There are a few things that, when you visit or live in Colorado, you just have to do. Some of them are silly and some of them are excessively popular and some of them are probably pretty cliché. But some of them are also on the must-do list for a reason. As Pat and I work our way through these must-do items, I’ll be chronicling them here as part of a Colorado Bucket List series.
First up on the bucket list: Hanging Lake.
Hanging Lake is arguably one of the most popular hikes in Colorado, receiving more than 1,000 visitors on some days. Or, well, it used to. In early 2019, they put into place a permit system and a shuttle because the area was just getting completely overrun. The only reason Pat and I even managed to find a parking space is because we visited on a Sunday in October, well after peak travel season. Fortunately, we still managed to score a pretty decent day weather-wise and the fall colors were in full swing.
We visited a few months before the permit system was implemented, so I can’t provide any real insight into the actual process of obtaining one or how the system is working. However, I’ve heard from others that it’s a pretty smooth process. For up-to-date information on permits and parking, visit this site.
What I can provide is a recap of the hike itself. It begins on the wide paved Glenwood Canyon trail that runs alongside the Colorado River for the duration of Glenwood Canyon (which, by the way, is worth a visit all on its own). This is predominately a bike trail but is wide enough to be easily shared.
After a short distance, the Hanging Lake Trail splits off on your left and immediately begins to ascend the rocky walls of Glenwood Canyon.
It’s only about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to Hanging Lake, but this is a steep hike; the elevation gain is 1000 feet (300 m)! Much of the elevation gain is facilitated by stairs. The trail itself is rocky and uneven; good hiking shoes are a must and in the winter you’ll definitely want microspikes as well.
After a final steep climb up a set of metal stairs, the deep turquoise waters of Hanging Lake come into view. The lake sits along a fault line which collapsed many years ago, forming the bowl in which the lake now resides. The white coloring around the edges is the result of travertine, a type of limestone typically deposited by hot springs, while the color of the water is due to its unusual mineral content.
Due to the fragile ecology, touching the water or entering the lake is not permitted; the natural oils from your skin – not to mention any lotions or sunscreens you might be wearing – disrupt the natural mineral balance of the water. Visitors are also asked to stay on the trail to avoid damaging the travertine. Lastly, dogs are not permitted. The number of people breaking these rules is a large part of why the permit system had to be implemented.
From Hanging Lake, you can backtrack slightly to an obvious fork in the trail; follow the fork up above Hanging Lake to Spouting Rock Falls, which earned its name from the fact that the water appears to emerge right from the rock.
And there we have it: the first Colorado Bucket List item checked off!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: during peak season (May-Oct), park at the Hanging Lake Welcome Center (110 Wolfsohn Road, Glenwood Springs) to catch the shuttle; during the off-season you can park at the trailhead (rest area off I-70 exit 125 westbound only), but beware that you still need to obtain a permit. Glenwood Canyon burned in 2020 and as a result has suffered terrible mudslides in 2021; before you go, check to ensure that the road and trail are open (as of August, both are closed)
- Fees and passes: permits are $12/person and provide access to the Hanging Lake Welcome Center, the shuttle to and from the trailhead, and the hike itself
- Hiking: the round trip distance to Hanging Lake is 3 miles (4.8 km) with 1000 feet (300 m) of elevation gain; Spouting Rock is about 0.2 miles (0.3 km) beyond Hanging Lake, with some additional elevation gain
- Where to stay: there are numerous campgrounds in the area and the nearby town of Glenwood Springs has many lodging options
- Other: please please please don’t touch the lake, enter the lake, or walk out onto the log; the oils on our skin damage this already fragile ecosystem