Colorado’s legendary Hanging Lake reopens after 11 months and the trail is in great condition

GLENWOOD CANYON — Briana Nickas and her husband are active outdoor folks who have lived in Colorado for seven years, but when wildfires and landslides closed the Hanging Lake Trail over the past two summers, they began to regret never making the hike , which has inspired countless Coloradans and summer tourists.

Perhaps taking it for granted was a mistake, the Castle Rock couple thought. When they learned the legendary trail would reopen on June 25 after an 11-month closure due to damage caused by last summer’s monsoon-induced mud and rockfalls in burn-scarred areas, they went online and got first Day reservations they became available.

“We always wanted to come up here,” Nickas said Tuesday on the deck next to the lake after completing the 1.2-mile hike with a 1,200-foot climb. “You think there will always be places. They don’t realize they can be temporary, things can happen, the weather takes over and they’re gone. When we found out this was opening up again, we were like, ‘Gotta take a trip and make it happen.’”

The trail was closed during the early weeks of the 2020 pandemic, reopened, and then closed again this summer because of Grizzly Creek wildfire, which ignited about four miles west and came dangerously close to the trail. It reopened last spring but closed two months later due to mud and rockfall that destroyed a wooden bridge and left debris on sections of the trail. (See our full Hanging Lake timeline below.)

Blackened trees can still be seen along parts of the trail, but the blue waters of Hanging Lake are as brilliant and pristine as ever. The waterfalls above run strong. And the trail is in great shape.

Water gushes out of Spouting Rock after...
Water gushes out of Spouting Rock after penetrating hundreds of feet of permeable rock as a visitor, center, admires it June 28. Spouting Rock is located directly above Hanging Lake and its waters feed the lake.

Nickas brought a tripod for her camera to ensure she gets the perfect shot by the lake, which is so beautiful it’s become a huge draw for Instagrammers.

“I definitely want to capture it as best as I can and try to show people the beauty of it, inspire them to come out and experience it for themselves,” Nickas said. “It makes me happy. Nature is my happy place and I love water. The flow of water is just so moving. The water itself is moving, but something within me is moving and it makes me feel that movement too. Oh, there is a hummingbird! Beautiful.”

For Justin Bennett, her husband, the lakeside scene felt calm and relaxing.

“Kind of Hawaii, but with pine trees, just the peace and quiet,” Bennett said. “This is great. I never thought the water would be so blue. It’s so beautiful.”

Mitch Kudrna of Fargo, ND said he was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the trail based on what he had read online about the fire and subsequent mudslide damage.

“We were quite impressed,” said Kudrna, who hiked the trail for the fourth time in 10 years. “Much less damage than we thought.”

Fritz Dern of Fairfax, California, did the hike with his family as part of a three-week vacation that included Colorado stops at Mesa Verde, Ouray, the Maroon Bells and Rocky Mountain National Park. He said he envied Coloradans the beauty of the state, which he felt said a lot about a Californian.

“They did an excellent job with the trail,” said Dern. “There is a lot of rubble, but the rubble is generally flat. It’s not easy, but it’s not particularly strenuous either.”

Ohioan Laurie Logan did the hike with Hedy Demsey, a friend who lives in Carbondale.

“I think it’s spectacular,” Logan said. “You did a fabulous job. You could see where the repairs were being made and it was very easy to navigate. It was very interesting to see the burnt out logs and where a mudslide ripped down a large metal sign to remind people how powerful it all is.”

Before and after photos of a signpost damaged by fallen trees
Left: A fallen tree near Bridge #7 on the Hanging Lake Trail, photographed in August 2021. Right: The same sign photographed in June after the trail was cleared of debris from a landslide last summer. Hanging Lake reopened on June 25th.

This sign, a Forest Service noticeboard reading “Water is life, the life-sustaining connection between forest and water,” was dented on one of the slides last summer when a large tree fell on it. Above is a steep slope covered with rocks. Restoration teams this spring removed the tree from the sign and the rocks that covered the adjacent trail.

Demsey felt that memories of the fire and its aftermath send an important message to visitors.

“If they intentionally didn’t remove some of the burned logs, I think that’s a great reminder for everyone of what can happen,” said Demsey, who hopes to volunteer on the trail next summer. “Most fires are started by humans.”

Fire investigators have never located a specific ignition source of the Grizzly Creek fire, but have concluded that it was man-made. Last summer’s fire-scarred landslides resulted in multiple closures of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon.

The risk of landslides remains. On Tuesday morning, CDOT closed the Canyon rest areas and recreation trail along the Colorado River due to rain forecast later in the day.

“If the recovery trail or rest areas are open, crews cannot quickly evacuate the gorge,” CDOT spokeswoman Elise Thatcher said. “Just clearing the lane, I-70, takes about half an hour. Last year’s debris flows were very rapid, so it is vital that crews can clear the roadway without having to spend time looking for recovery trails and rest areas. Against this background, the rest areas and the recreation path are closed in rainy weather.”

That doesn’t necessarily apply to visitors to Hanging Lake, however. H2O Ventures, which manages the Hanging Lake visits in partnership with the White River National Forest and the City of Glenwood Springs, has its own evacuation plan in case the weather changes. When the other rest areas in the canyon were closed Tuesday morning, the parking lot and trail at Hanging Lake remained open to those with reservations that are required.

This may have confused some travelers who saw CDOT signs regarding rest stop closures when they entered the gorge and couldn’t be sure if Hanging Lake was affected by the CDOT closure. Ken Murphy, the owner of H2O Ventures, said his employees warn reservation holders via email and text when Hanging Lake needs to close.

“If you don’t hear from us, move on,” Murphy said. “We communicate with our guests and we are with our guests. If this canyon is closed, we can communicate with our guests and get people out. If cars are parked at (other rest areas), is it the unknown where (those people) are? Also understand, we are dealing with Mother Nature. She is our boss. It can roll in pretty quickly in the mountains.”

The hope now is that this year’s summer rains won’t be as epic as last July because burn scars from extreme events like those the Canyon experienced last year remain vulnerable to debris flows. This necessitated a major restoration project this spring in order to be able to reopen the Hanging Lake Trail.

“It makes you really appreciate nature when you can,” Nickas said. “I want to know who to thank for reopening the trail.”

A Hanging Lake timeline through fires and floods

May 2019: To reduce crowds at the famous attraction, White River National Forest officials are working with the City of Glenwood Springs to manage the visit by requiring reservations for access to the Hanging Lake Trail from May through October.

March 2020: The Hanging Lake Trail is closed due to a pandemic and will reopen on June 1st with greatly reduced attendance.

August 2020: The Grizzly Creek wildfire begins August 10 in the Grizzly Creek area of ​​Glenwood Canyon, about four miles west of the Dead Horse Creek drainage where Hanging Lake is located. The fire quickly grows to more than 32,600 acres and is causing extensive damage to large parts of Glenwood Canyon, including the Hanging Lake area. Hanging Lake itself is spared, except for some ash that temporarily clouds the lake’s notoriously clear water. Interstate 70 will be closed for 13 days.

May 2021: The Hanging Lake Trail will reopen to visitors, but not for long.

Spring 2022: A restoration project to reopen Hanging Lake involves replacing one bridge and repositioning the others. Parts of the trail that were covered by rocks are being cleared.

25th June: The Hanging Lake Trail is open to the public again.

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James Brien

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