
Let me be clear, I am not the foremost expert on ice skating on frozen lakes. In fact, I’m a pretty terrible ice skater. However, that doesn’t keep me from hauling my ice skates up to some of the most scenic lakes in Colorado and having an epic time. No one wants to be on the evening news for falling in a frozen lake so use this as a guide to help you plan your own safe adventure.
The number one question I receive when I post photos of me ice skating on a frozen lake is, “how do you know the ice is safe?” I thought I’d include the guidelines I use for testing the ice and please know that this is no substitute for properly researching ice safety for yourself. Knock on wood, I haven’t fallen in a lake yet so I’ve amassed some knowledge over the years.
First, the ice needs to be at least 4 inches thick in order to hold your weight. Ice is rarely the same thickness across a body of water so avoid areas that have cracks or moving water. Always go with a partner, during the day, and check the thickness as you travel across. Clear ice tends to be stronger than white ice and I always look for ice that hasn’t had snow on it yet. Once snow covers ice it tends to insulate it and warm it up which can cause you to unintentionally punch through the ice.
So how do you test the ice? You can use an ice auger, ice chisel, or cordless drill. Then insert a tape measure into the hole, hook the end to the edge and measure. You can also carry a small hatchet and with one hand, swing the sharp side into the ice and if no water appears, the ice is like hard enough to walk on (not the most reliable source so proceed with caution). Black, newly formed ice is the safest bet while white opaque ice (formed by wet snow freezing on the ice) is half as strong.
As far as safety gear goes it is recommended to wear a flotation device when testing the ice thickness, bring a spare change of clothing in a dry, secure place, an ice pick for self rescue and a few yards of rope. The person testing the ice should carry one end of the rope out on the ice while the person on the shore should have the other end in case a rescue is necessary. Hand warmers and an extra blanket are always encouraged. I have a very light down blanket that I bought from Costco a few years ago that I always bring winter hiking. I added a smilier one to my amazon store front here.
Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park was the first frozen lake I ice skated on. I picked this lake because it’s only 2.2 miles roundtrip so I knew it wouldn’t be that much of a burden to hike my skates to.
The next lake I chose to skate was Mills Lake which is also in Rocky Mountain National Park. This was on New Year’s Eve several years ago when the nights had been cold but there hadn’t been any significant snowfall yet. The ice was very smooth but the wind was brutal. As a bonus, when you ice skate in a National Park you can always ask the rangers what their assessment is on the lakes.
Beware of cracks in the lake! They will send you for a tumble if you hit them going too fast!
I tried to skate Bear lake, which is the first lake you cross on the way to Dream Lake but as you can see the frozen snow on it make it a crispy mess. This is a very shallow lake, however, so it was a good test run for me because I knew if the ice cracked I wouldn’t get more than my feet wet.
At 9.5 miles roundtrip, Sky pond in RMNP was one of the most difficult hikes I accomplished in the winter that I decided to bring my skates on to try out. This lake sits at almost 10,880 feet and requires a climb up a frozen waterfall as well (we got lucky that the waterfall was covered in snow so my MSR snowshoes with a heel step sufficed. I purchased them used from the outdoor gear shop Feral in Denver, Colorado after renting them and really loving their versatility. This lake is best hiked early in the season before there’s a heavy accumulation of snow, but it tends to be windblown which causes bumps in the ice once it freezes.
Last November, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to ice skate on Ice lake in the Ice Lake Basin near Silverton, Colorado. We watched for the freezing temps at night but knew there was no big accumulation of snow so my friend and I headed out one morning and trekked our skates to this lake that sits at 11,400 feet. It’s 9.5 miles roundtrip, which means it isn’t an easy hike, especially with gear, but it was so worth our effort. The weather was perfect and there was little to now wind so the ice was fairly smooth.
Yes, that’s open water you see in the photo which made this one of the most daring adventures I’ve accomplished to date. Although the ice looks white from this vantage point, up close it was more clear/blue. We went on the ice one at a time and also paid attention to the sounds the ice was making. The ice on the right side of this lake was making high pitched noises from the shore. If you hear noises from the shore or loud moans and cracks if you begin to walk on the ice (Star Wars-esque sounds) it’s probably not safe.
If this looks scary or uncomfortable to you, that’s good, it should be! Open water near ice should be cause for concern. However, knowing the risks and bringing the proper gear can minimize a chance for accidents.
Want to know how to get started on skating on an alpine lake? Why not check out the Evergreen Lake House ice rink. It’s an outside rink that is monitored by those at the lake house, has rentals for skates and will give you the feel for skating outside. We also stayed in Keystone one year for Christmas and they had a wonderful, zamboni maintained outside skating arena that gives you the experience of being outside with the smoothness of an indoor arena.
Unfortunately, as I write this today, the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park I mentioned, the Evergreen Lake House and Ice Lake basin area are all closed. I anticipate the areas of RMNP opening as soon as the concern for the areas affected by the fires is assessed. This bonus newsletter was meant to inspire you to get out and explore this winter and give you some ideas on how to safely navigate frozen lakes. While this is by no means a comprehensive list on safety and I am not billing myself as an expert, I do want to inspire a winter adventure for you, if not this year, but in years to come. I also bought my skates at Play it again sports store, so know that you don’t have to buy new gear in order to experiment with ice skating. I chose hockey skates because they tend to be lighter in weight, the boot is made to protect your feet, and their blades have more curve at both ends which make them easier to turn. The advantage of figure skates is that they have a longer blade which allows the skater to carve graceful arcs and lines and are better suited for jumps and pivots. The best skates for learning are skates that fit well and my pro tip is to loosen the laces prior to skating so that way when you are out in the elements you don’t have to freeze your fingers off trying to loosen up your boots!
Happy Adventure seeking friends and stay safe out there!
Need some new adventure swag? Check out my newly launched Bonfire store here. Even if you can’t join a retreat, you can still represent Yogi Magee Expeditions and tag me in your adventures @yogimagee #yogimageeswag. Because half of exploring, is having the right gear!