Few waterfalls could take your breath away, but the Bridal Veil Falls at Hanging Lake pretty much did just that - both literally and figuratively. The picture you see at the top of this page only hints at the breathtaking scene with its colorful yet clear lake fronting a wide travertine waterfall. The scene was also flanked by tall cliffs with more cascades further downstream as well as a great view of the canyon carved out by Dead Horse Creek. It was the kind of scene that reminded Julie and I of places like Plitvice in Croatia, or Jiuzhaigou in China, or even the Havasu Falls, where clear water amongst travertine dams and waterfalls created a feast for the eyes and made us not want to leave.
As if that wasn't enough, there was a very impressive waterfall further upstream called Spouting Rock, where quite literally, the falls gushed out of a cliff in dramatic fashion. That secondary waterfall even let us go behind it, while it also featured a pool of its own with an idyllic setting that even compelled our daughter to pick out a little nook in a rock and treat it like her couch looking out towards the pool. Indeed, the high scenic rating we're giving this combination of Bridal Veil Falls and Spouting Rock was reflective of the consensus amongst Julie, Tahia, and I that this was the waterfalling highlight of our Spring Break Desert Southwest trip in mid- to late April 2017.
In addition to taking our collective breaths away in terms of sheer beauty, it also did so physically. That was because as the name of the place suggested, the lake was "hanging". So that meant, we had to go on a hike that was relentlessly climbing to even get up to the famed Hanging Lake. And since the lake itself was said to be at an elevation of over 7,000ft, it also meant that the air was thin and our lungs were beating harder in an effort to get as much oxygen as possible in the thin Rocky Mountain air. Even though the hike had a modest round-trip distance of 4 miles to take in both Spouting Rock and Bridal Veil Falls (3.2 miles round trip just to get up to Hanging Lake and Bridal Veil Falls alone), it still took us as a family about 3.5 hours away from the car to both complete as well as enjoy the entire excursion.
The hike began from the Hanging Lake Rest Area, which was an exit right off the I-70 (see directions below). From the parking lot and restroom area next to a man-made lake on the Colorado River, a paved and flat trail followed along the north shore of the man-made lake and Colorado River for about a half-mile. This part of the trail was already scenic in that the lake was flanked by tall cliffs and the lake created opportunities for those reflection shots. Another thing we noticed about this part of the hike was that most of this section of the park was devoid of the I-70 highway noise until we got closer to the half-mile point. It was a testament to the community activism that was involved to force the development of the interstate to preserve the character of Hanging Lake Park even if it meant higher development costs (though environmental costs are typically externalized so perhaps the "increased" cost was more indicative of the true cost of having the highway in the first place).
Once we were at the half-mile point, there was a bridge over Dead Horse Creek, a small cascade on the creek itself, as well as a smaller restroom facility. On the near side of the bridge, the Hanging Lake Trail began to climb in earnest as it left the concrete path and became more of a conventional dirt and rock trail climbing almost immediately past a large scree and boulder field and ultimately following Dead Horse Creek. The trail was quite obvious and easy to follow as this very popular trail had gotten a lot of use over the years. On the far side of the bridge, the concrete path continued along the north shore of the man-made lake towards the highway noise from the I-70. Naturally, we proceeded to climb up the Hanging Lake Trail, and it didn't take long before we understood why the park signage rated this trail as "strenuous."
Indeed, as the trail ascended up several inclines and zig-zagged up switchbacks, we wound up taking frequent water breaks. The entire time, the ascending trail was flanked by vertical cliffs while also ascending alongside minor cascades on Dead Horse Creek. So the scenic distractions somewhat helped to take our minds momentarily off the physical exertion. In addition, we noticed that bridges were sequentially numbered, and we saw quarter-mile posts acting as "milestones" to further distract us from the physical challenge while also allowing us to track our progress. Nevertheless, the relentless climb meant that we made very slow progress, and we wound up climbing so high that we even got to spots where snow was still covering parts of the trail!
Eventually after what seemed like forever, the trail made a turn away from the canyon carved out by the West Fork Dead Horse Creek and it started hugging the tall cliffs segregating the West Fork and East Fork of Dead Horse Creek. This cliff-hugging section was narrow but contained railings to help assure and protect us from the dropoffs. It also involved a steep and pretty dramatic climb up steep rock steps, and the higher we went, the more dramatic the views became when we looked back down the main canyon. Eventually, after cresting this dramatic ascent, we encountered a trail junction where the trail on the left continued to ascend towards Spouting Rock while there was a boardwalk on the right leading to Hanging Lake and the Bridal Veil Falls. Naturally, we did the latter first, and after all the work it took to get up here, we were quite relieved to see that it was well worth it!
At the Hanging Lake, in addition to the scenery, we also noticed fish in the lake. There were benches alongside most of the boardwalk for sitting and viewing, and there was also a viewing platform right in the middle of the semi-circular boardwalk. Despite how much work it took to get up here, this area was still very busy. We never recalled a moment where there was no one here though admittedly, we showed up right at midday and easily spent an hour here. Back at the trail junction, we then continued upwards to the Spouting Rock, where the trail continued its ascent (albeit less steep), and followed the base of more cliffs before heading right to the dramatic spring. The trail allowed us to go right behind the falls, and like Hanging Lake, this spot was also very popular so it would be difficult to take people-free photos.
When we had our fill of this both waterfalls, we then descended back down the way we came. Since the trail was mostly downhill, it only took us 70 minutes to return to the parking lot (as opposed to over 2 hours to get up to Hanging Lake). Thus, I'd say that in order to have a good time with this waterfall, an early start would do you some good both in terms of finding parking as well as ensuring that there'd be more available shade to take rest breaks while taxing your body less as a good chunk of the trail was exposed to sun.
In addition to Hanging Lake and the Bridal Veil Falls, don't forget to check out Spouting Rock, where a waterfall emerged from the cliffs as a gushing spring
This was the man-made lake on the Colorado River. As you can see, even if you're not up for the Hanging Lake Trail, you could just as easily enjoy the scenery down here and have a picnic
Looking back at Hanging Lake and the far end of Bridal Veil Falls from near the end of the boardwalk. As you can see, Hanging Lake's scenery was further augmented by tall cliffs surrounding the lake
This was the dramatic view back down the canyon from the final ascent up to Hanging Lake
The parking lot at the Hanging Lake Rest Area
Julie and Tahia on the concrete path along the north side of the man-made lake on the Colorado River
The Hanging Lake Rest Area was mostly quiet except for this stretch where the I-70 was exposed
Nearing the half-mile point as the cliffs were starting to close in and the trail was about to leave the concrete
This was the trail junction by the bridge where the Hanging Lake Trail started ascending on the left side of Dead Horse Creek
Tahia starting the long ascent up to Hanging Lake as she was traversing this large boulder field
Julie and Tahia continuing the ascent up the boulders and steps on the Hanging Lake Trail
Eventually, the Hanging Lake Trail started to ascend alongside Dead Horse Creek
This was the first of the quarter-mile posts on the ascent up to Hanging Lake. This number pertained to the distance from the start of the ascent back at the bridge and not the overall hike to this point
This was another boulder or scree field that we had to traverse while ascending the Hanging Lake Trail
The Hanging Lake Trail ascending alongside more intermediate cascades on Dead Horse Creek
Looking back at the second boulder field we had traversed
Still more boulder fields to traverse on the Hanging Lake Trail
Julie and Tahia walking past another intermediate cascade on Dead Horse Creek
Julie and Tahia going past the 3/4-mile post, which was at the top of a series of switchbacks
Given how strenuous the ascent was, it wasn't unusual to see these rest benches getting a lot of use
Looking back at the shelter along the Hanging Lake Trail
The Hanging Lake Trail was now starting to go right by some alcoves at the base of this cliff
We went high enough on the Hanging Lake Trail that we started to encounter snow
This was one of the more impressive intermediate cascades on Dead Horse Creek
Tahia and Julie going up the steep and narrow cliff-hugging trail on the final ascent up to Hanging Lake
Looking back at the canyon carved out by the West Fork Dead Horse Creek
Looking up at Julie and Tahia still negotiating the steep steps on the final ascent up to Hanging Lake
Finally making it to Bridal Veil Falls and Hanging Lake
This was the boardwalk fronting Hanging Lake
Some fish swimming in the clear Hanging Lake
Looking back across Hanging Lake from the far end of the boardwalk
Context of Bridal Veil Falls and the main viewing section of the boardwalk
The signposted trail junction leading up to Spouting Rock
Approaching the impressive Spouting Rock Waterfall
Looking out from behind Spouting Rock
Tahia found this little nook in the rock fronting Spouting Rock, which she claimed as her own little "couch" so-to-speak
Looking down at Hanging Lake as we were leaving Spouting Rock
Last look at Hanging Lake and Bridal Veil Falls
Julie and Tahia slowly descending the steep steps as we started the return hike down the Hanging Lake Trail
Looking down at the rest of the cliff-hugging final section of the Hanging Lake Trail
Tahia and Julie descending switchbacks on the return hike along Hanging Lake Trail
It was definitely a lot easier going down than it was going up the Hanging Lake Trail
Looking ahead at the man-made lake on the Colorado River as we were about to rejoin the concrete path
We happened to drive to the Hanging Lake Rest Area from Grand Junction even though the nearest major town was Glenwood Springs. So we'll describe the driving directions from Grand Junction since that was how we did it. We'll also describe the driving directions coming from Denver.
So from Grand Junction, we continued driving east on the I-70. We pretty much followed this high-speed interstate for about 94 miles (note that the Rifle exit was about 59 miles east of Grand Junction, and Glenwood Springs was about 85 miles east of Grand Junction). We then took the exit 125 for Hanging Lake on the right (just before the I-70 entered a tunnel). The off-ramp pretty much took us right past a dam and onto the parking lot for Hanging Lake. Overall, this drive would take about 90 minutes without stops.
Coming from Denver, we would drive west on the I-70 for roughly 140 miles to the exit 121 for the Grizzly Creek Rest Area. This exit was actually past the Hanging Lake exit, but there's no such exit for westbound lanes on the I-70. That's why the signage would have us exit, then go under the freeway and get back on the I-70 going east before finally taking the exit 125 for Hanging Lake. Overall, this drive would take about 2.5 hours without stops.
For context, Grand Junction was 243 miles (under 4 hours drive) west of Denver, 167 miles (3.5 hours drive) north of Durango, 113 miles (under 2 hours drive) east of Moab, Utah, and 284 miles (4.5 hours drive) southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah. It would be 775 miles (12 hour drive) from Los Angeles.
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