I first visited Hanging Lake in 1982. I heard this summer that the federal government had designated the site a National Natural Landmark, so it piqued my curiosity to take a look again. Glenwood Canyon is a rugged and remarkably scenic place with tall red sandstone cliffs rising 1300 feet on both sides of the Colorado River. The trail up the canyon to the lake follows Dead Horse Creek. Legend has it a gold miner was in the canyon searching for a new stake when he came upon a dead horse at a gulch where a creek fed the Colorado. He climbed the creek drainage to a spot high above where he could see the bowl-like basin hanging on the cliffs below. If you’re looking for a nice short hike to enjoy Rocky Mountain beauty, this is it. This hike occurred on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 from 9:30am to about 12:00pm. The Hanging Lake trail begins at the end of the bike path which begins at the Hanging Lake Rest Stop on I-70 in Glenwood Canyon. Our plan was to visit Hanging Lake, then climb another couple hundred feet to Bridal Veil Falls above the lake, then return the way we came.
Hike Length: 2.5 miles Hike Duration: 2.5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate, strenuous climbing Blaze: None needed
Elevation Gain: 1020 feet Hike Configuration: Up and back
Trail Condition: Very rocky and narrow, some very steep
Starting Point: The trailhead is at the end of the bike path at the Hanging Lake Rest Stop.
Trail Traffic: This is a tourist stop. There are dozens of others.
How to Get There: Exit 125 on I-70 EASTBOUND ACCESS ONLY, 7 miles east of Glenwood Springs. Visitors coming from Denver and other points east must exit at MP 121 and turn around. There is no westbound exit at Hanging Lake.
View Hanging Lake, Glenwood Canyon in a larger map
No trip to Colorado is complete without a drive through Glenwood Canyon, and no trip to Glenwood Canyon is complete without a hike to Hanging Lake. The red sandstone towers and cliffs were once known as Grand Canyon, that is until they found that bigger one farther west. I’ve taken a raft trip on the Colorado River through the canyon. I’ve driven through on the old Hwy. 6, and since they upgraded I-70 to four lanes in the 1990s. I never get tired of the stunning beauty. It isn’t as easy to observe the nuances these days because of the high speeds on the interstate, and fewer pullouts, but it is still a sight to behold. At least they preserved access to the trail up to Hanging Lake when they stacked the concrete highway through the canyon.
Before you even hit the trail, the parking area for the lake sits right alongside the river, with access to the north bank. If you walk west 1/2 mile on the bike path, you can see some exciting rapids below the Shoshone Dam. But on this day, my brother and I walked east to get to the Hanging Lake trailhead. Since this site is now recognized by the National Park Service, there are fancy signs and restrooms at the trailhead. I don’t remember all that 30 years ago.
Dead Horse Creek enters the Colorado River just below the trailhead. The trail doesn’t waste any time heading up. It is steep right from the get go. It’s always a good idea to have water when you hike, but it is a necessity here because of the strenuous nature of this 1.2 mile climb. Much of the trail is simply rocks and stones in the mountainside following the creek. There are very narrow stretches where only one person can pass at a time. We discovered that later when we were coming down, and everyone else was starting up. We had no such problem on the way up because we got an early enough start. Hardly anyone was coming down yet.
The park service has placed signs along the trail every 1/4 mile, to inform the tourist hikers how far they have come, so they can check their heart rate and decide if it’s going to explode. There is a log hut shelter about half way up for the surprise thunderstorm. Otherwise it’s just rocks and creek, rocks and creek, around every turn. Every once in awhile it’s creek and rocks just to change it up a bit. If you are out of shape and need the occasional gasp for high altitude air, there are strategic log benches to sit and cool your jets.
You know you’re getting close when you see the mossy cascade on the right that is the drainage from the lake itself. It’s an awesome scene as the water fans over the moss covered rocks and roots from the lake to the creek. Up the next switchback you begin to see the cliffs of Glenwood Canyon, on both sides of the canyon… also an awesome sight. The final 200 feet of the climb is the steepest. The trail becomes a series of steps carved into the rock that seemingly hang right on the edge of the sandstone cliff. If you fear heights, don’t fret. I’m with you, and I felt totally secure within the handrails.
And then suddenly, there’s the lake [see photo above]. It isn’t that big really, more like a pond or a pool, but it is stunning. It’s a turquoise, or teal color. There are two wide waterfalls that feed the pool from the drainage above. It’s probably no more than three feet at the deepest point. The park service constructed a boardwalk around the southern rim of the lake to protect the fragile ecosystem. The shoreline of Hanging Lake is composed of travertine, created when dissolved limestone is deposited on rocks and logs, creating travertine layers. The oils from human skin speed the erosion of the travertine, so it is suggested that hikers not wade in the water in an effort to help preserve the lake for future generations.
There are plenty of benches and railings along the boardwalk to enable everything from photos, to resting, to simply savoring the lovely mood and scene. The lake “hangs” in a bowl beneath the sandstone cliffs, so you are surrounded on three sides by striking reddish towers. The lake drains beneath the boardwalk down the mossy chute to Dead Horse Creek 200 feet below. Yes, there are fish in the lake. I saw several, though none were bigger than perhaps four inches. There is plenty of time to stay and enjoy the lake scene, but this is a popular tourist destination. You shouldn’t dawdle, so there will be room on the boardwalk for those coming up behind you. Besides, if you continue up the trail a tenth of a mile, there is another exciting sight to see.
Bridal Veil Falls is a double falls of sorts, but unlike the twins that feed Hanging Lake that are side-by-side, these two are one on top of the other. The lower torrent has carved its way through the rock beneath the main spillway that falls from the rim. It’s an interesting effect. What’s also inviting is the alcove beneath the falls. You can actually walk behind the water and peer out into Glenwood Canyon through the waterfall. Be prepared to get a little bit wet from the mist.
The trail continues on the other side of Bridal Veil Falls to an overlook on the rim of the lake falls where you can see Hanging Lake from above. From this view it is obvious how shallow the pool of water is, and just how clear and clean it is. The turquoise coloring comes from the vegetation and minerals that grow on the bottom. This overlook also displays a beautiful view beyond the lake and across Glenwood Canyon. Through millions of years Dead Horse Creek has carved its own mini-canyon down to the river.
Unlike most hikes, be prepared for the downhill portion to take longer than the uphill. It took my brother and me 50 minutes to climb up to the lake. We spent about a half hour on the boardwalk and at Bridal Veil Falls, but it took 65-70 minutes to get back down. The reason was quite simple
— trail traffic. There were a ton of people going up when we were coming down. As mentioned above, there are many rocky stretches where the trail is only wide enough for one hiker at a time. So there is a sort of queueing system that develops at these narrow channels through the rock. You should allocate about two and a half hours to fully enjoy Hanging Lake and all it has to offer. It will be well worth your time and effort. This is Colorado scenery at its finest. Just avoid weekends.