Imagine a canyon lined with pastel pink stones that sparkle silver in the setting sun, leading to a suddenly snow-lined mountainside staircase topped with a pristine sapphire lake full of rainbow trout fed by a diamond waterfall.
Welcome to Hanging Lake
That canyon is Dead Horse Creek Canyon in Glenwood Springs, CO. It begins near where the Colorado River and Dead Horse Creek diverge, and leads you 1.2 miles to two waterfalls straight from your dreams.
Note: dogs and fishing are prohibited so as to protect the delicate ecosystems.
Colorado has a lot to offer the outdoorsman, but don’t let Snowmass’ steep ski slopes or Crested Butte’s adrenaline-junkie mountain-biking paths intimidate the nature-lover in you if you live with a chronic illness or other condition. From breathtaking strolls through trees of Aspen groves to healing soaks in natural mountain spring-fed hot sulfur baths, this state has gifts to offer every ability level!
At the time of my hike to this magical place, I was at the start of a new lifestyle focus on challenging my perceptions of what was “Possible” for me. For years, my viewpoint had been narrowing, as my condition seemed to worsen. I had given myself over to self-doubt so strong that it nearly entirely stopped me from doing what I love most: explore our world! I had decided almost a year earlier I would seek out truly challenging adventures, and this was my biggest yet.
The hike began later in the day than I preferred. Later than I was even comfortable with, later than I believed could allow for my rheumatic body to make it to the legendary Hanging Lake and back to the vehicle before nightfall. It was early November in Colorado… This wasn’t a canyon I’d want to get lost in after dark without proper gear. I told myself to have faith, follow my hiking partner, and figured dramatically that, if nothing else, there would be rangers to rescue us if we didn’t return to our car.
So it began.
With gusto we entered the canyon. The temperature dropped immediately, and I was glad for my layers. The sun lowered itself as we walked in deeper. Soon it hid behind a mountain wall, for a time lending an eerie atmosphere that beckoned one to melt into it.
We marched into the trail lined with tangled trees and vines. Dead Horse Creek wound in and out along our way. I was charmed by the footbridges sprinkled about as we went. Soon I was taken aback by what seemed like an old Disney fairytale being woven before my eyes: a sparkling tapestry of glittering pale stones, lush green moss clinging to trees and blanketing the earth, a tiny pond abuzz with microscopic wildlife that seemed to somehow emit a faint, inviting glow of its own. I could barely pull myself away from the sight.
I had become stiff and chilled in the meantime. My body suddenly rallied against me, and my mind began to crumble in strength with it. My. Knees. Hurt. (Note: I was a decade past a replacement diagnosis) I wondered if we should go back. Just as I was about to want to give in to the pain, a little bitty cabin-like log shelter appeared in our path. I sighed in relief as I took a seat inside on the graciously provided bench.
We peered through the tiny open window holes. Reaching my arms out to my sides, I could nearly touch all four wooden walls. I was so grateful for the chance to rest my aching bones and get myself together. I was wearing a bracelet hand-braided from three different metals, scored from a thrift store, and slid it off. I left it with excitement at the thought of someone coming for a breather just like me and having the surprise of finding it.
Before parting ways with the shelter, a short session with my hiking companion, cannabis, was in order! We smoked a joint in silence, watching our breath and the smoke mingle in the cold air around us. My anxiety was lifted, my depressive mood about my circumstances dissolved, and my pain levels had a chance to balance back to bearable. It was time to continue The Mission.
More winding trails, more bumps and humps in the path… Until a wall was before me. By this time, everything was coated in several inches of hard ice. The ground was slick. Now, I faced a foot path that alternated with steps and stairs and lined the edge of the mountainside. I nearly turned back.
Thankfully, handrails have been installed in recent years! I grabbed the cold bar, climbed 45 vertical feet up, and before I knew it I was standing before an oil painting masterpiece at 7,040′ elevation.
The Boy Scouts of America have generously provided a boardwalk that begins over the marshy overflow that greets visitors and encircles the South edge of Hanging Lake. Since it rather literally hangs on the edge of the mountain, this is quite a gift of safety and ease!
The 65,340 ft² body of water was pristinely clear. It glistened in the setting sun like a Van Gogh painting of the brightest swirling turquoise, sapphire, and aquamarine. Colorful trout swam contentedly, unaware of the fragility of their gorgeous ecosystem. I stood with the best view of the waterfall that lovingly fed the travertine-shorelined Lake, then got as close to being beneath it as possible by climbing rocks. Ice drippings longer than my body hung above nearby. An old dead tree stretched across the water temptingly.
I couldn’t get enough of the area, and circled back to where we entered the space. Climbing upwards even more, I made it to Spouting Rock. Here, another waterfall spouted from the edge of a cliff. I was again taken in by an old school Disney magic. For awhile I wandered in a daze, conversing with the rose-tinted atmosphere.
I listlessly walked to stand on the edge overlooking Hanging Lake. My hiking partner was below, joined by a young couple who looked and sounded to be Asian perhaps. They appeared to be fueled by their young love, courageously and some might say foolishly embarking on a tedious trek across the fallen, barely buoyant tree below. I held my breath as I tracked their movements, muscles tensing beneath hiking pants, fish swimming below, birds flying above…
They didn’t fall.
I didn’t fail.
I hardly recall the retracing of our steps to complete the almost 2.5 mile hike. I remember my intense soul-satisfaction at my success, the inflation in my chest from my joy and newfound strength, and my relief to exit to the see the Colorado River again before the light of day was lost.
I couldn’t tell you if I was in pain, or if it even mattered then. I was ALIVE. I was THRIVING. I had completed the circuit to the Lake and back, yes, but I had also strengthened mental circuits that powered my physical ability. It is the memory of that growth that is burned into my brain.
If you would like to plan a hike to Hanging Lake one day, I invite you to peruse the Hanging Lake Hiking Guide and leave me a comment about your experience below!
Here’s to supplying ourselves with more power.