Hanging Lake is an iconic Colorado gem, that is a must-see if you ever find yourself in the Centennial State. It is a gorgeous travertine lake in a cliffside location with lush vegetation and picturesque waterfalls. It is also a National Natural Landmark. Because it is so awe-inspiring and so well-visited, a permit system was instituted. Our personal experience with the permit system was nothing but good. I am a planner and appreciate the security of having a plan and knowing that plan is ready to execute!
Obtain your Hanging Lake permit
Obtain your permit well in advance if you can for the best selection of dates and times. If you can’t book too far in advance then be willing to be a bit flexible if needed. During peak season (May – October) tickets are sold by day and time and you are required to ride the shuttle from the Hanging Lake Welcome Center or take your own bike. On the off-season tickets are sold by day. You can go anytime on that date and park at the trailhead.
You do save a couple dollars on your ticket in the off-season. Be aware of the wintry conditions you might face and plan accordingly. Children also need a permit. For those under two that you plan to carry up you don’t need to pay. A side bonus: due to the steep nature of the hike if you do carry a child you will get endless “wow you’re amazing” comments along the way!
One more thing I’d say about the permit system is that though some find it easy to grumble about any sort of program like this, we think it has been executed extremely well. It will help protect a national treasure for generations into the future and reduce overcrowding for all of our enjoyment as well.
Prepare well for your Hanging Lake hike
There’s an extensive FAQ to read with good information. Here are the top things that made a difference in our preparations or we learned along the way:
- A water fountain and restrooms are available both at the Welcome Center and the trailhead, but not along the trail or at the lake. We wondered if our preschooler would be able to hold it that long, but luckily she did.
- We had no cell service on the hike and at Hanging Lake.
- On our hike during the peak season there were numerous rangers walking the trail and stationed in certain areas. This is always reassuring. We knew they were especially aware and attentive when not one but two of them asked if Klara’s foot/shoe was ok. As we started the hike we realized the velcro on her shoe wouldn’t stay closed. We usually have some sort of duct tape along in a first aid kit but not this time. We improvised by pulling a spare sock over the outside to hold it closed. To the rangers this must’ve looked like she either lost part or all of her shoe!
- There was construction going on during the time of our visit that appeared to impact accessibility to the bike trail and arrival by bike. Make sure to check on how any construction may affect your desire to buy a bike permit or drive to the trailhead during the off-season.
- Don’t be fooled by the fact that the distance is only 1.2 miles each way as it is steep. It’s very manageable, but wear sturdy shoes, bring enough water and food, and a hiking pole if you have them.
Catch your Ride
Arrive at the Hanging Lake Welcome Center with enough time to park, get inside to check in, and use the restroom. They’ll give you a lanyard with a badge to wear. Our bus driver played a bit of the tour guide as we drove through Glenwood Canyon though I don’t know if they all do. He didn’t have a loudspeaker so sit near the front if you want the chance to learn a few extra tidbits.
Officially you have 3 hours to make your round trip up and back and catch your return shuttle. Since we had little ones and I was particularly concerned about our speed of travel. I knew full well that time was not remotely possible for us so I specifically asked about it. You can catch a later shuttle you just might have to wait on standby if it’s very busy. We didn’t experience that at all as it was very easy to get on the first return shuttle we saw. Just don’t miss the last shuttle of the day or you will incur a hefty fee for a special pickup.
Enjoy the Hike
The biggest tip I have for the actual hiking is to take your time, pace yourself, and watch your footing. Not only is it steep but it is rocky. The good news is that if my 4 year old preschooler can hike it on her own and my husband can carry my heavy toddler on his back then it’s definitely achievable.
Our family hiking is now dictated by the abilities of our kids. I am so happy to say that my daughter is a hiking rockstar. Though we held hands the entire way and I helped guide and steady her, the determination, perseverance, and sheer enjoyment of being in nature that she is already showing makes my adventuring mama heart so excited.
Another neat thing about the permit system is that if you drop back a little ways you will have the path all to yourself. That is of course unless you’re like us and so slow that the next shuttle group eventually catches and passes you. Then it quiets down again quickly though.
Don’t miss the beauty of the hike itself in rushing to get to the top. There is a lot to enjoy along the way. You will be hiking up along Deadhorse Creek as it bubbles and cascades down to the Colorado River. There are several bridges from which to get a lovely view of the creek as it speedily flows along. You will get stunning views of cliffs towering above. Though you are mostly in wooded areas you’ll climb a rocky staircase with a dazzling vista so take it all in!
Linger at Hanging Lake
When you’ve reached the crown jewel of the hike you’ll understand its popularity right away. We enjoyed walking all the way around to the far side to see it from all angles. The best thing then was finding a shady spot on one of the benches, eating our lunch, and leisurely enjoying the views. So many people seemed to rush up, rush around, and rush back down. Don’t be those people!
Watch out for the local chipmunks as you’re eating your snack. They are pretty aggressive about coming up to you and seeing what food they can get. We had to keep a sharp eye out and shoo them away. Definitely don’t feed them.
Watching the multiple cascades could occupy you for some time. It is pretty mesmerizing. The turquoise color of the water will also draw you in and invite you to stare for some time. After you’ve worked so hard to get up there make sure to bask in it for a while before turning back.
Don’t miss Spouting Rock Waterfall
As you approach the top of the hike, keep an eye out for a sign off to the left just before you get onto the Hanging Lake boardwalk. It points up to Spouting Rock just a short ways uphill though also very steep. Do NOT miss this part. You may want to continue straight ahead first to see Hanging Lake and rest a bit, but don’t forget about it on your way back. If you do you will be sorely disappointed. I can’t tell you how many people we told coming down the trail to make sure they took a look that had no idea it was up there. We WERE those people until some other kind soul told us. Since then we’ve talked with friends who have been on the hike and had also missed it and I wanted to cry for them over the injustice of it!
Spouting Rock provides the water to Hanging Lake. Hanging Lake takes gold on beauty, serenity, and uniqueness but Spouting Rock wins hands down on the impressiveness scale. Go up to, next to, and behind this waterfall and feel it’s refreshing spray and hear the thunderous roar. Without it your trip won’t be complete!
I hope you enjoyed hearing of our experience at Hanging Lake and picked up some tips for your own visit should you choose to do so. If you enjoyed hearing about Hanging Lake, definitely check out Rifle Falls State Park as well!