Ultimate Guide to Hiking Hanging Lake

August 16, 2014 Comments (17) 1-2 Miles, Canyon, Cliffs, Creek or Brooks, Lakes, Medium, More than 90 Min, Rock Formations, Waterfalls

Guide for Hiking Hanging Lake in Colorado

Hanging Lake is a short hike to two waterfalls and one of the most beautiful lakes in Colorado. On the same hike, you can explore Spouting Rock Falls, and even walk behind the waterfall. Reservations are required to hike Hanging Lake so don’t leave home without booking (see info in trail snapshot below). It’s not a day hike near Denver, but it’s definitely worth the nearly three-hour drive to the Hanging Lake Trailhead just outside of Glenwood Springs.

We’ve attempted to create the definitive guide to hiking the Hanging Lake Trail. In this guide, you’ll find: 10 hiking tips, notes on driving directions to Hanging Lake, and tips for parking–which runs out fast. You can download the Hanging Lake trail map, find tips on photography at the lake, and some notes on hiking this trail with kids. If you are planning a Colorado vacation, there is helpful information for planning both your hike and trip to this Colorado destination. This guide is extensive, so we have created a table of contents help you navigate your way around.

Hanging Lake Driving Directions – Nov. 1 – April 30

Driving Directions for Hanging Lake Header

These directions to the Hanging Lake Trailhead are only for those visiting during the off-peak season (Nov.1 to April 30th). The trailhead is closed to vehicles during the peak season. Driving to Hanging Lake from Denver (the east) can be a bit confusing. Here’s why: you have to drive past the trailhead because there is not westbound exit, then take exit 121, go under interstate 70 and get back on eastbound I-70. Then you’ll take exit 125 to the Hanging lake Trailhead. I’ve posted a map below that shows all this in detail.


When leaving the Hanging Lake Trailhead, you can only exit onto the Westbound lane of interstate 70. So, you’ll have to do the same thing and take exit 121 again to double-back and head back to Denver. If you are coming from Glenwood Springs or the west, then things are pretty straightforward. Driving from Denver, this maps out as a 2.5 hour drive using Google maps, but be sure to add time for construction.

Parking and Facilities at Hanging Lake Trailhead – Nov. 1 – April 30

hanging lake trailhead header
We arrived at the Hanging Lake Trailhead parking lot at 8AM on a Saturday morning in July. The first parking lot was full, and by 8:30, the second lot was nearly full. Beginning in 2015, a gate has been installed to close the lot when it is full.The restroom facilities were large enough to serve the number of people who frequent this popular Colorado hike, and were well kept. This is important: if you get there when the lot is full, you will either need to try again later, or make other plans. An alternative is to rent bikes in Glenwood Springs, to bike in, and lock up your bikes at the trailhead (be sure to get locks at the rental shop).

There were a few shaded picnic areas near the parking area, and some unshaded ones along the river. On our way out, the parking lot was at full capacity with cars having to turn around and leave because there was no place to park. Parking is prohibited along the the I-70 exit ramp, so if the parking lot is full, your best bet is to drive into Glenwood Springs, grab something to eat, and try back later. Don’t wait idling or clog the ramp, it prevents emergency vehicles from accessing folks who really need their help. It’s also important to note that recreational vehicles and trailers have been banned from parking at the hanging lake parking lots as there is not sufficient space for turn around.

Guide for Hiking the Hanging Lake Trail

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The Trailhead begins along the Colorado River with a paved bike path surrounded by the banded rock walls of Glenwood Canyon. The morning air was cool, and steam was lifting from the warm surface of the Colorado River. After about a quarter-mile you’ll see a bike rack and the Hanging Lake Trail on your left. This is the beginning of Dead Horse Creek Canyon, the canyon that you’ll follow for about 1 mile up to Hanging Lake, then to Spouting Rock Falls.

Depending on your pace, it may take you anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half to get to the top.Though the prize at the end of this hike are two breathtaking Colorado waterfalls, one of our favorite features of the Hanging Lake trail is that it follows and crosses a mountain stream all the way up to the lake. In fact you’ll cross seven bridges on your journey up to Hanging Lake. You’ll be refreshed by the sights and sounds of cascades and the cool air of the canyon.

Most of the hike is in the shade of towering spruce, cedar, and fir trees. You’ll find several benches and rocks where you can stop and rest. If you are acclimated to the altitude, the hike up the Hanging Lake is relatively easy and short, but it is steep and there are a lot of rocks to negotiate, so we have categorized the Hanging Lake trail as a moderate hike.

If you are not acclimated to the altitude, or not a regular hiker, this Colorado hike will be a real workout, so you may classify it as difficult. If this is you, then be sure to read our Tips for For Out-of-State Hikers. The piece you may find most challenging is just how slippery some of the rock can get. I hiked this in Chaco sandals, which had great grip, but I got a few blisters on the descent. I’d recommend wearing a shoe or a boot that you know won’t be prone to slipping.The piece you may find most challenging is just how slippery some of the rock can get. I’d recommend wearing a shoe or a boot that you know won’t be prone to slipping.

At bridge three you’ll come across a beautiful cascade. The canyon soon opens to display clifftops that look like the ancient ruins of some abandoned castle. In areas where the sunlight breaks through, you may find raspberries along the trail in the latter half of the Summer. You’ll find more cascades near bridge number five. Dead Horse Canyon is a particularly lush ecosystem packed with spruce trees, moss, lichen, ferns, and sweet woodruff. As our six-year old daughter hiked into this part of the trail, she looked up to me and said, “It’s a rainforest, Dad!”

07_hanging-lake-colorado-raillingClose to the one-mile point, you’ll climb a steep staircase of rock complete with handrails. While the handrails are helpful, it would be easy for a child to slip over one.So, we’d recommend that you keep smaller children on the inside of the steps as you ascend and hold their hand. It’s a sheer drop on the other side of the handrail.At the top of the stairs follow the path about 100 yards to Hanging Lake. On the way, just before Hanging Lake, you’ll notice a sign to Spouting Rock. We’ll detail this trail in a moment, but you absolutely must hike this short 200 yard trail to this waterfall hidden behind Hanging Lake.

At Hanging Lake

Hanging Lake is a masterpiece of the natural world. You could spend the entire morning staring into its waters and discovering new things. We spotted trout in its green and blue waters, and dippers, little birds that create nests right on the rocks along the water. There are a variety of moss, ferns, and wildflowers all along the lake. Because of all the traffic at the lake, we saw a bit of trash floating at the base of the waterfall. Dayhikes Near Denver would like to challenge you to look for a piece of trash at the lake and to pack it out with you. Of course, don’t go in for it, but pick up what is along the trail and edge of the lake. If we all do this, we can do a little part to help keep this natural wonder beautiful. With 130,000 people visiting a year, the impact adds up fast.

86_hanging-lake-colorado-waterfallatlakeThe back side of Hanging Lake was my favorite spot. The light play and the water spray made for great photos (see our photographing hanging lake tips below), and it gives you a real stunning perspective of the waterfalls pouring into the lake.

You may notice what looks like a huge chain-link cage along the canyon wall above Hanging Lake. It’s there to hold back the rocks that are prone to pile up and roll downhill toward the lake.

Stay off the Log

There is a log that stretches out into the lake, and its tempting to walk out onto it. However, it’s important to know that the oils and detergents on our bodies and clothing–even our shoes just touching the water–can damage the sensitive ecosystem of Hanging Lake. So, as cool as it might be to get that pic of you out on the log, it’s even cooler to help preserve this place for the next generation who gets to see it.

So, as cool as it might be to get that pic of you out on the log, it’s even cooler to help preserve this place for the next generation who gets to see it.

Spouting Rock Waterfalls

On your return, be sure to hike the short spur (about 200 yards) up to Spouting Rock Falls. That’s right, it’s plural–there are multiple falls. This set of waterfalls is much higher than the Bridal Veil falls at Hanging Lake, and instead of pouring over the cliffside, the falls shoot out from holes that the water has carved through a sheer wall of limestone. When the water is really flowing (which is most of the time), an additional gusher of a falls spills out from the heights above Spouting Rock, creating a breathtaking series of waterfalls.

Photography: How to Get Great Photos of Hanging Lake

09_hanging-lake-colorado-indispoutingfallsThe key to getting the best photos of Hanging Lake is to go very early or later in the afternoon when the sun is close to setting. We hit the trail around 8:30 AM, and by the time we got to the lake, there was direct sun on the waterfalls pouring into Hanging Lake.

The real problem is that part of the waterfalls and lake are in direct sun and part in in the shadow of the canyon walls. This makes for two very different exposures within the same frame. So, that’s why we recommend that you go earlier or much later when the sunlight is still indirect and diffused. For some incredible shots, be sure to walk over to the back side of hanging lake where you can take photos that reveal the area carved out under the falls–but be sure to keep out of the water.

You will find the light at Spouting Rock Falls much more forgiving. Spouting rock is shaded more by both the canyon walls and trees that surround it. However, I would expect that light might be a bit harsh around midday.

Hiking with Kids at Hanging Lake

Hanging lake9smallfor postingThe trail is steep and the rock steps are high, so if you are bringing your kids, be prepared to hike at a slower pace and for a lot of people to be passing you. Be aware that there is a lot of slippery rock along the trail, so both good hiking shoes with grip and close supervision of kiddos are important. We brought our 4-year old and 6-year old with us and they did fine. Take into account that we have been hiking with our kids since they were a few weeks old, so this is more normal for us. We read an online comment where another family recommended this hike only for kids 10 and up. If your kids are young, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first hike.

The experience of hiking the Hanging Lake trail with our four-year old was a bit like hiking with a marionette. A lot of the rock steps on the trail were above her knees, so we were helping her up most of the way. This eventually turned into a game of leapfrog, as there were a lot of folks visiting from out-of-state who quickly became winded and needed to take stops, too.
The trail got busy quickly, so we found ourselves stopping often and stepping aside to let others pass us. Our children were particularly taken with the snails we found along the trail when we took breaks. The snails are easy to miss, but if you just stop and look around for a moment, they seem to appear from out of nowhere.

Visiting Hanging Lake From Out-of-State

  • Be ready to feel winded by the altitude change. You can help yourself adjust to altitude and to have a successful hike up to Hanging Lake by getting a good nights rest, drinking lots of water, and by going at a slower pace than you may be used to. This is good basic advice for anyone vacationing in Colorado.
  • As I mentioned earlier, the rock on the trail can be wet and slippery, so make sure that you have footwear that can grip the rock.
  • If you are overweight or have knee or ankle problems, then trekking poles are an absolute necessity. Coming down the trail is tough on the joints, and you’ll be weary at that point, so it’s easy to turn an ankle (I did, but that was probably because I was wearing Chaco sandals).
  • Don’t give up. We saw several people about 400 yards shy of the lake talking about turning around and heading back. They were so close. Of course, if you think that your health would be compromised by continuing, or if a bad lightning storm is rolling in, then it’s always wise to turn around.
  • If you are from out-of-state, or just not in the best of shape, plan for your hike to take longer. And definitely get to the parking lot early, 7AM, to avoid the heat and crowds. If you would consider yourself very out-of-shape, I’d recommend building up to this hike. See our Easy Hikes Near Denver or Short Hikes Near Denver pages for a good place to start.

Ten Hiking Tips for Hiking Hanging Lake

Because there are a lot of first-time hikers on this trail (and you might be one), we wanted to share a few tips.

    • If you find that you are going at a slow pace, step off to the edge of the trail to let other groups pass.


  • If you are going at a faster pace, simply say, “Pardon us as we pass on your left.” Just like driving, always pass on the left.
  • Take your time and don’t pass folks on the handrail section. It gets crowded here, but it’s just a short jaunt, so take your time so that everyone can make a safe passage of it.
  • Don’t feed Bucky: We encountered one woman who had tried to feed an almond to a squirrel, but the squirrel mistook her finger for the nut. As a rule, you don’t want to be feeding wildlife because it makes them dependent upon an unnatural food source (especially fingers), but it’s also not a good idea because you could get bit.
  • Make sure to bring a snack and some water. Be sure to pack out your plastic water bottles and other trash.
  • Hike the Hanging Lake Trail early in the morning, not just because of parking and traffic, but to cut down on the heat and humidity of the day. Depending on when you hike this trail, it can feel like two completely different experiences. If you hike in the early morning, the canyon is cool and refreshing. Hike it after 11am in the summer and it can feel more like a sauna.
  • This is one of the most popular if not the most popular hike in Colorado, so avoid holiday weekends. Or go very early, by 7am, if you want a parking spot.
  • Don’t forget to bring a camera.
  • There will likely be snow on the trail in the Spring, Fall, and of course Winter, so we advise bringing a traction device like YakTrax and trekking poles.
  • Don’t cut through the switchbacks, these are here to cut down on erosion, which can be significant with around 130,000 visitors hiking the trail each year.

Fishing at Hanging Lake

There are trout at Hanging Lake, but fishing is NOT allowed because of the lake’s unique and fragile ecosystem. However, if you would like to add fishing to your day, I’d recommend fishing the Colorado River along the Hanging Lake trailhead. I’ve not fished this section of the Colorado River, but I saw trout rising while we were walking past, and there looks to be some pretty good access to the river banks.

Dogs Not Allowed at Hanging Lake

You’ll have to leave Fido at home for this one because dogs are not allowed on the Hanging Lake Trail. In fact, the forest service sites that dogs, and the trash left by visitors, are biggest threat to the sensitive environment of Hanging Lake. A lot of people ask if you can swim in Hanging Lake, but for the same reasons swimming is prohibited. In fact, the US Forest service details that there is to be no bodily contact with the water.

Camping Near Hanging Lake

camping near hanging lake header
We decided to camp with our family on Friday night, then to get up early on Saturday to do the Hanging Lake hike. I was surprised by how difficult it was to find a campground near Glenwood Springs.

However, we eventually found and reserved amazing campground. In fact, it’s so good that I’m hesitant to share it. We booked a campsite at Bogen Flats Campground along the Crystal River. It was a 1 hour drive from the campground to the hanging lake trailhead. Though, not as beautiful, you could camp at Redstone Campground, which is a bit closer. We would also recommend (if you have a good clearance 2WD vehicle), the Avalanche Creek site–no reservations required.

Lodging near Hanging Lake

If you don’t want to rough it, there are plenty of lodging options in Glenwood Springs and great places to stay.

Other things to Do in Nearby Glenwood Springs

If you are driving from the east, there is a good chance that you may want to spend the weekend or a couple vacation days in Glenwood Springs. If you are looking for some things to do, here are a few suggestions.

  • The Hot Springs at Glenwood Springs – Sit back and soak in the main attraction and namesake of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. This is a perfect way to recover after your hike up to Hanging Lake.
  • Glenwood Caverns Cave Tours and Adventure Park – Go on one of the many different cave tours, or seek some above ground thrills on the parks many rides and attractions.
  • Rafting – There are a ton of rafting outfits in the Glenwood Springs area. Check out this Glenwood Springs page for a listing of Colorado guided rafting tours.
  • A Whole Lot More – Glenwood Springs was voted as one of the best vacation spots in the West–there is just a surprising amount of fun to be had in this Colorado town. The best place to really explore and find out more about the area’s attractions, see the Visit Glenwood site and begin planning your trip.

Check out the rest of our Hanging Lake images on our Pinterest board

Follow Dayhikes Near Denver’s board Hanging Lake Hike, Colorado on Pinterest.

Popping the Question at Hanging Lake

Hanging Lake is a picture perfect place for an engagement. The downside is that there is a lot of traffic on this popular Colorado trail. So, here are three tips that should help you out.

  • Go early on the weekend, on a weekday, or off-season. By early, I mean parking the car by 6:45 AM.
  • Hanging Lake is great, but Spouting Falls is, in my opinion an even more spectacular spot for an engagement, especially because you can walk underneath the waterfall.
  • There are some rocks on the back side of Hanging Lake that you could scramble up with your significant other and get engaged under the spray and sound of the waterfall along Hanging Lake.
  • For a great example of engagement photos, check out Kristen Hakes Photography’s photo shoot at Hanging Lake and Spouting Rock.


History and Geology of Colorado’s Hanging Lake

Hanging Lake was formed in a really interesting way. At some point in it’s geologic history, about 1.5 acres of the valley floor dropped out and formed the bed of the lake. This happened because it sits right on a fault line. The blue and green colors in the lake is a result of the carbonates, minerals that have dissolved in the water. Most of the rock in this area is travertine, a kind of limestone that often precipitates out of hot springs and mineral springs.

It was supposedly first discovered by an early pioneer prospecting for gold in the area. He and his family lived on the real estate near Glenwood Springs for some years before the city of Glenwood Springs purchased it as a park. Hanging Lake is now under the authority and management of the White River National Forest. In 2011, Hanging Lake was declared a National Natural Landmark.

Links & Resources for Hiking Hanging Lake :


Map & Driving Directions

Click for Driving Directions

17 Responses to Guide for Hiking Hanging Lake in Colorado

  1. Meg says:

    This is an absolutely beautiful hike and a must do for any resident or tourist. However is can get very busy so I’d plan the day wisely.

  2. Leslie says:

    This is a great trail profile! Hanging Lake is one of my favorite hikes in all of Colorado. It’s about a 2.5-hour drive from Denver, but is well worth the trip. The scenery and falls are stunning and it’s a nice, cool, shaded hike on a hot summer day. As the trail profile mentions above, definitely get there early (I’d recommend by 7:00 or 7:30 am) if you’d prefer not to hike with hundreds of other people, and take your time on the climb, especially if you’re not from CO. The trail is pretty steep and feels even more so if you’re not used to the altitude here.

  3. alyce says:

    You will not be sorry you hike here. Sooooo breathtakingly beautiful!! Nothing like it!

  4. Kendel says:

    Warm days are tougher then cooler days. You will burn a lot of calories! There are plenty of supporters coming down the mountain if you need a little pick me up. Everyone is very happy when they make their way back down. There are many places to stop for a quick rest or to catch your breath.
    After climbing all the way to the top the views are incredible! Hanging lake is more beautiful than the pictures show, the waterfall is gorgeous and the wildlife, the fish, the chipmunks, the birds are just as pretty!
    I did notice that there were kids throwing rocks into the lake which was quite disappointing so please tend to your children and educate them why this isn’t a play place, no disrespect to the parents, I have a feeling that they just didn’t know.
    Please stay on the trails and stay off the fallen logs as well.
    A hard climb for seniors as well as small children due to the incline and length of the trail as well as some slippery and narrow spots.
    Overall, you don’t want to pass up this hike!
    We will be going again in the spring and I personally can’t wait!

  5. Mike says:

    The view and sound of the water is well worth the hike, recommend going during the week and getting there early. Seems to be very crowded on the weekend. Go in the Spring to see the best waterfalls.

  6. Jim says:

    The hike is long and strenuous but well worth the effort. The scenery is great along the trail and even better at the lake. Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy hike and be sure to take water for the trip up and back. Oh, and do not for get your camera.

  7. Rachel says:

    This is my favorite trail of all. Number one, get there early. The parking fills up the later in the day and it gets warmer and warmer in the summer. This is almost a mile straight up. It took us almost an hour to get up. And the view is absolutely spectacular. The lake is breathtaking.Bring plenty of water, and don’t forget to take lots of pictures. The trails actually national trail now and maintained by the Boy Scouts. If you’re in Denver this is a trail that you should definitely make sure not to miss. In the summer the trees give you shade on your way up but I would still get there early to avoid the crowd in the heat.

  8. Uilleam says:

    Hiked this in late September with my 60 y.o. wife who is a non-hiker. We encouraged her to use trekking poles which ended up being her salvation, along with the quarter mile markers along the trail, which gave her little goals. Much of the hike is along the stream which descends from the lake so there are nice stream views along the way. Agreed to give yourself plenty of time and take a snack or meal to enjoy at the Lake where there are benches to rest. The lake is small (more like a pond) but the clarity and color are unsurpassed in Colorado. Remember no dogs, swimming or fishing. The short leg up to spouting rock is well worth it as you can easily walk behind the falls. Remember your drinking water, this is Colorado.

  9. Joe says:

    Conquered this bad boy last weekend, what a great hike. Also, what a great guide for what to expect. We heeded your advice and got there at 5:45 (still not the first ones on the trail, but there were only a few others). By the time we were heading down (about 9AM), the trail was getting packed! One of the great things about getting there that early is that we got to see 2 different versions of the canyon, one in early morning light before the sun hits the canyon, and one in the morning with the sun peaking through the trees lighting the features beautifully. Anyways, this is a great hike and be prepared (lots of water)!!

  10. Don says:

    A beautiful hike to an even more beautiful destination! Another suggestion for beating the crowds: we started up the trail at 6pm on a Wed in July and probably saw only 2 or 3 dozen people the whole hike up and back. An hour and 15 min up (for out-of-state 60-yr-olds) and a little less than an hour back down got us to the bottom again just at sundown, with a good half hour to enjoy the lake and the spouting rock. A good time for photography, too. We could find no evident exit from westbound I-70 at exit 121. Plan to return all the way to Glenwood (9 miles) in order to get to eastbound I-70 during this construction period.

  11. Anita Ojeda says:

    What a thorough review of the hike and your experience! We can’t wait to visit :).

  12. selendra says:

    The line to get into the rest stop was packed at 11:30 a.m. I parked five miles away at the next restop called Grizzly Bear or Grizzly something. One of the locals droped me off at hanging lake and I carried my roller skates so I could skate back to my car. There’s a bike path that runs along the colorado river. I suggest riding a bike to hanging lake or getting dropped off.

  13. Great pictures! I can’t wait to get to Hanging Lake. Last summer I was in the area and tried several different times to get in the parking lots, but they were always full.

  14. Diana Davis says:

    The lake is being overrun and destroyed by hordes of visitors who ignore the signs to not enter the water. Again, body oils and detergent on clothing destroy the delicate travertine. So sad to such beauty destroyed by selfishness and disrespect of visitors who cannot look and not touch.

  15. Richard says:

    Just visited HL on 9/27 (a Tuesday). Biked up from Glenwood in the afternoon (easy ride; gentle uphill most of the way–beautiful river scenes as a bonus); got there around 4:30, so like Don from the 7/9/15 post above, encountered no more than a couple dozen people the whole hike. As many other posts make clear, well worth the strenuous hike (but that was part of the fun!)
    I hate to make the main point of my post the following, but here goes:
    It was very dismaying to finally get up to that gorgeous lake (really, a magnificent emerald pond with waterfalls) and find that of only 3 couples that were up there besides me, EACH ONE sent 1 or both family members tight-rope-walking as it were along that big fallen tree trunk that is partially submerged, to get photos of those yo-yo’s standing in the middle of the lake. Each trespasser’s shoes or sandals made frequent contact with the lake water as they crept out from the shore and back. There was a sign that looked to be brand new right where the log meets land, that repeated a message that had been on the numerous trail signs: stay out of the lake–in this case the sign said “Stay off the log”! If the Forest Service is serious about keeping that supposedly “fragile” ecosystem safe, they are going to have to post a ranger up there, which of course will mean charging admission to the trail to pay for that cost, and closing it when he/she is off-duty. But that will protect this place from creeps who despite numerous pleas to our good will and common-sense, cannot resist the urge to be a photo-op prima donna at the expense of irreplaceable beauty. Or maybe some cameras with strobe lights like they have at some Denver intersections to catch those who run red lights would be a deterrent. Probably a lot less expensive to the public. It just seems that if 100% of the visitors during an evening on an off-season weekday are trashing the place like I saw on 9/27, it is well-overdue to do more to stop this abuse. Or is the lake less fragile than we are told?

  16. Brooks says:

    Wonderfully thorough hike guide. Thank you! :)

  17. Samantha says:

    I love this hike and really enjoyed reading your guide! I actually just hiked it yesterday and there are now fences and signs preventing you from the behind the falls view and from going out on the log. They’ve also fenced off the upper area between spouting rock and the falls. You can still go behind spouting rock though ????

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