Nestled in the Colorado Rockies, Hanging Lake is picture-perfect. This pond is perched at the top of a cliff, with a narrow canyon on one side and a waterfall on the other. The water is clear and green, and the surroundings are… crowded. At least for most of the year. For those who seek solitude, and don’t mind ice, snow, and bitter temperatures, a wintertime hike to Hanging Lake is an extreme adventure that provides an escape from the world.
The trail to Hanging Lake is located in the middle of Glenwood Canyon, along Interstate 70, east of Glenwood Springs. The trailhead is located at the rest area at exit 125. You can only access this rest area when you are eastbound (coming from Glenwood Springs), and you can only go westbound when you leave the rest area. You can make a U-turn at the next exit (121).
Getting up before dawn in January to go hike up an icy trail seems pretty crazy. But you really start questioning your decision-making when you arrive at an icy, grey, empty parking lot. The hike to Hanging Lake is wildly popular, and I’d guess that during most of the year, you’d struggle to find a parking spot here — but not when the temperature is below freezing. I took a few minutes to prepare myself before heading out — extra layers, extra water, traction devices on the soles of my snow boots, gloves, and scarf. There was no sun to warm me up or melt the ice on the trail. And there would be no one, for a while at least, to rescue me if I ran into trouble on the trail.
Even if you don’t hike up to Hanging Lake, in summer or winter, it’s worth the time to take a short walk along the Colorado River and appreciate the engineering marvel of the I-70 viaduct. Here, you can catch a glimpse of the twin tunnels that take I-70 through a mountain. The rest area entrance is on the other end of these tubes.
Around this spot, you’ll find the trailhead for Hanging Lake.
The trail wastes no time letting you know that it’s serious. That’s the trail, right there, under hard-packed ice and snow. If you don’t have traction devices on your shoes, you will NOT make it to the top. If the first hundred feet of the trail are icy, it’s going to be just that icy, or worse, for the entire 1.2 mile hike up the hill (that’s one-way, with a 1,000-foot elevation gain).
On the way up, you’ll cross several footbridges and walk past a few small ponds. As you follow the creek, you’ll probably discover that most of it is frozen. This means you’ll see some interesting icy waterfalls, and hear the haunting sound of water gurgling underneath the ice.
Hopefully, you’ll arrive just after a fresh snowfall. If you do, the trail and the tree limbs will be frosted to perfection. In this narrow canyon, there isn’t a lot of sunlight, so the snow can last for days.
When you’re getting close to the top, you’ll pass this old cabin. It’s roped-off now — a precaution that was taken far too late to preserve it. The hut is covered with graffiti, and I get the feeling that it’s been used as a bathroom far too many times.
The final push up to Hanging Lake might leave you weak in the knees (as if the thousand-foot climb didn’t, already!). Handrails keep you from falling off the edge, as you make your way up the steps.
Hanging Lake in Winter
And then, suddenly, Hanging Lake appears. On this cold January morning, I was all alone here — but not for long. A few others made their way up the hill shortly after I arrived. It wasn’t a big deal. There was plenty of room for all of us, unlike a visit at any other time of the year.
The water that feeds Hanging Lake cascades over the cliff on the far side of the lake. When it’s cold enough, the waterfall partially freezes. And when it’s really cold, most of the surface of the lake may freeze as well.
The trail doesn’t end at Hanging Lake, though. Go a little further uphill…
… and you’ll reach another waterfall above the lake. This waterfall is called Spouting Rock because the water seems to flow straight out of the middle of the rock wall. The mist created by this waterfall (and all the drips from those little icicles behind it) create some very slippery conditions. You can walk underneath the waterfall and around to the far side (which is where I was when I took this picture), but it’s pretty difficult and not very safe.
Hanging Lake had one more surprise in store. These Steller’s Jays are everywhere, and they’re more than happy to pose for photos. With a little patience, you’ll get some good shots of them.
After a couple of hours, it was time to re-enter the real world and get back on track. I had a long drive ahead on this day — all the way to Estes Park, to be in position for a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park the next morning. Hanging Lake ended up being my only sightseeing stop for the day, but it was definitely worth it.
Here’s a look at the drive through Glenwood Canyon and to Hanging Lake:
The Bottom Line
Hanging Lake is a beautiful place and a great hike any time of the year. Hiking it in winter, though, will provide you with solitude and a great opportunity to see the falls frozen. Be aware that the hike up to the lake is very icy in winter, and you need to take the proper precautions.