Hanging Lake is one of those hikes that is quintessential Colorado. I didn’t know this until the other day when a friend of mine found out I was going to Glenwood Springs for a day trip. “Are you going to Hanging Lake? I’ve always wanted to go there!” Sure! I answered, then I had to Google it. The Glenwood area has never been one of my areas of expertise. It has always been a long drive away from wherever I have been living. On average about four or five hours away, depending on traffic.
My original plan was to go to a hot springs and let the naturally warm and stinky water flush out the toxins of typical bullshittery in my daily life I have to contend with. There is just something about sitting in hot water that helps you forget you are living in hot water most of the time. But since this was a hike to a very beautiful, and well-photographed location, I decided to include it in the itinerary.
On the drive up, I let my mind wander, listened to my entire playlist on shuffle, singing with some songs at the top of my lungs and listening to others like I was just hearing them for the first time. Probably because I was. I couldn’t remember where any of these songs had even come from.
The I-70 corridor from Denver to Grand Junction is beautiful in the Spring. I stopped for lunch in Avon at Burger King. Not very glamorous, but I wasn’t there for the fine dining. It was noon and I had other places to be. Avon is apparently where all the roundabouts in America go. No fewer than five roundabouts just to get to Burger King. One right after the next. The next leg of the drive was just putting in the miles until Glenwood Canyon, where Hanging Lake is nestled in among the limestone cliffs. Spring was a great time to go, because as anyone in Colorado knows, there are only two season in the Canyon: Winter and Road Construction.
Hanging Lake is about a mile up from the parking area. Considering what I have hiked, from the well-groomed trails of RMNP to the overgrown logging roads of my growing up, Hanging Lake fits somewhere in the middle. The website and the signs posted around the park warned of icy conditions and a difficult hike. The first 200 yards of the trail were some of the nicest sidewalks I have walked in my life. I was beginning to doubt the urgency. The trail takes a sharp turn from the paved bike path and the majority of the hike is stairsteps of stone. It is a lot of work, even for someone used to lots of hiking or walking, but the footing is stable and easy to follow. Seven bridges cross the creek that runs down from Hanging Lake. By the third bridge, I had passed several hikers on their way down. They warned about ice on the trail and how “you WILL fall.”
When I mentioned my plan to do Hanging Lake the other day, I was met with a few different responses. Some saying how it was such a beautiful place and others talking about how popular it is. How they prefer more wild/untouched terrain and the crowds you encounter. During my hike, I didn’t see the crowds, no more than any trail at Rocky Mountain National Park. A couple summers ago, I did Black Lake, which ends up on the western foot of Longs Peak. In spite of snow up to my knees, uncleared trails, and even a point where there were no trails, I had to have run into at least 30 people on the hike. They all remarked about the untouched beauty of the place, while I remember looking to the north and being able to see cars on a road heading towards Bear Lake, possibly the most oversaturated (and overrated) destination in Colorado.
On my hike up to Hanging Lake, I might have seen twenty people, heading up and down. By the third bridge, I could see why. The slush of the morning, with the impact of hikers and sporadic rains had turned the snow into No-Shit Olympic Grade Luge Ice. Even in my Merrells, I had a hard time getting footing, and did better to avoid ice or snow altogether, instead hopping from rock to rock or staying on the mud. Standing in one place meant that you would just be at the mercy of gravity and find yourself sliding downhill. I was glad for last month when I took the kids to the ice rink. My hockey-stops and turns came in handy.
The hike reminded me of a disaster movie. On the way, I passed a family. A mom and dad and two little kids. Then there was the couple in their mid-to-late fifties, the family with the college age daughter leading the way, the inexperienced mom who kept sliding down the hill, and the handsome dad who offered his hiking pole every time she did. The Sikh hikers who didn’t speak much English, and the father/son duo. The quartet of sorority girls in yoga pants and running shoes. And the puff-puff-pass 420 couple. I guess that got to make me the lone street-smart off-duty cop or the retired special forces with a mysterious past, or the knowitall asshole writer…oh yeah, I see where I fit into this now.
After working my way up the ice slide, a difficult railed walk up some stone steps, and a walk down the catwalk, there was Hanging Lake. I was drenched in sweat from the climb and shed my layers to air out. Hanging Lake’s clear waters and icy falls were mesmerizing. Cut-throat trout lingered near the edge of the catwalk, and blue jays swooped in to squawk and mooch whatever trailmix they could bum off the visitors. The catwalk gives you a vantage point back across the canyon to snowy peaks and sheer rock faces. The lake is small, and warning signs all over stress the importance of leaving it alone due to impact so that others can enjoy it.
I found out while in Glenwood that this has been the source of debate and controversy. Hanging Lake has so many visitors each year that in May, shuttles will drive people out to the area and visitors will be limited to less than a thousand per year. You will have to buy a permit to make the hike as well. One story I was told blamed a swim team who had all jumped in the lake and posted pictures of themselves doing this on social media. Other accounts were that people were impacting the area by erosion, leaving garbage all over, and even using one highly-graffitied historical hut as a toilet along the way.
When I was done taking my pictures, I decided to head back down the trail, seeing that snow was coming in from the opposite end of the canyon. The man I had spoken to on the way up had been right. As I let my mind wander to troubles of my own life, stresses that caused me to take this trip in the first place, I felt my feet swing up from under me and with a teeth gritting crunch, I was flat on my back. With only a scrape on my elbow and a sore butt, I decided that the trail was a good place to clear your head, because there was no other room for thoughts other than where your next footstep would be placed.
By the time I reached the bottom, the snow had become freezing rain. I was sore, sweaty, and in need of something to put in my stomach. I stopped in Glenwood Springs for gas and lunch. Picking the first thing that came up on Yelp reviews for local eateries, I went to Polanka Polish Restaurant, where I ordered the combo meal. Six perogies, saurkraut, a cabbage roll, and a length of kielbasa. It was the high fat and calorie kind of comfort food just perfect for after a strenuous hike. The owner of Polanka and I talked about how marijuana dispensaries are ruining his business. We talked about the impact of idiot hikers and tourists on Hanging Lake, and about how it is pretty much overhyped. This was in contrast to what the lady at Starbucks told me before I set out on the drive home. She loved Hanging Lake, but both could agree that restricting access to this landmark didn’t sit well with them, even if it was necessary to protect it.
After lunch, I went to Iron Springs and sat in hot springs for about three hours. There I visited with a number of people. From a well-traveled man born in Damascus to a quartet of selfie-obsessed college girls on Spring Break to Sunnie and Cody, a young couple from Columbia Missouri, who had stopped along the way to Las Vegas where Sunnie was doing a dance workshop before heading to LA. Then there was John and Maddie who had been in Moab on vacation and had stopped in Glenwood on the way back to Wyoming. We traded stories, talked about our lives and perhaps one of my favorite things about road trips like this for me, is you get to make friends to share that moment with and once you part ways, you will probably never see each other again, but in the process you have enriched each others’ lives.
The afternoon began to fade, and I had a four and a half hour drive back home, so I set out. By Vail Pass, a spring storm had set in and I had to keep my eyes on the road. The roads were awful until I hit Denver and then shortly after that, snow had turned into a deluge of rain. After 15 hours on the road, I was ready for bed. My skin still heavy with the smell of sulfur and a pounding in my forehead from too much time in the water and not enough hydration. A whirlwind of a daytrip across my home state I would recommend to anyone, all done for little more than gas money, lunch money, and $20 to get into Iron Mountain Springs, which was well worth it.
Usually I write about getting out more with my kids, but sometimes you have to make these journeys alone. For me, the destination is arbitrary. And sometimes, the only way you can make sure you can do these kinds of things is to do them alone. If you keep an open mind and a friendly word, you won’t find yourself alone for long.
This was originally published in March, 2018. Since then, Hanging Lake Trail has gone to a shuttle service, which allows a limited number of visitors to the area every day. Contact the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce for details.