I’m a native Coloradoan, and no stranger to hiking. I have so many memories of spending weekend and summer mornings in the mountains, exploring trails and rivers with my family. Since having my children, I will be the first to admit that I haven’t been hiking as much as I would like. It’s a lot of work to hike with a child on your back, and sometimes even more to hike slooowly with a young child. But I recently celebrated my birthday, and in lieu of a present wanted was to see Hanging Lake with my kids. (My husband did surprise me with a FitBit Alta that is phenomenal, though!) Before embarking on the trip, I did a lot of research on the viability of completing the hike with my girls, ages 1 and 3. We had a phenomenal time on our hike, and I wanted to share our top tips and tricks with you!
The Hanging Lake Trailhead is located about 15 minutes East of Glenwood Springs on 1-70. This is about 2.5 hours west of Denver. The hike is EXTREMELY popular, and the US Forest Service limits the number of people who can access the trailhead parking lot. When the lot is full, cars wait in line along the road in a “one in, one out” situation.
We knew the hike itself would be a big endeavor for our family, and I didn’t want to be in a situation where we had to wait just to access the trailhead. Weekends and late morning get extremely busy at Hanging Lake, so we chose to get up early and be at the trailhead by 7:00 am on a Friday morning at the end of June. We parked in the main lot with no problem, but by the time we had unloaded our car and used the bathroom (there are beautiful, clean restroom facilities and vending machines at the trailhead) the parking lot was almost full. When we returned to our car to leave, there was a line of cars about 1/4 mile long waiting to park to access the trail.
The hike begins with about a 10 minute walk down a mixed-use trail before hitting the actual dirt trail that leads up the mountain. It’s important to know that bikers use the cement trail, and be mindful of your littles when on that section. Most bikers audibly signaled to us when they were approaching, but not all did.
The trail to Hanging Lake is super well-maintained and marked, and lots of people use it every day. However, it’s about one mile long, and there is a 400 foot elevation gain. When I researched the hike, there was a lot of information about the hike begin difficult and steep, but since it is such a tourist attraction, I didn’t really pay too much attention. Let me tell you that the hike is steep, and there are a LOT of rocks. The top of the trail has iron handrails to help you get through the extremely rocky terrain. I don’t even have any pictures of that part of the trail because it was so rocky I needed both hands to steady myself. The trail itself is not at a very high elevation, and it is very shaded. There were lots of mosquitos, which we didn’t expect, and I would definitely pack bug spray next time.
That said, my 3 year old daughter hiked the entire trail to Hanging Lake on her own! We definitely had to help her to get started, and hold her hand in especially rocky parts, but she loved exploring the forest. We crossed 7 wood bridges, and found river snails along the trail, and the entire trail runs along the path of a stream. (The sound of that gargling stream is so relaxing!) It’s important to pack plenty of water, as it was hot and we all looked forward to the water breaks. Also – wear sturdy shoes. I saw people trying to hike in flip flops and cowboy boots… no judgement, but this is a serious hike and good shoes are a must.
Every single second of the hike up the trail was worth it, as Hanging Lake is even more spectacular in person than any photo could ever do it justice. The Forest Service has built a beautiful wooden footpath along the edge of the lake (which was great because our newly walking 1 year old could toddle around safely after spending a long time in the hiking backpack), and there are numerous benches to sit and contemplate the scenery. We ate LOTS of snacks at the top, since everyone worked up an appetite on the hike. Please do remember to pack out all of your trash, as there are not trash cans and we want to maintain the pristine eco-system of the lake by not letting trash or food waste contaminate it!
You can also head up about another 100 feet to a beautiful waterfall, and we saw birds and chipmunks enjoying snacks. It took our family about 2.5 hours to hike to the top of the trail, and we made the decision to carry both girls down the trail because everyone was tired and hungry. I had thrown an Ergo carrier into my backpack, so we put the toddler in the hiking backpack and the baby in the Ergo and jammed down the mountain in about 45 minutes. We were definitely exhausted at the end, but exhilarated by the beautiful view! Our daughter was so proud of herself for hiking the mountain too!
We spent the whole weekend in Glenwood Springs, and the locals also recommend the Mushroom Rock trail for families. That’s definitely on our list for the next trip! What are your favorite Colorado hikes for families with young kids?
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