This is part of 5280's weekly Outdoors column, where every Tuesday we explore a part of the state for you.
When to go: Early. We mean it. Hit the trail by 8 a.m. If not, you’re likely to share the trail with 100 of your new best friends. Go early and you’ll have the lake to yourself.
You’ve heard people talk about their “deserted island beer” or “last supper restaurant.” Given Coloradans’ infatuation with the outdoors, I’m adding a new question to this list: What’s your bucket-list hike?
This may seem like a simple query, but it’s not. It’s not fun to list a trek that no one has heard about. However, it can’t be too easy to reach (ahem, Pikes Peak). There needs to be lots of variety—pines, rocks, water, wildflowers, sky, cliffs, aspens. But it has to be so breathtakingly beautiful that people can’t argue that the place just has a certain something that changes you.
For me, that means a mash-up of the feelings I got at Utah’s Delicate Arch and the Statue of Liberty. Both are tourist hot beds; both leave you feeling like you’ve found a truth, a beauty, that can’t be forgotten. In Colorado, for me, that place is Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs.
It is only 1.2-miles from the trailhead to the lake. However, you’ll climb over 1,000 feet and most of the path is riddled with boulders. What does that mean? Unless you are a master trail runner, this itsy-bitsy hike will slow you down.
The trail is up, up, and up. You’ll cross several wooden bridges and zigzag past too-many-to-count switchbacks. On warm days, the trail has bright spots, but you’ll be in cool shade for most of the trek. While it's tempting to push forward, take several photo breaks to look back and down Deadhorse canyon. (You might spot a paraglider or two.)
Just when your calves start to beg for a rest, you’ll come to a rock staircase with a metal railing. Scramble to the top and you’re just steps away from the lake. Most likely, you’ll hear the falls first. If you hike with earphones, it's time to put them away: Sit, listen, and savor.
The lake is mix of emerald and turquoise hues and fed by Bridal Veil Falls. The water laps on the edge of the basin-like depression—the lake bottom was formed when the cliff wall dropped—and forms calcium carbonates. (We’re still not sure what that is, but it is super rare.) This is a fragile ecosystem, so stick to the wood boardwalk that curves around the lake. Don’t worry if you feel dizzy: Hanging Lake’s beauty makes us feel that way every time.
Getting there: Take I-70 west and travel about 22 miles beyond Eagle. There is an exit for Hanging Lake, but it is only accessible by eastbound traffic. Instead, take Exit 121 for Grizzly Creek, get back on I-70, but going eastbound. Travel 3.8 miles to Exit 125 for Hanging Lake. Follow signs to the parking lot.
Bonus: At the top, hike to nearby Spouting Rock, a less photogenic area, but equally fun spot where you can walk behind a waterfall.
Fact to impress your friends: The lake was named a National Natural landmark in 2011.
Want more?: Take along your bike for a post-hike cruise on the Glenwood Canyon recreation path, which follows the Colorado River.