Hanging Lake is one of the seminal Colorado hikes, drawing enough visitors annually to making your odds of finding a parking spot only little better than winning the Powerball. After braving the overflowing crowds a few summers ago, I decided to give Hanging Lake a shot during winter in the hopes escaping the masses.
Located in Glenwood Springs, CO, Hanging Lake’s short round-trip distance makes this hike a bucket list item for visitors from all over. But don’t let its span fool you; this is a steep hike, with an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet.
That being said, most people in decent shape can make the ascent and the secluded winter landscape makes this hike–while short–a truly transcendent experience. A blanket of solid powder etches the outskirts of the trail, shrouding the landscape in a chaste white veil. Icicles hang from caverns lining the route and save for the trickle of the creek, there isn’t much movement beyond your own footsteps.
My winter Hanging Lake experience far exceeded expectations, so here are a few reasons why you should brave the chill and see it during winter.
Avoid the Crowds
We arrived a little after 8 am as one of two cars in the parking lot–again, this is like winning the lottery. When we descended at around 10:30, the lot was almost full—so get there early, even during the off-season it can still get “busy,” if not stalk-someone-for-their-spot-with-a-premptive-blinker busy. If you’re hiking in summer, plan to get there around 7 am or even earlier.
Find a New Perspective
The renowned falls encircling the lake take on a whole new ambiance during winter, when all is frozen and white. Most freeze over, while sprinkles of water trickle sporadically through their chasms. The frozen falls take on an opaque ultramarine glow, lining the deep green waters like glacial curtains. The polar contrast between the two elements makes you feel as if you’re suspended in time between transitional seasons, seeing them evolve in tandem.
Experience Snowy Views
The expansive views of Glenwood Canyon are even more breathtaking with a light dust of snow resting between their muted red crevices. As the sun floated above the cliffs, it sent rays of prismatic light bouncing off the white snow, like millions of tiny shards of glass against a magnifying glass. Take a moment to stop at the clearing and breathe in the beauty of the valley vista immediately before you reach the lake. Thank nature for her gifts. Feel small.
Go Easy on the Knees
Luckily for my fellow brittle-joint travelers, I found that because of the snowpack over the steps, the hike was actually a lot easier on my knees. Most of the hike is actually carved stone steps, which can take a real toll on your joints when descending in steeper spots without the snow there to cushion the blow. Happy knees = more climbing trees!
Enjoy the Quiet
As I mentioned previously, this hike is a bustling metro of visitors, many of whom aren’t privy to trail etiquette or sustainable behavior. During the winter, when crowds are sparse, you can hear everything, from curious chipmunks scurrying up frosty branches to the faint whistle of the wind through barren branches. Sometimes the lack of sound is stirring, as you feel like you’re an unwanted visitor in someone else’s home. Other times your skin warms and your shoulders tingle as you inexplicably feel more a part of something than you ever have.
Test Your Winter Hiking Skills
Layer up and bring snacks, plenty of water and your typical emergency first-aid kit. I would also recommend checking the weather to see if snowshoes are necessary. It had been unseasonably warm before we hiked, so a lot of the trail was packed, but still pretty icy. I hiked in boots with YakTrax traction additions. I saw too many people hiking in regular sneakers wiping out on sheets of black ice, so use your better judgment. My stubborn significant other maintained that his Native Mountain ass didn’t need any traction and, boy, was it funny watching him slide 20 feet down the trail on that same ass.
Bask in the Solitude
Definitely make the extra 50-foot jaunt to Sprouting Rock on the right of Hanging Lake. Break out the snacks and watch the waterfall rush into a ethereal cornice of blue ice. Get there early enough and the spot is yours and yours alone to close your eyes and melt into the setting. To leave your mind and just be.
Whatever you do, read the signs and take care of the land. If it says no dogs, don’t bring your dog. If they say, “don’t walk on the log,” don’t tiptoe on the damn log. The forestry service already struggles with the influx of visitors, so don’t be one of the jerks. Pack it in, pack it out, folks. Now go enjoy the views.