Great Lakes

We drove 1,762 miles, hiked 15,594 vertical feet (sometimes in the dark!), and spent 14 days on the road seeking out Colorado’s most magnificent alpine lakes. Here are seven stunners that will leave you breathless—and not just because of the altitude.

June 2011

Hanging Lake

White River National Forest

  • Nearby city: Glenwood Springs
  • Ranger district: Eagle–Holy Cross, 970-827-5715
  • Trail length: 1.2 miles, one way
  • Elevation gain: 1,020 feet; lake sits at 7,160 feet
  • Skill level: Strenuous
  • Along the way: Spouting Rock
  • Camping: Camping is not available along the trail or at the lake.
  • Lodging: The Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs is just a 15-minute drive from the Hanging Lake Trailhead. The hotel is adjacent to the famous Glenwood Hot Springs and an easy walk to downtown restaurants. www.hotelcolorado.com
  • Grab a bite: Order a glass of Chianti and a plate of pasta at Italian Underground (715 Grand Ave., 970-945-6422) or mosey down the street to the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company for an appropriately named pint (or two) of Hanging Lake Honey Ale. www.glenwoodcanyon.com
  • Quick tip: If you get on the trail by 8 a.m., you’ll likely beat most of the crowds and get to the lake at the right time to see it illuminated by the sun.
  • Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 west and take Exit 121 to access the Hanging Lake Trailhead. If you stay in Glenwood Springs before your hike, take I-70 eastbound and use Exit 125 to access the trail.

Witnessing the sun rise at a Rocky Mountain lake means getting up in the wee hours of the morning to hike in the dark—and this is the less-than-satisfactory situation my friend and I find ourselves in as we hike toward Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. At the moment, I am attempting to avoid two things: 1) vomiting from exertion and 2) tripping over one of the barely visible rocks buried in the steep trail.

In a race to beat the sun, we hustle along the path, which has distance markers every quarter mile. The first three-quarters of a mile are arduous, with rock-strewn patches; the next quarter is more gradual; and the final one-fifth of a mile brings to mind Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Once at the lake, we explore the surrounding area while waiting for the sun to rise, which takes hours longer than we’d imagined because of the high canyon walls. The short trail to Spouting Rock, a picturesque waterfall that gushes directly out of a rock wall, is more than worth the quick jaunt. The water that surges out of Spouting Rock feeds Bridal Veil Falls, which cascades over moss-covered ledges into Hanging Lake below.

By 9 a.m., the sun has crept within inches of the western edge of the water. For those few peaceful moments, when the wind is quiet and the light dances off the water just so, I admit to myself that the early wake-up call was well worth it.