Are you looking to step up your game from Class 2 peaks? Pilot Knob offers a great opportunity to flex your skills with a nice, Class 3+ summit ridge on surprisingly good rock. Of course there's plenty of talus to deal with to get there, but this summit is probably the best climb in the entire Ice Lake area. It also has the added bonus of offering a trail hike through one of Colorado's most beautiful, lush and flower-laden basins. Though the most frequently used route takes you up on the west side of the summit block, the trailhead is located east of the peak up South Mineral Creek. The trailhead is accessible to most any passenger vehicle and there's a lot of camping nearby.
Use this trailhead for peaks located in the Ice Lake Basin group or around Island Lake. Includes the following summits: Pilot KNob, V.2, V.4 and US Grant. This can also serve as a trailhead of Fuller, Vermilion, and Golden Horn.
From the Town of Silverton and the US 550 intersection on the west side of town, drive north on US 550 and in a little over 2 miles turn west onto FR585. If coming from Ouray, drive south on US 550 over Red Mountain Pass and watch for the FR585 turnoff on your right before reaching Silverton. Drive west on this graded dirt road to the campground and trailhead parking appx. 4.7 miles in. The last mile of road gets a little rougher but should still be navigable by passenger cars.
When you arrive at the trailhead, the entrance to the campground will be to the left and parking for the trail will be in a gravel lot to the right. Overnight camping in the lot is not permitted. On summer weekends, the lot will easily fill by early morning. There is an alternate to this lot for a trailhead access into Ice Lake Basin. It is as follows: at 4.2 miles in on FR585 after turning off US550, there's a single-track road that veers off to the right at these coordinates: N 37° 48' 19.42" W 107° 46' 25.33". Elevation is 9,795 ft. The road is best suited for 4WD with good clearance. This is known as the "Clear Lake Road" and actually continues all the way to Clear Lake. The road does not show on the USGS 1955 quad.
Drive up the road to the first switchback and park. Perhaps 3 - 5 vehicles can be crammed into here. There's no room to camp. Elevation is 10,340 ft, so you'll save about 500 feet in elevation but little mileage by parking here. Coordinates are: N 37° 48' 37.71" W 107° 46' 35.46".
All along FR585, once you turn off US550, there are numerous at-large, primitive sites. Upon turning off US 550 and driving less than a mile, there's a large open area on the left with a vault toilet. There are usually a large number of RV's here. There is also the South Mineral Creek Campground and before arriving at the campground, you will see a number of other camp spots. Expect fierce competition on summer weekends for sites. This is a very popular area. There is no "allowed" camping at the trail head parking area.
Directions for South Mineral CG per San Juan NF: South Mineral Campground is accessed by turning off U.S. Highway 550, about 3 miles west of Silverton, onto Forest Rd. 585, which heads west along South Mineral Creek. The campground is 4 miles off the highway and has 26 mostly level sites. Several camping loops and well-spaced sites are mostly shaded, but some are sunny. A few are next to the creek, and some have large parking areas. The Ice Lake Basin Trail, a strenuous, steep, and popular hike, begins across the road from the campground. It leads up above timberline to high alpine lakes surrounded by meadows of wildflowers and rocky peaks. South Mineral Campground does not take reservations. All sites are first come first served. There are an assortment of designated areas along South Mineral Road where dispersed camping is allowed so there is plenty of camping in the canyon on all but the busiest days.
Picnic tables, composting vault toilets, fire grates, trash disposal, potable water. No electricity. Operated by concessionaire. The campground has 26 sites that are mostly level, at 9,800 feet. Some sites are handicapped accessible. Several camping loops and well-spaced sites offer plenty of privacy. Spruce and fir give lots of shade, but there are some sunny sites. A few sites are along the creek, and some have large parking areas.
Dispersed camping along Forest Rd. 585 is allowed only in designated camping areas. Please follow posted directions and instructions.
Use either the main trailhead parking that lies across from the South Mineral Campground to begin this hike, or if you have 4WD, drive up the Clear Creek road #815 to the first switchback and park to begin hiking from there. There's precious little room here for very many vehicles, so you may find yourself having to start from the lower trailhead. Doing so will increase overall elevation gain. The estimate we provide is measured from that lower trailhead. This higher access is not an official, forest service trail. The trail contours NW and quickly comes to a crossing of Clear Creek. Earlier in the season this raging torrent may be difficult to get across. Be careful trying to cross. There are slippery wood planks and rocks.
From the lower, official trailhead, the trail number is 505. The trail heads west from the parking lot, then begins working its way NW to cross Clear Creek. After that crossing, it switchbacks up the aspen-covered hillside to intersect the old trail. Make sure you head west. The mostly forested trail climbs steeply and steadily with sets of switchbacks a couple more times until you reach Lower Ice Lake Basin. This is a truly verdant basin filled with abundant wildflowers and one of the most beautiful in Colorado with a small lake, towering ridges surrounding it and a waterfall at the west end. The lower basin offers a number of primitive campsites popular with backpackers and climbers. If using this area, summer mosquitoes can be prolific. This trail receives a large amount of day use. It's about 2 miles to reach this point. There will be at least two minor stream crossings. If heading up toward Island Lake, watch for a trail that turns off at the east end of the basin at these coordinates: N 37° 48' 45.33" W 107° 47' 29.35".
At the west end of the Lower Basin, the trail heads up south through the cliff passing behind the waterfall and ascending up through willows. The trail then turns west, gains a couple hundred vertical feet, then north for a bit before turning back west to deliver hikers to the uniquely colored Ice Lake. Though the vegetation is not as tall here, the wildflowers are still abundant. To Ice Lake, it's about 3.7 miles one way. From the lake, continue hiking west passing south of some small ponds. At the second pond at about 12,500 feet, continue on up the valley WSW toward Pilot Knob, still on tundra mostly. Identify the north end and highest point of the Pilot Knob summit section, then locate a slope of yellow/orange rock mostly that ascends to a point at the north end of the summit block and a couple hundred feet below the summit. There will likely be some trail leading up through the talus. Footing is not too bad. At the upper end, there's some minor scrambling to get to a level spot below the summit ridge crest.
Once you arrive at the summit ridge crest, walk west rounding the nose and then begin following a use trail south as it works its way along the west side of the summit ridge, still a couple hundred feet down. The traverse is only about 100 yards or so on this trail that cuts through all kinds of medium-sized rubble. Watch for a break in the cliffs above on the left; a couloir of sorts. It will likely be cairn marked. Ascend up the very narrow couloir to intersect the summit ridge. This section is the Class 3+. The rock is good. There is some moderate exposure. We did not require a rope but some might find comfort in a belay by the more experienced. There appears to us to be more than one couloir that can be used to reach the ridge. You want to come out south of the northern high point, but north of the middle one. Detecting where you are from below is almost impossible. Once you reach the summit ridge, turn north for the finish.
To finish, you'll need to find a way around one large, rounded tower. Routes to get around it exist on either side. Once past, you'll be at a saddle of sorts. From there, head on up to the true summit following a sort of ramp through small talus/scree. There will be a brief amount of additional scrambling to reach the actual summit where any number of people can fit. Admire the impressive summit ridge. My son and I completed this particular route in 2014. There's enough trail and cairns then to make it fairly easy to identify the route. For an alternate, see below.
Garrat & Martin describe a route that gains the summit ridge from the east side. Carrie and Tim used their directions in 1995 with little if any problem, but we would rate the scramble up the yellow couloir as exposed 4th class. We completed this route without use of rope but having one would not be a bad idea. The couloir is very vertical and fairly stable but still loose in places. To get to it, use the same approach from Ice Lake, but continue farther up the basin toward the Pilot Knob-Golden Horn saddle. As you make this approach, stop when you have a clear, unobstructed view of the entire summit ridge. There are three high point, the northernmost being the true summit. Look for two yellowish, narrow gullies or couloirs that break through the summit cliffs and come out right of the mid high point. You want the second of the two. You may get there one of two ways. G&M have you ascend up to the Pilot Knob-Golden Horn saddle, then traverse north along the base of the summit ridge on the east side. The plethora of loose rock makes this a daunting task. If you take this approach, it's difficult to tell when you've arrived at the desired couloir. The other thing you can do is locate the desired couloir, then head directly for its base by scrambling up through horribly loose scree and talus. In 1995, we were making this ascent at the very end of July. The previous winter had seen volumes of snow in the mountains, so to reach the bottom of the couloir, we ascended a steep, 40° slope of snow using ice axe and crampons we had brought.
Once you arrive at the bottom of the couloir, (which we found marked with a couple cairns in 1995), we began the climb up. It started out not too bad and reasonably solid and clean. The rock color is sulfurous yellow. The couloir ends abruptly at the summit ridge. About 15 vertical feet before reaching the end, we exited to the right and climbed without rope up a crack with stair-like steps to a point well above the couloir where we felt like we had some breathing room. We continued, crossing a rib of rock, dropped a few feet to a shelf, followed the shelf 75 feet north, still on the east side of the summit ridge, and still 50 feet below its crest. We then climbed up a series of ledges that were stair-stepped to the summit ridge crest. This brought us to the low point between the middle and north high points. To continue, we kept walking/scrambling north, dropped down on the west side some into a narrow gully, continue north when the gully opened up, contouring through one gully and then scrambling down into another. After that we ascended back to the main ridge. At this point, we were probably intersecting the couloir that comes up from the west side as described above. This particular route overall is more difficult with more 3rd to 4th class work. If you're looking for more fun, scrambling on the summit ridge crest certainly offers some excitement.
For a descent and return to Ice Lake, we would recommend taking the west side access. That's the easiest way back down, unless you want to continue over to Golden Horn. Even then, it's easiest to go back around to the northern nose of the summit ridge before beginning a traverse below the cliffs on the east side to get to the Golden Horn connecting saddle.