If you have found this site, you probably have seen one of my viral videos ice skating on frozen lakes around Colorado. OR You are just a really cool person looking to take part in one of the most amazing extreme sports in the world!
The season for lake skating is extremely finnicky and can be variable year-to-year. Typically the Colorado season begins in November and will last in some places until the end of December. The window to ice skate on lakes is so short because once snow collects on the surface the lake’s season is over as it will not melt for the rest of winter. The conditions you need to pay attention to for the perfect ice is:
- Lasting cold temperatures that remain at or below freezing for multiple consecutive days.
- Winds that prevent snow from collecting if it decides to precipitate.
- Timing early in the season before large amounts of snow are reported in the region’s you want to skate at.
The worst feeling is hiking or driving all the way out to a lake, then realizing it is completely snowed over or not solid enough to support skating. Either way here I will explain where to find natural ice in Colorado AND how to approach lake skating safely.
Lake Ice Skating Safety
Skating on lake ice is its own extreme sport because there are a lot of associated risks, especially if you are unprepared. Here are the basic safety rules you should follow to avoid life threatening emergencies on the ice. These rules are more pertinent in backpacking trips to alpine lakes where access to rescue efforts are limited. Use these steps on your next adventure so you will be able to tell how thick the ice is and if the ice is safe enough for you to ice skate on.
1) Wear a life vest
Wearing a life vest is the same as wearing a helmet while skiing, or a seatbelt in a car. It is going to help keep your head above the water if you end up falling in. More time above the water without having to exert energy swimming in freezing temperatures will give you vital seconds to devise a plan to get out. There are a variety of options I linked here, but I tend to go for one that does not restrict my mobility like a normal SUP or kayaking vest. I also like one that has pockets so I can attach my picks and store my phone or keys.
2) Test the Ice
You ALWAYS want to test the ice, regardless if you see people on it or past conditions. Ice is constantly changing, and you could skate onto sections unfit to support your weight. There are several methods for testing ice thickness, but I prefer using one of these two.
- Throw a Rock
- It may sound primitive, but throwing a softball sized rock high in the air to see how it interacts with the surface of lake is a great way to determine its conditions. With adequate ice thickness the rock should either bounce off the surface, or barely make an indent. If the ice is too thin you will see it create outward cracking, holes, and even reveal water. If your rock goes through the ice, you should probably go find another rock and DEFINITELY not skate there. Another key sign the ice is thick is a recognizable twang sound, which you will understand once you hear it.
- Drill a hole
- Drilling a hole is the most accurate way to determine the ice’s thickness. You can do this using on of these tools, which can screw or saw open a section of the ice. The minimum thickness you want to see ice for you to safely skate on is 4 inches.
3) Observe Different Ice Conditions
You can identify weaknesses in the ice depending on its visible characteristics, as temperature and weather affect frozen areas differently throughout the season.
- Clear or black ice is the most solid, often having the smooth textures best for skating.
If you see white sections they are the result of refreezing after surface melt, and are typically fine to skate on but worth checking with your rock. Some of these sections can have a partially frozen top layer above a solid base, giving way to surface cracks. Certain areas may experience surface melt and water runoff, quite alarming if you skate upon it in the middle of the lake.
Good news for you though because this condition typically remains closer to shore where thinner ice is more susceptible to temperature changes. It is best to step over these rift sections, and test the other side to ensure its integrity.
4) Bring Ice Picks & Extra Clothes
Ice picks are going to be your last resort and only used in an emergency where you fall through the ice. Since you are wearing a life vest you will remain above the water so all you have to do is drive the picks into the ice and pull yourself out while flutter kicking your legs behind you. You want to look like a penguin, army crawling/sliding over the ice until you arrive back on a solid section. These ice picks are less than $10 online or at Cabelas, and can be the difference between life or death for you or someone else on the ice.
The second part to this rule is to bring extra clothes with you. This is so you can change out of wet clothes and prevent hypothermia while hiking back to the car if you fall in. I always bring extra clothes, but end up wearing them because I get too cold.
5) Never Skate Alone
This is a rule you see in many adventurous, outdoor, hiking sports, but it is the same idea with natural ice skating as many locations require you to hike for miles into the forest. Conditions can be unpredictable when interacting with nature, and you want someone there to help you if you fall in. I tend to break this rule the most because there is not an unlimited amount of people that want to spend their day ice skating outdoors in the cold. I think as long as you have the other parts of the safety with you, having a buddy is optional. With that being said I have been able to meet countless people on the ice also looking for friends to join them, so it will be easy to get a buddy.
Best Colorado Lakes to Ice Skate
1) Georgetown Lake
Georgetown is a 1 hour drive up I-70 from Denver. This town is centered around the lake which is often one of the first places to freeze and stay frozen all winter long. This site is easy to access and often attracts ice fishermen who are an easy indicator of the ice thickness.
The lake’s ice is bumpy and irregular with significant snow cover to be expected across its surface. There are rocks on the shore you can use to test the ice and you will probably be sharing the lake with ice fishermen, tourists, and other skaters as it is right off the highway. It is great for a quick trip if you do not have a lot of time, but unless the conditions are perfect there are better places with an extra hour of drive time.
2) Blue Mesa Reservoir
Blue Mesa Reservoir is about 8 miles outside the town of Gunnison, Colorado. This is an extremely unique region because it is generally very cold and windy, without a lot of precipitation. The conditions of the valley make sections of the lake freeze earlier in the season and STAY frozen longer than most other lakes in Colorado. The eastern side of the lake is usually the first to freeze and you are going to want to start your search there.
The ice at this lake is really good quality due to the constant wind and you can skate for more than 1 mile in a straight line. There are many rocks you can grab on the shore to test the ice as you venture out., I will just carry it with me During sunny afternoons the shore ice typically gets submerged in melt water so be prepared to get your feet wet if you are getting on or off then. Most people at this lake leave their backpack, shoes, and chairs on the ice while they skate because the reservoir is so big. You will typically see small local groups playing hockey, couples skating, and families.
3) Antero Reservoir
Antero Reservoir is a great option if you are coming from Denver and you do not want to drive the 4 hours to Gunnison. This reservoir is situated just outside of Fairplay about 2 hours from Denver. The reservoir is typically used for ice fishing so you will seldom see many ice skaters exploring its surface, but do not let that stop you! This reservoir is also situated in a valley with lots of wind, keeping the ice smooth and reflective. I have seen some of the clearest ice here, even being able to see fish at the bottom of shallow sections.
The conditions are variable around the lake and I recommend parking at the south end near the campgrounds for easier access onto thicker sections. The nearshore ice often has many fissures, cracks, surface melt, and uneven conditions, so use your rock to test sections as you make your way to more solid ice at the center. Most of the ice here freezes in large slabs or runway sections that will have mostly uniform textures. The north side of the lake as plenty of softball sized rocks to test the ice.
P.S. Watch out for random holes in the ice left by fishermen, they pretty much pop up everywhere around the lake.
4) Bear Lake
Bear Lake is up in the Rocky Mountain National Park, so you will have to pay the entrance fee of $30 if you decide to venture up here. The trail to Bear Lake is only 0.8 miles roundtrip, very easy to access if the conditions are right. Every time I go here the lake is not completely frozen so I just continue up the trail where there are two more lakes worth checking out. The first is Dream Lake which has an awesome reflective quality during the summer and winter, this will be the first lake you come to. For diehards keep hiking to lake Haiyaha which is 4 miles round trip. This lake is higher in the park and often frozen earlier than the base lakes. Lake Haiyaha is notable for its unique turquoise blue color deeply contrasted against the white mountainous background. You have to get to this lake before Thanksgiving because after it will probably have collected too much snow for skating.
The ice at Lake Haiyaha is amazing and smooth as the valley gets a lot of wind, and it freezes earlier in the season. Do your best to stay away from the right side where it lets out water into lower lakes unless you know the ice is stable. Also a good reminder here is that you will have to hike the 2 miles back to the parking lot, so leave room to do that before the sun goes down or bring hiking flashlights.
5) Lake San Cristobal
Probably one of the most pristine lakes to skate on in Colorado! This is definitely my top pick, if conditions are perfect. This lake is situated 1 hour south of Gunnison, Colorado and is almost a 5 hour drive from Denver so do not venture here unless you are sure of the conditions. The lake is a unique blue color with some of the best ice quality in the state, at the right time of the season. Most wild skaters note this lake will not freeze until closer to Christmas, but I have seen skaters exploring smaller sections around Thanksgiving. This Colorado’s second largest natural lake and you will feel like you have it all to yourself because of its remote location. The banks are often covered in snow but winds largely remove it from the lake’s surface until after Christmas.
Lake Ice Skating Gear
Ice Skating Safety Gear
NRS Chinook Fishing Kayak Life Jacket – $100-$160
- Full coverage and light
- Pockets for Ice Picks, phone, etc.
- Lightweight, allows extra mobility
- Budget friendly
Onyx Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket – $100-$130
- Extreme mobility
Frabill Deluxe Retractable Ice Picks – $10-$12
Frabill Ice Safety Kit – $12-$13
Ice Skating Gear
Riedell Hockey Skates – $99
Athletico Skate Bag and Blade Covers – $35-$40
Sport Blade Covers – $18
Elegeet Protective Turtle Gear – $30-$50
Extra Ice Skating Gear
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