‘Hanging Lake miracle’ — Further assessments reveal no damage to trail infrastructure, lake; rockfall, slide danger in area now the chief concern
It was an anxious moment on the afternoon of Aug. 14 when the Grizzly Creek Fire operations flight passed over Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams and Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, were on that flight.
They were fully prepared for a sinking feeling, not knowing the fate of the iconic lake and surrounding features — a visit to which could be described as a pilgrimage for some people, rather than a mere day-hike destination.
The Grizzly Creek Fire started Aug. 10, and has since grown to more than 30,000 acres with 30% containment. The fire made two big runs covering several miles on Aug. 12 and 13 when it overtook the Hanging Lake area.
“From the get-go, we were not able to do any fire suppression or mitigation or anything in Hanging Lake,” Fitzwilliams said in an exclusive interview with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent/Colorado Mountain News Media on Sunday, describing those early days of the fire.
The fire began in the median along Interstate 70 near the Grizzly Creek area, several miles west of Hanging Lake. It quickly spread to the north, west and east, and also jumped the Colorado River to the south on the second day.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
“There were too many other higher priorities — people’s homes, the freeway, power lines … so we were just holding our breath,” Fitzwilliams said.
During that Aug. 14 flyover, much of the fire area was hardly visible through the thick smoke.
“As we got closer to Hanging Lake, we both felt this anxiety, because we were afraid of what we were going to see,” Fitzwilliams said.
“All of the sudden the smoke parted and we looked down, and that lake looked as tranquil as it always does,” he said, admitting there were a few high fives and fist bumps in the plane.
“I could see Scott was just beaming, even though we were wearing masks,” Gilles said, referring to the safety protocols that have been in place during firefighting operations due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Gilles accompanied firefighting crews on Aug. 16 and members of the special Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team this past Friday on hikes up the Hanging Lake trail itself.
The feeling of relief was much the same on the ground as from the air.
Virtually none of the trail infrastructure was damaged, including all seven bridges, signage, the historic Civilian Conservation Corps shelter and the boardwalk along the south edge of the lake, Gilles said.
“We keep calling it a miracle, that not a single ember affected any of that,” she said, describing scorched areas and active hot spots right next to some of the bridges and even under the boardwalk.
“The lake itself was just as gorgeous and blue as ever, the log, everything, was still intact,” she said, referencing the famous log that floats across part of the lake.
Spouting rock, another unique geologic feature located above the lake, was also running clear as ever, she said.
Gilles and Fitzwilliams figure the damp lake environment, green vegetation and cooler canyon temperatures, plus steep cliffs on three sides of the lake and drop-off below it, helped protect the fragile natural feature.
Access still long ways off
Gilles was instrumental in developing the Hanging Lake area management plan a few years ago, when the area had become so popular that more than 1,000 people per day were making the roughly 2-mile trek up to the lake during the peak summer season.
The plan was implemented in 2018, and in 2019 the new reservation-based permit system for hikers went into effect, limiting visits to 615 hikers per day.
Although suspended this summer due to the COVID-19 restrictions, a special shuttle service to and from the trailhead from Glenwood Springs is operated under contract with the city and Ken Murphy of H2O Ventures during the peak summer and late spring/early fall season to control crowding at the trailhead parking lot.
Visitor numbers were also limited to 200 per day this season due to the pandemic restrictions.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Gilles said of the immediate fire situation. “There are still hot spots out there, and there’s always the potential it could take off.”
Incident command officials said a group of five firefighters went up the trail Sunday to put out hotspots near the trail and around the lake.
Long-term, the trail will also likely be unsafe for hikers for several months to come, as concerns now turn to the increased potential for dangerous rockfall and debris flows in the area.
The BAER team will return when the active fire danger has passed to do a more detailed damage assessment, and determine what kind of restoration work needs to be done, Gilles said.
In addition to evaluating the severity of the burned areas, the team will also assess the hydrological impacts to Hanging Lake.
Even though the lake is its usual greenish-blue now, the threat of burn-area runoff making its way into the unique lake ecosystem, and what impact that might have, is an unknown, Fitzwilliams said.
“A lot of that hydrologic system is underground, and how fire affects that is something we won’t know much about for a while,” he said. “That will be a wait and see.”
For now, visitors should not expect the Hanging Lake Trail, or any of the hiking trails in Glenwood Canyon, including Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek, to reopen anytime soon, Gilles said.
“There is a lot of work that still needs to be done, especially regarding safety in the corridor” she said.
On Friday, she said they heard three different rockfalls on the way up and back down the Hanging Lake Trail.
“There are downed trees on the trail that will need to be cleared, and lots of hot spots that could still burn. It will take a lot of precipitation, and likely snow, before we can feel comfortable letting people back in there.”
Best possible news
“As excited as we were about the lake, I just kept thinking about the community, too,” Fitzwilliams said. “We were already starting to think how we would roll out the news that Hanging Lake and the immediate area was burned.
“When we saw that it wasn’t, I just kept thinking about how much Hanging Lake means to Glenwood Springs, how it’s an icon for the area, and that this is a big day.”
Lisa Langer is the director of tourism promotion for the city of Glenwood Springs, and works closely with Murphy and H2O Ventures in maintaining the Hanging Lake reservation system.
“There has been quite an outcry and worry from the public about the future of Hanging Lake, so I’m really thrilled, and amazed, to hear that the trail is intact,” she said.
“It’s such a popular attraction, and has been called the jewel of Glenwood Canyon. I’m just thankful that the lake and trail were spared.”
Langer said hiking permits have been suspended indefinitely, and anyone who had a pending reservation has been notified.
They’ve also been encouraged, if they so desire, to donate any fees already paid, or to make a separate donation, to a special Hanging Lake Trail restoration fund.
“We didn’t know what that would be, and if we would have to rebuild bridges and the boardwalk,” Langer said. “People still need to understand aht, while the trail was not harmed, plenty of work needs to be done in that area to make it safe again.”
The Grizzly Creek Fire also served as a double whammy for Glenwood Springs tourism, on the heels of business and tourist attraction shutdowns earlier this year due to COVID-19.
“We’re resilient, and we’ll bounce back,” Langer said. “A lot of people have been thinking of us through this and wishing us well, so we know we will have people come back to visit us.”
Fitzwilliams said it’s not out of the question that Hanging Lake could reopen before the end of the year, though it still may be a longshot.
“Because the trail and infrastructure are in great shape, and it’s primarily the safety concern, it could be faster than we think,” he said.
“We know a lot of people will want to go up and see the Hanging Lake miracle,” Fitzwilliams said. “But I just don’t want to make any promises.”
Fitzwilliams also said more information should come this week about a special Grizzly Creek Fire restoration fund that’s being organized through the National Forest Foundation. That fund would go toward restoration work not only at Hanging Lake, but throughout all parts of Glenwood Canyon that have been impacted by the fire.
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Federal lands in and around the Roaring Fork Valley will be under a Stage 1 fire restrictions starting Friday, officials with the White River National Forest and Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday morning.