Hiking Hanging Lake in winter: nerve-racking
Would I recommend hiking Hanging Lake with the current two feet of snowpack? Yes. Did I almost die trying to hike it Wednesday afternoon? Also, yes.
The majority of the trail is an exciting yet serene, snow-covered wonderland, offering a different view of the same old beloved trail. It requires more equipment but with less people and a quieter, more meditative ascent to the lake.
Overall, it’s a completely different world than how the trail looks in the summer.
As the trip started, I waited to put on a pair of Yaktrax over my boots, forgetting how steep the actual trail is.
The path leading to the actual trailhead was paved with snowpack that had melted to slush, trudging along and getting a pre-hike warm up on the way there.
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When I reached the gate, I made it about 15 feet up before I began running in place from the warm afternoon slush and steep, icy rocks. I decided to head back down to the picnic table at the trailhead to put on some better equipment.
Round two, much better.
I would recommend bringing something for grip, but I did pass a couple coming down with nothing but tennis shoes and sticks they found on the hike, and they hardly seemed phased.
Although my co-worker and I came with some of the proper equipment, we also broke a lot of cardinal hiking rules. We both wore jeans, and although I wore boots, they were city slickin’ Doc Martens instead of proper hiking boots, while my co-worker sported straight skating shoes.
Spoiler: We did survive.
The bottom half mile of the trail was silent, with the occasional bird or squirrel noise, while my co-worker trekked far ahead of me, proving his shoes wouldn’t hold him back. Much of that bottom section still holds the burn scars from the Grizzly Creek Fire of 2020 — a good reminder of why that trail is so special, why there are new rules and required permits to visit it.
The higher we got, the higher the snowpack seemed to get, too, but also the easier it was to pinpoint Dead Horse Creek that runs next to the trail.
At the bottom, I wondered if the creek was frozen through. But further up, I could hear it trickling under the pillows of snow.
Closer to the top, parts of the creek started peeking through the pillows, making itself known as though it was preparing us for the grand finale.
Past the halfway point, the snow was so tall that it was impressive that small animals were able to leave tracks suspended in the powder without falling all the way through. I was shocked to catch one squirrel emerge from the snow with something large in its mouth, still able to survive on foraged goods from the fall.
A tree that was devoured by what I assume was some kind of beetle left a reddish-brown saw dust spread across the snow like a crime scene frozen over the white snow.
As we got closer to the canyon walls, icicles that looked minor next to the towering walls were still the size of a multi-level building — a sight that gives you a little existential crisis.
The top is where everything got real.
I mentioned the couple coming down with nothing but tennis shoes and large sticks. They warned us that the whole area with the railing was tricky and to be careful, but they were walking upright and once again, they hardly seemed phased.
The lower half of the railing portion is slightly challenging but nothing too hard. Then we got to the section where tourists like to take selfies with the open canyon behind them, and let’s just say it’s not the ideal spot to take a selfie this time of year.
I can thank the sturdy railing for still being alive to tell this story.
Once you pass the perilous part of the climb, you are almost instantly rewarded with the sound of the waterfall over Hanging Lake.
It’s almost insane how you can go from fearing for your life to sitting next to a perfectly serene and crystal clear lake. I almost wondered if I had died and this was the afterlife my soul took me to.
But my co-worker was still with me, and I was wet and cold — so not the heaven I would have expected.
The bridge and walkway that usually surrounds the lake had so much snowpack it was level with the top of the benches. You’re just walking on an icy runway with no railing.
The lake wasn’t frozen at all but looked ice-cold, minus the tiny brook trout swimming at the bottom.
My favorite part is above the lake at Spouting Rock because you can walk under the cave and view the majesty of an ice tower next to the little waterfall that is Spouting Rock.
The water freezes differently every time, giving a unique sight throughout the winter. After spending as much time as we could enjoying the natural ice sculptures, we needed to head back. The sun had gone behind the canyon wall, the slush was turning back to ice, and a ferocious wind was picking up.
The main reason I knew I was still alive was because we had to cover the same treacherous spot we crossed on the way up, and going down was so much worse.
Moments after taking an Instagram photo of the worst section of the hike, I crouched down, so my feet and my butt were both on the ground for support. I took two steps forward and then slid all of the way to the end of the railing.
Suddenly, the cup of coffee was too much with the adrenaline of looking over the edge of the endless drop.
Somehow, I was still alive and wondering how that couple looked so much more graceful after crossing this section. My coworker followed in sliding down while laughing hysterically. I’m pretty sure he was trying to literally laugh at death.
Needless to say, we made it. I thank the railing and the Bristlecone pine, which is polished from human hands touching it so often, for saving us from plummeting to our deaths.
We got to enjoy the mosaic of moss and travertine trickling down the wall into the creek under the deadly railing area, and then we rushed down the trail to beat the sunset.
David Boyd, the Public Affairs Officer for White River National Forest, said to be careful this time of year because the condition of the trail is very unpredictable going into spring. Mud, slush and ice can all be expected.
“It can be more wintery in the canyon than what you see in town,” he said.
Proper gear helps a lot, too. My jeans were not as comfortable after sliding on ice, and obviously they didn’t dry very fast in the increasingly cold shadow of sunset.
One of my co-worker’s Yaktrax broke because of his bulky shoes. But we both agreed that poles would have gotten in the way, especially when we were sliding.
We took the latest permit of the day, which I would strongly discourage. It’s like getting in the last run on the ski slope after the sun goes behind the mountain. It is icy, colder, and if you do slide on your butt, you’re the same kind of jerk who slides down a steep and narrow run completely on your edges, icing the path for all who come after you.