This is the story of how my hubby and I took an unplanned and somewhat haphazard hike to Hanging Lake in Colorado. Considering it was winter and Hanging Lake trail was covered in ice and snow, we had more than a few challenges along the way!
Ski Hard…Then, Go on a Road Trip
It was a beautiful January morning in the Colorado Rockies, a few scattered clouds, patches of blue sky, and a little sunshine. Fresh new snow was sparkling on the nearby hills, reminding us to pack our skis and hit the slopes. My hubby and I were staying in Frisco, one of my favorite Colorado towns. We had met some of my hubby’s family there, and were all in the midst of enjoying our annual ski trip.
After having skied hard for a couple of days, everyone that morning was a bit low on energy, and dealing with various sore muscles. You see, when we go on a ski trip, we want to use every minute we have skiing, from the time the chairlift first opens until it closes. This strategy however quickly caught up with us, and there we were, rubbing our sore quads and banged up shins.
The Spontaneous Plan
After enjoying our breakfast at the most delicious Butterhorn Bakery & Cafe, hubby and I decided to take a day off from skiing, and go for a drive instead. We had heard of a beautiful place called Hanging Lake, which was very close to Glenwood Springs, a town famous for its hot springs pools. Both the Hanging Lake trail and Glenwood Springs were located along I-70 west, and not all that far from Frisco.
We packed our swim suits, since we were headed in the direction of hot springs pools, and hit the road.
After exiting the beautiful and cozy town of Frisco, we got on Interstate-70 West, the only freeway we needed to get to our planned points of interest.
It was a beautiful drive, with panoramas of frozen lakes and mountains covered in fresh snow. I admit, I had a hard time sitting back and not asking hubby to pull over so I could take pictures. You see, I can’t just enjoy beautiful scenery, I have to snap photos of it, too! I knew, however, that hubby would not be agreeable to pulling over near the freeway, so I took my pictures through the car windshield.
As we kept on driving further west, the road became more narrow, and we found ourselves between the walls of a canyon. We had reached Glenwood Canyon, and at this point were driving on one of the most expensive sections of freeway per mile ever built in America! I later learned that this stretch of I-70 had earned the Colorado Department of Transportation the 1993 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.
It was undoubtedly a stunning drive! The highway there is so squeezed between the walls of the canyon that for a short while, I-70 West is partially elevated above I-70 East. I guess this was the only way to fit them both there!
Hanging Lake Trail
After we drove for a little longer, it became clear we had missed our exit towards Hanging Lake. At least, we thought we missed it! It turns out that due to the split highway, Hanging Lake is only accessible from eastbound I-70. Fortunately, the next exit wasn’t too far, and we we quickly managed to get turned around and make our way to the parking lot near the Hanging Lake trailhead.
There were only a couple of other cars parked nearby. This was either a good sign as in, “Yaay! Someone else is also hiking!” or a bad one as in, “Woow! Only a couple other people are out here hiking”! Who knew!?!
When You Want to Go, You Gotta Go
Hubby and I walked over to the nearby sign to read some info about the Hanging Lake trail. We did see the following:
The trail is 1.2 miles long and rises 1020 feet in elevation. The way is steep and rocky; allow 2 to 3 hours for the trip.
TAKE DRINKING WATER none is found along the trail
WEAR STURDY FOOTWEAR protect your feet and ankles
We took a few steps, and saw another sign sticking out of the snow that stated:
CAUTION: Trail is difficult! Are you prepared? Do you have:
enough water to drink?
sturdy shoes for hiking?
Interestingly, all of these warnings did not seem to register in our minds. We had no water, hiking poles, or sturdy footwear. In fact, the city leather boots we were wearing came with soles as perfectly smooth as soles get, without even one shred of tread!
An Easy Path…Or Not
The beginning of the trail near the parking lot appeared innocent enough; it was a beautiful, snow-covered flat path that actually looked quite inviting. So, without thinking long and hard, we just started walking!
Well, this winter walk in the park bliss didn’t last for long. After about 10 minutes, the snow-covered trail suddenly became steep and narrow, very much as the sign had described. We kept on going even though our boots were slipping and sliding quite a bit. I figured if we just take it slowly, we’ll be all right.
Icy, Slippery and Beautiful
As we continued to slowly make our way towards Hanging Lake, things on the trail didn’t change too much. There were more steep sections with rocks covered in ice and snow. Needless to say, our sleek city boots only made things harder. Hiking so completely unprepared was definitely a struggle, but the stunning winter scenery all around kept us going.
We could see the steep walls of Glenwood Canyon majestically rising high above us. Our steep path continued to weave in and out of the forest, closely following a mountain stream. I came to find out later that this stream is called Dead Horse Creek. Even though some areas were completely buried under the snow, we could always hear its gentle murmur.
I felt one really neat feature of the trail was all of the small bridges we had to cross over the creek. I thought they looked particularly magical under the deep cover of fresh snow.
The Competent Hiker
After some time, we met a well-prepared hiker, equipped with crampons and hiking poles, who was practically jogging back down the trail. In case you are not familiar, crampons are devices that attach to your shoes with metal spikes on the bottom. They allow you to easily walk on snow and ice, and at that moment, seemed like the perfect accessory for this particular trail.
Feeling slightly self conscious and embarrassed by our unpreparedness, we stopped the hiker, and asked him how much longer we had to hike up until Hanging Lake. He responded in a friendly, nonjudgmental manner that we were about halfway there. We thanked him and looked at each other. Admittedly, we had hoped we were closer than halfway, but regardless, there was no turning back now.
Snow of Life
We continued slipping and sliding up the trail pretty much the same way as before. The difference was we were starting to get tired and thirsty. We saw a tiny wooden cabin, and sat there to take a short break.
It dawned on me that with all that nice fresh snow, we really didn’t have to go thirsty. All we had to do was find a nice, clean patch and eat some. I lead the way, and hubby reluctantly followed. As soon as I took a large bite of fresh clean snow, I felt rejuvenated. Not only did it taste wonderful, but it also helped cool us off. As you can imagine, by this point we had warmed quite a bit from all the climbing efforts.
The Final Stretch
After we sat around chewing on snow for a bit longer, it was time to resume the hike. We couldn’t be too far from the end, Hanging Lake, the place we had heard so much about! It turned out we were right, except at the time we didn’t have any idea what the end entailed!
The trail continued to climb up until it got even steeper. At that point, there was a long handrail attached to one side of the path. This was definitely not looking good for us! We held on tight, and kept pulling ourselves up choosing our every step cautiously. No one knows exactly how we got through this rail section, but we did, and then we saw the final challenge.
There were several really steep and tall rocks arranged like stairs, with another rail on the side, and a pretty serious drop off next to the rail. The fact is, without the handrail, we never would have made it up this part. As it was, the steps were mostly covered in hard-packed snow, creating a steep incline, rather than actual steps. It was a little unnerving, but we were determined to find a way and get past that final obstacle.
A Few Steps From the Top
Just as I was trying to figure out where to hold on, and how to keep me and my trusty Nikon camera safe, I heard a friendly “Hello.” I looked up, and saw a man and a woman standing at the top of the steep stairs, waiting to come down. When they noticed I was having a little trouble with my slippery boots, the lady stretched out one of her hiking poles, and offered me to hold on. I grabbed the pole with one hand, and the rail with the other, then managed to pull myself to the top. The couple then helped hubby in a similar way, and he also joined me on top. We thanked them, and took a few more steps when we started to notice the stunning panoramas all around us.
Hanging Out at Hanging Lake
On one side was Glenwood Canyon in its entire glory. Its steep walls went so far down below us that we couldn’t really tell where they joined the ground.
On the other side was Hanging Lake, literally hanging on the edge of the canyon. It was like a small gem, like a perfectly shaped precious pearl. It was partially frozen and covered in snow, but where the water was peaking through, it looked pristine and pure. On the rocks at the far end of the lake, there was a partially frozen waterfall, where icicles of various shapes and sizes were sparkling in the afternoon sun. We could see some water still dripping down the icicles, creating ripples in the perfectly smooth surface of the lake.
Unique and Fragile
We walked around the lake on the designated boardwalk, and stopped at various signs along the way to read more about this special place. We discovered that Hanging Lake is a National Natural Landmark, with a very unique and fragile ecosystem. Visitors should stay on the boardwalks and be very careful not to disturb this special environment in any way, because even tiny amounts of oils and skin cells can damage it.
After we rested at a nearby log, we knew it was time to start our journey back down. I noticed there was another trail from the top of Hanging Lake leading to Spouting Rock Falls. We decided however, not go any further, since it was getting late and we had a challenging descent ahead of us.
A Long and Bumpy Slide
Although we managed most of the Hanging Lake trail ok on the way up, coming down was a whole different story! After a few cautious steps down the trail from where we had come earlier, we very quickly realized getting back to the car safely would not be easy. There was absolutely no traction with our smooth-soled boots. Coming down was going to be a problem!
After slipping and falling numerous times, we decided it would be best to just sit and slide down the trail. At least, we would not break something if we stayed close to the ground. So this is what we did! We slid on our behinds pretty much the entire way down! Although there was a scary moment when hubby almost slid off the trail down a steep incline, luckily, we didn’t break any bones, and only got our butts a little bruised from sliding over the rocks along the way!
On to Glenwood Springs and the Hot Pools
When we finally got back to the car, the sun was getting pretty low in the sky, so we made a plan to go to the nearby town of Glenwood Springs and stay there for the night. We were already pretty beat up from the hike, so it didn’t sound very appealing to drive for several hours in the dark back to our place in Frisco.
We arrived in Glenwood Springs, and headed straight for the famous hot spring pools. The thought of taking a dip in hot mineral water with our fatigued muscles sounded heavenly!
Glenwood Springs Bliss
We parked near the Glenwood Springs Lodge, which is adjacent to the hot springs pool. After purchasing our tickets and getting a couple of towels, we practically ran to the changing rooms. I impatiently put on my swimsuit, and met hubby at the door near the pool. Now, all we had to do was to walk outside, and jump in. There was just one small detail: the temperature outside was 17° F!
We figured it was only about 30 feet to the edge of the pool, so it wouldn’t be that bad. We opened the door, and ran! All I remember between that moment and the time I jumped in the pool was that my skin became numb instantaneously. The freezing temperature cut like a knife.
The next thing I knew was, we were sitting in 104 F of pure mineral Heaven, looking at the snowy mountains nearby. The steam poured off the surface of the water, illuminated by the lights around the pool, and the hair at the top of my head crackled when I touched it, from having frozen so quickly. Meanwhile, I kept toasty warm under the surface, and the air on my face no longer felt numbing, but rather cool and refreshing.
Some Fun Facts about the Hot Pools
There are two main hot pools at Glenwood Springs. We had jumped in the smaller and the hotter of the two. This pool is also called the therapy pool, and its water temperature is maintained at 104 degrees. Even though people often call it the “small” pool, it is actually 100 feet long.
After we soaked for a while longer, we decided to go for a swim in the larger pool. Since the two pools are right next to each other, we didn’t have to walk far. This time the experience of stepping out in 17 degrees was very different. Our bodies had collected so much heat from the pool that it actually felt really nice to get some fresh cool air.
We jumped in the large pool, and started swimming. The water temperature here was about 90 degrees, which felt just perfect. It took us a while to get to the other side of this pool as it was truly enormous, at 405 feet long and 100 feet wide.
Hubby and I continued swimming, then went back for more soaking in the therapy pool. We kept switching between the two pools for the next couple of hours until we started to get hungry. At that point, we decided it was time to leave the bliss of the hot springs pools, and find a place to get dinner.
Dinner at the Italian Underground Restaurant
We changed back to our winter clothes quickly, and decided to check out an Italian restaurant nearby, called Italian Underground Restaurant, plain and simple. On the way there, hubby called and booked us a room at a nearby hotel, so we were all set for the night.
When we got to the restaurant, we were lucky they had a table for us. We ordered some wine, and enjoyed a wonderful evening of delicious food and relaxing conversation.
…And this is how our crazy Colorado adventure came to a perfectly good and relaxing ending. We felt enriched by the experience, but we knew one thing for sure: We are never taking Hanging Lake Trail again without being properly prepared!
- A Winter Day Trip to Glenwood Canyon, Colorado (Read this blog post for tips and suggestions on how to plan the perfect Glenwood Canyon getaway during the winter, and have one unforgettable day there!)
- Glenwood Springs, Colorado Information (Here, you will find information about Hanging Lake, as well as the entire area near the city of Glenwood Springs.)
- Glenwood Springs Hot Pools and Resort Information (Check out this website to get the most updated information about the hot pools in Glenwood Springs. You can see the current hours of operations, rates, etc.)
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all pictures in this post were taken by me, Vessy, with my Nikon D3100 camera. I always shoot on Manual Mode, and the only edits I do at times are: cropping, increasing the saturation, and sharpening the images if needed.
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