In Lake City, Colorado, you can rent ice axes and climb walls of shimmering blue ice—for free—at the city’s sprawling local park. The park is set against the wild backdrop of the San Juan Mountains, a range known for its serrated ridgelines, deep snow, and brittle frozen cascades. Ice climbing in these mountains is usually reserved for experts and pros. But at the Lake City Ice Park, ice climbing is accessible to beginners. Some of the walls tower up to 170 feet, and most can be toproped, making them much safer than the majority of the backcountry routes in the area.
The ice park is operated by the nearby town of Lake City (population 485). During summer, Lake City is a wildflower-strewn outpost for summer adventurers. It fills with Colorado Trail thru-hikers, peak-baggers, and road-trippers. But when the snow starts falling, hikers empty out and the town goes quiet. That’s when the Lake City ice farmers get to work.
To encourage winter visitors—and support the local ice climbing community—the town’s Parks and Recreation Department runs a system of hoses and shower heads atop the cliffs lining Henson Creek. Staff members then spend the winter working water over the cliff faces, slowly building up a thick glaze of ice. By mid-November, it hangs over the rock like a glittering silver curtain. On opening day, ropes dangle from the lip, and the park fills with the satisfying snap of steel picks sinking into solid blue ice. It’s a winter adventurer’s dream.
Less crowded than some of Colorado’s other public ice-climbing destinations, the Lake City Ice Park is one of the best places in the country to learn to climb ice for the first time. Much of the climbing is just a two-minute walk from the parking area. The atmosphere is laid back and supportive, and there are no day-use or membership fees required. Better yet, each of the park’s three cliffs comes equipped with a restroom and heated hut so you can warm your toes between laps.
If you’re looking for a party vibe (think: beginner clinics, ice-climbing races, and free demo gear), plan to visit during the annual Lake City Ice Festival. Prefer a little more solitude? Visit on a weekday any other time of the winter, and you’ll likely have the ice all to yourself.
Know Before You Go
Lake City Ice Park is open November through March as long as temperatures are consistent and cold enough to form reliable ice. All three walls are located right off County Rd 20, a few minutes southwest of downtown Lake City. These walls are toprope accessible, though you will have to bring your own rope and build your own anchors. On some routes, the anchor points are up to 80 feet from the rim of the cliff, so plan to bring a static line or other material to extend your masterpoint.
If you’re new to ice climbing, belaying, or building anchors, you should strongly consider hiring a local guide to provide instruction and gear.