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If you’ve never been to Hanging Lake, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss has been about recently. After all, there are hundreds of picturesque alpine lakes and reservoirs in Colorado; why has everyone been so fixated on the fact that the trail to this one has been closed? It’s a fair question—from the uninitiated. For those who’ve seen the turquoise jewel that seems as if it’s suspended on the side of a cliff, though, it’s a silly one. “Everyone loves and wants to talk about and see Hanging Lake,” says David Boyd, public affairs office for the White River National Forest. “They can’t help it.”
It’s hard to blame them, especially since the most recent closure—from August 2021 until last week—has been the third shutdown in as many years. In April 2020, the pandemic forced the national forest to temporarily close its facilities. In August 2020, the Grizzly Creek fire scorched Glenwood Canyon, destroying parts of the trail and coming perilously close to the sensitive travertine-lined lake. The trail opened back up in May 2021 only to close again three months later, when flooding sent debris sliding down the canyon sides, into the lake, and onto the trail.
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There is good news for those who’ve longed to experience the magic of Hanging Lake. Quite a bit of it, in fact. On June 25, what officials are calling the “temporary trail” opened to hikers who registered for $12 permits through visitglenwood.com. From now until Oct. 31, roughly 600 trekkers a day will be allowed to park their personal vehicles at the trailhead and climb the 1.2-mile path that gains a dizzying 1,200 feet of elevation. “If you’ve hiked the trail before,” Boyd says, “you probably won’t notice too much of a difference, except for some replaced bridges. In the long-term, though, we are hoping to build a trail that can better withstand Mother Nature.”
That new trail, which will likely take a different route than the path that has long delivered lake lovers to their destination, is likely still two to three years away from opening. Boyd says, however, that the $2.28 million in funding—from Great Outdoors Colorado—should help the national forest build a more sustainable path that meets modern trail standards. In the meantime, Boyd cautions that the canyon is still susceptible to flooding, something the national forest took into consideration when deciding to do away with the shuttles it had used before the pandemic to ferry hikers to the trailhead. “People need to understand that the fire increased flooding danger,” Boyd says. “We’re having people park their own cars because it’s easier to get people out of the canyon quickly if we need to.”
If you’re planning to visit Hanging Lake this summer or fall, Boyd expects you’ll encounter a mostly seamless operation, although weather can cause last-minute trail closures. “We have it down pretty well,” he says. “We’re used to managing the unexpected at this point.” Still, a tips can’t hurt. Here, five things to keep in mind as you plan your trip.
- Because Hanging Lake is such a popular attraction, many people assume the short excursion isn’t challenging. Let us disabuse you of that notion: This trail is roughly a 19 percent grade. Put another way, it rises about one foot for every 5.3 feet hiked. You’ll need to be in moderately good shape and wearing trail shoes with good, grippy soles to make it—enjoyably—to the top.
- Go early in the morning or later in the afternoon for the best light. Time-entry begins at 6:30 a.m. and while that might be a tad early for many people (OK, it’s early for us), getting to the lake in time to see the first rays hit the blue-green surface is nothing short of spectacular.
- Spouting Rock isn’t always mentioned as part of the Hanging Lake experience, but this beauty of a waterfall, located just a short but steep jaunt above the lake, makes you feel like you got two scenic treats for the price of one.
- Do not under any circumstances be the person who ruins the scene for everyone else by swimming, fishing, or dipping your toes in the water, all of which are forbidden by the national forest. Also, there is a very enticing log that stretches from the bank out into the lake; don’t walk on it. No, really, just don’t.
- The bring-with list includes plenty of water, a granola bar or two (follow Leave No Trace principles and pack out your trash), sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, and a camera or cell phone for taking photos (there’s no cell service, though). Be aware that dogs are not allowed on the trail and cannot be left in cars in the parking lot.