2022 in Review: Hanging Lake reopens to public after 2021 flooding; plans for trail overhaul in the works | PostIndependent.com

2022 in Review: Hanging Lake reopens to public after 2021 flooding; plans for trail overhaul in the works

Summit to Sea trail builders use hand tools to reshape and move large rocks from the Hanging Lake Trail near bridge number two. The Hanging Lake Trail was largely destroyed and covered by debris after last summer's multiple heavy rain events and debris slides in Glenwood Canyon.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Mayhem in Glenwood Canyon caused by the August 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire and the ensuing mud and debris flows the following summer kept people away from one of the most popular hiking destinations in Colorado for the better part of two years.

After a brief post-fire reopening of the Hanging Lake trail in the early summer of 2021, access to the iconic lake feature was shut down again when massive flooding washed out bridges and covered parts of the trail in several feet of mud and debris.

Questions remained whether U.S. Forest Service officials would be able to reopen the trail at all this year. But crews from Summit to Sea trail builders managed to rebuild the damaged structures and clear a new path in April and early May, and the announcement came in mid-May that reservations would open for hiking permits to access the specially managed area starting June 25 — several weeks earlier than anticipated.

Summit to Sea trail builders work on reconstructing bridge number two on the Hanging Lake Trail. the bridge was completely destroyed and washed away during last summer’s multiple heavy rain events and debris slides in Glenwood Canyon.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“We heard clearly over this past year how important Hanging Lake is to Colorado, and we know how important it is to our local community, its character and its economic vibrancy,” Glenwood Springs Mayor Pro-Tem Charlie Willman said when the announcement was made.

Not only that, the attraction is immensely important to the city’s tourism economy, he noted. 

The trail’s closure had forced the cancellation of more than 15,000 trail reservations, which are handled through the Glenwood Springs-based H2O Ventures under contract with the city. It is estimated that the direct economic value of Hanging Lake to Glenwood Springs exceeds $4.6 million per year.

“We’re so grateful to those who made this happen, and it’s going to be exciting to have it accessible this summer much sooner than anyone anticipated,” Willman said.

The unique travertine lake feature itself had emerged unscathed from the fire, and was muddied for a period of time when record rains triggered the devastating slides that also damaged Interstate 70 and clogged the Colorado River. But by fall of 2021, the lake had returned to its natural state, and in 2022 was home to a beaver who greeted the return of visitors.

A beaver swims in Hanging Lake on Sunday afternoon.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The White River National Forest’s new stewardship coordinator for the National Forest Foundation, Jamie Werner, knew hard work would follow the surges of mud, rocks and debris that crashed down in Glenwood Canyon that previous summer.

“I knew from that moment it was going to impact our community,” Werner said in an interview with the Post Independent. “I did not know how much it was going to impact my professional life, but that became clear very quickly.”

Jamie Werner, a White River National Forest Stewardship Coordinator for the National Forest Foundation.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Werner, 38, an experienced professional in environmental science who also currently sits on the board of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative, is one of the many new faces in the effort to restore the Hanging Lake area.

Though the trail to Hanging Lake was severely damaged after flash flooding in Glenwood Canyon in the summer of 2021, the lake itself emerged unscathed.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Long term, the Forest Service is working with the National Forest Foundation and local trails groups, including Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, to design and build a new permanent trail that, ideally, will be less susceptible to flooding damage.

In March, it was announced that the trail project would receive a $2.28 million Great Outdoors Colorado Community Impact Grant to help complete the project.

The occasion of the trail reopening in late June attracted political adversaries, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, who helped usher in the reopening alongside Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes with a ceremonial ribbon cutting.

The event was held at the Glenwood Springs Community Center due to a flash flood watch in Glenwood Canyon, which would be a routine occurrence throughout 2022, although no additional flooding came.

Hanging Lake continues to operate into the winter months, with its strict limit of 615 visitors per day, in accordance with the Forest Service’s management plan that was implemented in 2019. Prior to that time, the area saw as many as 1,800 hikers on peak summer days, which resulted in overflow parking and noticeable damage to the trail and at the lake. That led to the development of the management plan.

Since 2019, Hanging Lake has operated under a permit system to limit the number of daily visitors to the area, at a cost of $12 for person; proceeds from which help with restoration and management efforts.

Also this year, scientists from the Missouri-based Ozark Underground Laboratories returned to Hanging Lake working on a project to try to pinpoint the source waters for the lake. While some of the water that feeds the lake from surface streams that originate in the Flat Tops to the north, a significant amount travels through the cave system beneath the surface.

A water sample taken from Hanging Lake. Scientists from the Ozark Underground Laboratories, based in the little town of Protem, Missouri, just a few miles north of the Arkansas state line, spent five days high in the Flat Tops introducing special dye into four headwater sources above the north rim of the canyon.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

The study is designed to determine where the water originates, so that mitigation efforts can be aimed at protecting the lake during future fire and flood events.

What’s next?

Design work for the new permanent Hanging Lake trail has begun, and the National Forest Foundation expects to invest more than $3 million over the next couple of years to complete the project.

Post Independent interim Managing Editor and senior reporter John Stroud can be reached at jstroud@postindependent.com or at 970-384-9160.

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