A quieter summer for Hanging Lake
Cindy Winters hadn’t hiked Hanging Lake since 2003, but for her 60th birthday, it was the one thing she wanted to do.
“Out of all the hikes that I have ever hiked, this one-mile hike is absolutely my favorite. I get emotional thinking about it,” Winters said after reaching the falls at the top of the Hanging Lake trail Thursday.
She and her husband, Bill, have hiked nearly every trail through the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, but Hanging Lake holds a special place in their hearts. They noticed some differences.
“The trail is a lot more used than it was 15 years ago,” Bill said.
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When they hiked in 2003, they didn’t see as many people as their Thursday midday trip, even though the Forest Service implemented daily visitors to 615 people earlier this summer.
“There were a lot fewer people then,” Cindy said.
Still, the popular trail is getting a break this summer. In years past, 1,100 to 1,200 visitors might have hiked the trail on a busy day.
Since May 1, the Forest Service has limited daily visitors to Hanging Lake through a reservation and shuttle system, operated by H2O Ventures, which has given the trail a break from use and restored some quiet to the natural landscape.
There’s far less trash being left on the trail now, and anything that does get left behind is cleaned up at the end of each day.
Off-season reservations open Sept. 16
When the shuttle service ends Oct. 31 and people can once again park near the trail head, visitors will no longer be staggered throughout the day, though there will still be a 615-visitor limit each day.
“We’re encouraging people to spread the use out during the day,” Gilles said.
Visitors will be able to make reservations the Hanging Lake rest area, assuming the visitor cap hasn’t been reached.
Hanging Lake reservations for the off-season, from Nov. 1 through April 30, will be available online Sept. 16, Gilles said.
The current reservation and shuttle cost is $12, but the off-season reservations will be $10.
Visitors to the lake Thursday found the fees to be appropriate.
“I think $12 seems reasonable for the shuttle and the upkeep,” hiker Tyler Mardaus said. “I’d even pay $15 or $20,” he added.
The first season of the Hanging Lake Shuttle has more than a month left, but Gilles said the financial aspects appear to be working.
“From an initial look at the budget, and the revenue, that we’re on pace to be in the green, and to bring back revenue to Hanging Lake management,” Gilles said.
After the summer is over, the Forest Service and Glenwood Springs, who are partners in managing Hanging Lake, will determine best uses for the money.
It could go to infrastructure, replacing bridges and handrails or shelters at the shuttle, education, programming, or greater ranger presence at the trail.
The perils of a popular site
In recent years, the deck overlooking the lake could be crowded with people, but the new system limits the number of people.
On a weekday visit to the waterfalls, there were only about a dozen people around the middle of the day.
Fewer people on the trail also means the path up to the lake is recovering somewhat.
“When we had a lot of people on the trail, people were trying to pass and it widened the trail,” said Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District.
The Forest Service will study the trail over the next several years to see how the vegetation recovers near the trail, but rangers have already seen improvements after one summer.
“We definitely have seen locations that we are able to absolutely say have seen improvements in vegetation growth,” Gilles said.
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