Hanging Lake is a Colorado gem. It’s loved by locals and guests to the state, and, as a result, it’s a very popular place to visit. The last time I visited Hanging Lake was over 10 years ago. While the foot traffic was still heavy, it was nothing compared to what it’s like today.
The unique geology of Hanging Lake is the main reason people love coming here. I won’t pretend to be an expert on this, so I’ll give you the lowdown from the Glenwood Springs website:
“Hanging Lake is a rare example of a lake formed by travertine deposition where the natural geologic and hydrologic processes continue to operate as they have done for thousands of years. The site is also noteworthy for its thriving hanging garden plant community.” – Visit Glenwood Springs Website
What does that mean, exactly? I don’t really know. What I do know is that the result is a stunning, turquoise lake suspended on the edge of a Glenwood Canyon cliff.
If you’re ever planning to come to Colorado and you want to visit Hanging Lake, there are a few things to know ahead of time, and some rules/tips to keep in mind when you arrive.
1. Get There Early or Visit on a Weekday
Like I said, Hanging Lake is very popular. This means it gets busy…really quick. There’s only one parking lot that serves the trail head, and you, unfortunately, can’t park anywhere else nearby. Once that parking lot fills up, you are forced to wait until a spot is available. And if the line of cars gets too long, the rangers start turning people away, right back onto I-70.
We visited on a Saturday morning, which is probably the worst time to go. But we had a plan. Get up super early (4am!)) and drive the hour and a half from Keystone (where we were staying) and get there before 6am. Well, unfortunately there was an alarm issue (isn’t that always the case) and we didn’t arrive until about 7:45am. You would think that would still be early enough, but we just narrowly missed the last few spots. We circled back around in the hopes someone would have vacated at the point, but when we got back, there was a line of cars forming. The wait was 30 minutes, which isn’t horrible, but still inconvenient.
The trail wasn’t as crowded as I thought it would be on the way up, but when we came back, the crowds had grown. This is because the trail head is located right off Glenwood Canyon Bike and Pedestrian path, and many people who are staying in Glenwood Springs (only about seven miles away) can easily bike there. When that parking lot fills up, biking is the next best option, because there’s no waiting involved.
If you have to go on the weekend, plan on being there early. You might get lucky later in the day and have a short wait, but there’s generally always some kind of wait at the parking lot. If you’re staying somewhere close, biking is a good backup option. However, you still have to deal with crowds on the trail and at the lake. If you’re schedule permits, try going early on a weekday. It will likely still be busy, but you’ll have better luck at a spot, and less crowds to deal with.
2. Don’t Bring Fido
Our dog was up in the mountains with us, and as much as it pained us to leave him behind, we had to. Dogs are not allowed on the trail, and don’t even think about leaving them in your car in the parking lot. It may sound strict, but Hanging Lake is a fragile ecosystem, and conservationists are taking every precaution to preserve it.
If you think you can get away with it if you go early enough, you’re wrong. There are rangers along the trails and stationed in the parking lot. They will see you and ask you to leave.
3. Wear Proper Gear and Take Your Time
Even though the trail is only 1.2 miles long, it’s steep. There’s an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet in that short length. Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated, especially in the warm summer months. The trail is rocky and rough at times, so wearing the right shoes is important. If you feel the need, you can bring hiking sticks. We didn’t find them necessary, but some people had them on the trail.
The steepness of the hike can be tough on some people, so take it slow. If you have to take a break, there are a number of spots along the trail where you can rest.
4. Enjoy the View Along the Hike
The Hanging Lake trail head follows Dead Horse Creek, a beautiful tributary that offers some lovely photo-worthy spots along the trail. Another bonus of this trail: It’s in the stunningly beautiful Glenwood Canyon. When you’re hear, you can’t help but look up in awe.
I highly encourage you to take your time on the path, both on the way up and on the way back, and enjoy the beauty around you. It’s not a race to the top, savor the experience.
5. Respect the Lake and It’s Rules
Hanging Lake is a prized attraction in Colorado, but the increased foot traffic in recent years is posing a threat to this beautiful place. We want it to be here for future generations. That means you have to respect the fragile nature of the lake and follow the rules. As much as you might want to, don’t go in the water, don’t even dip your foot in. That perfectly placed tree may provide the perfect Instagram shot, but don’t even think about walking on it. There are rangers monitoring the lake to make sure people stay on the walkway. However, there have been incidences recently of people going out on the log, and it’s caused uproar in both the Colorado community and nationally. (Don’t be like these guys).
The lake is beautiful, so just enjoy the view.
6. Check out Spouting Rock
Behind Hanging Lake is another, much larger waterfall called Spouting Rock. It gets it’s name from the water shooting from holes in the limestone cliffs of Dead Horse Canyon. It’s a super short hike from Hanging Lake to Spouting Rock. Unfortunately, many people give it a miss, but it’s definitely worth a visit. You can get right up under the water, and even walk behind the falls for a fun silhouette shot. When we walked over, there was no one there, offering a nice break from the crowds.
A visit to Hanging Lake is a must if you’re in or near Glenwood Springs. Hopefully these tips will help you plan your visit to this Colorado jewel. Happy hiking!
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