Hanging Lake faces unknown future following mudslides, but tourism officials declare Glenwood ‘open’ in other ways
The impacts to Hanging Lake after several days of heavy rains that carried mud and debris into the fragile lake system from the Grizzly Creek burn scar are murky.
But it’s hard to say what the long-term impact will be, a U.S. Forest Service official said.
Aerial photos of Glenwood Canyon shared on social media over the weekend show the usual emerald-green waters of Hanging Lake the same shade of brown as the surface of Interstate 70 and the Colorado River below.
Access to Hanging Lake has been cut off this summer whenever I-70 closes due to what have become routine flash flood warnings and actual flooding that has closed the highway on numerous occasions. I-70 is now closed for what’s expected to be several more days, if not weeks.
Although the lake and connecting trail were largely spared from the impacts of the fire itself last summer, the mud and debris carried down by torrential rain from the burn scar above could be a different story.
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White River National Forest Public Affairs Officer David Boyd explained that, although the immediate area around Hanging Lake did not burn or was burned less severely, the area upstream from Hanging Lake burned with moderate and high severity.
“That means a higher risk of debris flow,” Boyd said.
Not much is known about the hydrology of Hanging Lake, including the specific upstream source that feeds it and Spouting Rock above the lake, Boyd said.
“But we knew there was a risk of sedimentation from the burned area,” he said. “The sediment in Hanging Lake is almost surely a result of heavy rain falling on soils that experienced high burn severity above the lake. We have not seen the lake muddy like this before, even from past heavy rain storms.”
As for the long-term impacts, that remains to be seen over time, Boyd said.
“We don’t think the impacts will be permanent, but we don’t know at this point,” he said, adding the Forest Service will continue to assess and monitor the lake when it is safe.
The same is true for the connecting trail, he said. Though the forest hasn’t officially closed Glenwood Canyon, the highway closure makes it inaccessible, Boyd said.
Hanging Lake hiking permits have been suspended since the first of several straight days of mud and debris flows in Glenwood Canyon the night of July 29.
As for resuming access to Hanging Lake, Boyd said the Forest Service would need to get in and assess the trail and boardwalk around the lake itself. That hasn’t happened yet.
Those who had permits for the weekend and into this week have been refunded, or were given the option to visit the nearby Maroon Bells, said Ken Murphy of H2O Ventures and Glenwood Adventure Co. in Glenwood Springs.
H20 runs the reservation and permit system for both Hanging Lake and the Maroon Bells under contract with the city of Glenwood Springs and the Forest Service, respectively.
“We are letting our Hanging Lake customers in Glenwood Springs and west of the canyon be able to go to the Maroon Bells if they want,” Murphy said. “That’s one of the niceties of us managing both of those areas.”
Adapting to canyon closures
Murphy said this summer, following 2020’s summer of fire and COVID-19 restrictions, has been a continued lesson in adapting to whatever nature throws your way.
“You can’t work in the outdoor industry if you’re not flexible and adaptive,” he said.
His message, and that of Glenwood Springs tourism officials, is that Glenwood is anything but closed, even if the main highway to get here from the east is closed.
“Last weekend (July 23-25), we didn’t have a lot of empty hotel rooms because for those who did cancel there was someone stuck here who said, ‘Hey, let’s just stay here,’” said Lisa Langer, director of tourism promotion for Glenwood Springs.
On Monday, many of the calls to the Visitor Center asked if Glenwood was closed.
The answer is “no,” Langer said.
“You can still get here, you just have to take one of the scenic routes to do it,” she said. “You may have traffic, but you’ll have traffic regardless.”
Colorado Highway 82 over Independence Pass from the Arkansas Valley remains an option for passenger vehicles, Langer noted.
“It’s a gorgeous drive if you’re not afraid of mountain roads; in which case, go the other way (northern route) and take your time,” she said.
Visitors from points west also should have no issues visiting Glenwood Springs, she said.
Langer added that area tourism officials have been working with the Colorado Department of Transportation to alter maps on CoTrip.org to indicate that I-70 is open from Rifle east, but only for motorists with a destination in Silt, New Castle, Glenwood Springs or the Roaring Fork Valley.
And, although Amtrak service has been suspended since late last week due to mud and debris covering the tracks in Glenwood Canyon, that’s expected to be temporary compared to the likely lengthy closure of I-70, Amtrak and Union Pacific officials said Monday.
“We just need to be optimistic and know that CDOT is doing all it can to fix the situation,” Langer said. “If they say it’s severe, it is severe.”
Murphy said his other recreational offerings have also been impacted by the canyon closure, including rafting on the Colorado River and horseback riding and other activities at Bair Ranch on the east end of the canyon.
But the recent rains have made the Roaring Fork River a good option for rafting, and a local rancher on Lookout Mountain offered to allow horseback riding there, Murphy said.
Glenwood Adventure Co. also runs guided rafting trips on the Arkansas River on the other side of Independence Pass.
“We had one family visiting that drove over Independence and rafted the Arkansas, made a day of it, and came back to Glenwood that night,” Murphy said.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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