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Colorado’s Hanging Lake looks like a lost world. This calm, turquoise lake stands over 7,000ft (2,134m) above sea level amid the mountains and valleys of Greenwood Canyon. Fallen tree trunks and branches float in its blue crystalline water, and cascades tumble down moss and rock from the steep cliffs around.
Colorado’s incredible natural wonder is one of only two hanging lakes in the world. It was formed when the travertine (a form of limestone) rocks here collapsed, dropping 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares) of mountain down a fault line and forming the dip in which the lake now sits.
Water flowing down Bridal Veil Falls has left deposits, helping shape the lake. The same carbon deposits give the pool its bright color. It’s a fragile environment, but you can still hike here year-round to savor a unique natural phenomenon.
Hanging Lake is in western Colorado, around a three-hour drive west of Denver. The first account of the lake tells of a man searching for gold who found a dead horse at the entrance of a ravine. He followed a stream up the steep gulch and found its source – a strange highland lake with turquoise waters and cliffs at its back.
It became a private homestead, but is now run by the Forest Service. It’s unsurprisingly popular with hikers (there’s no direct road access), and to keep the area pristine, permits are required for access.
To hike to Hanging Lake in summer (May to September) you’ll need a permit (currently $12). This allows you to park at the Hanging Lake Welcome Center (110 Wulfsohn Road, Glenwood Springs) and get a shuttle to the trailhead. In winter, a $10 permit lets you park directly at the trailhead.
From here, it’s 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) to the lake. The trail is steep – climbing around 1,000ft (305m) – and rocky, and hiking boots, suncream and water are recommended in summer. In winter, mini-crampons and hiking poles are advised – the trail gets very icy, and heading off-trail is prohibited to protect the backcountry.
While steep, the route is an enjoyable one, with good places to pause and take stock of the impressive canyon – there are also handrails on the tougher sections. The lake itself has a boardwalk with information panels and is a stunning place. Tangled branches, mossy limestone cliffs and tumbling falls frame the turquoise pool, and communities of hanging plants dangle down around its edge.
You can’t swim or fish here, but a trail connects the lake with Spouting Rock, where icy water rushes through a hole in the rock, spraying walkers as they pass.
There’s only one other suspended lake in the world – Iyake Lake in southwest Nigeria. Set near the town of Ado Awaye, around a four-hour drive north of Lagos, this mountaintop lake has great views and a number of legends associated with it – including that it was once a woman, and that it can answer spiritual questions.
There are other sights to see on the five-hour hike to the lake and back. The Elephant Tree is – as you might have guessed – a tree that looks like an elephant, and the Esè Àwon Àgbà are large footprint-shaped holes associated with long-gone giants. The route climbs through woodland and bare rock, with steps cut into the stone and soil in places. Iyake Lake’s water level never seems to change, despite the variations in rainfall, and it’s forbidden to swim here.
Hanging Lake and Iyake Lake may be the world’s only suspended lakes, but there are alpine lakes in regions around the world (the distinction between the two kinds of lakes isn’t always clear). Alpine lakes, like Hanging Lake, are often clear, due to the cooler mountain water, which inhibits algae growth. They tend to form in depressions caused by high-altitude glacial erosion, or craters left by volcanoes.
Famous examples include Crater Lake in Oregon, which at 1,949ft (594m) is the the USA’s deepest, Lake Kawaguchi near Mount Fuji in Japan, which is a popular tourist attraction, and Lake Titicaca, the huge, 12,500ft-high (3,810m) Andean lake that’s home to Inca ruins.