Hanging Lake

One of the most popular hikes in the state of Colorado is along the trail to Hanging Lake.  In renowned Glenwood Canyon, the lake is a small basin perched high at the edge of a cliff. Carbonate minerals dissolving in the water create the vivid turquoise color.

I had been hoping to make it to Hanging Lake for years, and just never got around to it, always sailing by on I70 to somewhere else. So I was excited when AAA Colorado Encompass Magazine asked me to shoot Hanging Lake for a Colorado Getaways article scheduled for publication in 2016.

Designated a US National Landmark in 2011, Hanging Lake is in a precarious state. The fragile ecosystem of the travertine shoreline is increasingly threatened by the lake’s popularity. An estimated 131,000 people hike the difficult and rocky 1.2 mile trail (with a 1,020 foot elevation gain) to the lake each year. The lake, and the trail, are suffering the consequences of visitors who disregard the rules; most notably, no wading, no swimming. The situation is so dire that the Forest Service is considering a reservation only, fee-guided hike that may go into effect as early as next year.

I was there in mid August and spoke with a Forest Service Ranger who told me that more than 80,000 visitors had made their way to the lake already this year.  I swear at least half of them were there on the same day I was. I’ve never seen a trail so crowded.

Knowing that parking is a major issue, and that if you don’t get there early you might as well turn around and go home, we pulled into the parking lot about 6 AM. I expected we’d be the first there, but no, there were already 5 or 6 cars, their owners well on their way to the trail.

We strapped on our backpacks, and with tripod in one hand and walking stick in the other, set off along the paved walkway that skirts a very still lake created by a diversion dam on the Colorado River for the Shoshone Power Plant.  We stopped for images of dawn breaking over the lake with mirror-like reflections of the canyon walls and rock formations lying perfectly still in the water.

We were the only ones at the trailhead when we got there a few minutes later, but that didn’t last long.  In no time at all it seemed we were being passed by a steady stream of hikers, super fit hikers, at that.  Young parents were carrying toddlers (not babies) on their backs and blowing by us like a rogue wind.

And I thought I was ‘all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips’ carrying 25 lbs. of camera gear!

The trail is very rocky, big rocks - not gravel, and follows Dead Horse Creek on a zigzag path climbing a beautifully wooded trail with numerous small waterfalls and foot bridges.  There are plenty of places to stop and rest a bit, and most people do, remembering to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Coming around the corner at the top and getting my first look at the lake was like opening a heavily wrapped gift – worth every bit of effort to get to it.

I was struck first by the cool turquoise color, and by how very clear the water is. The lake is shallow. I could see fish swimming around the algae coated rocks below. Then my attention was captured by the gentle falls across the lake and taking it all in, I thought to myself, “Nice. Really, really nice.”

We spent about 2 hours at the lake, making images and chatting with other visitors, before heading back down.  Surprisingly I saw a few people wearing flip flops, so it’s worth noting that if you make the hike, do it with sturdy hiking boots, a good walking stick (it will save your knees), and carry plenty of water.