Hanging Lake ready and waiting for visitors’ return Saturday; reservation-only hiking resumes following Grizzly Creek Fire
For Ken Murphy and some of his H2O Ventures crew, the return trip to the Hanging Lake Rest Area this week was almost surreal.
Preparing for hiker visits to resume Saturday, it was the first time they had set foot at the rest area along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon that serves as base camp for the Hanging Lake Trail since they were forced to hastily evacuate the afternoon of Aug. 10, 2020, when the Grizzly Creek Fire broke out.
“We had to make sure all of our staff and the guests who were up on the trail got out of there safely,” said Murphy, who runs the Hanging Lake hiking permit reservation system for the U.S. Forest Service and the city of Glenwood Springs.
Within 45 minutes, everyone was out of harm’s way as the fire raged in and around the canyon for the next several weeks. It wouldn’t be declared officially out until Dec. 18, after consuming 32,631 acres.
Murphy hadn’t been back since that crazy day last summer. Nine months later, everything was pretty much right where they’d left it.
Grizzly Creek Fire
“There was a computer tablet we left behind, and lots of personal items belonging to employees — jackets, backpacks, computerized radios, even some paychecks,” he said.
Murphy figures there were maybe a hundred people on the trail when the fire started — far fewer than would normally have been there on a peak day in early August.
The number of daily visitors last summer was limited even more than the usual 615, due to pandemic social-distancing protocols.
Little did Murphy know when that day began that it would end with him canceling thousands of reservations that had been booked for the remainder of the year.
Available daily reservations: 615
Daily time slots available: 12, starting at 6:30 a.m. and ending at 5:30 p.m.
Reservations booked to date: Approximately 23,000, or 20% of the total available May 1 through Oct. 31; 75% are Colorado residents
Where to make a reservation: visitglenwood.com/hanginglake/
Popular destination reopens
The Hanging Lake Trail and its iconic lake destination reopens Saturday to permit holders for the first time since the Grizzly Creek Fire erupted, and for the first time at maximum capacity since before the pandemic.
Reservations are filling up fast, especially on weekends through September, said Lisa Langer, director of tourism for Visit Glenwood Springs, during a press conference Thursday before members of the media were allowed a sneak preview hike up the trail.
“So far, we have almost 23,000 reservations made for the entire six-month period (from May 1 through Oct. 31),” she said.
That represents only about 20% of the total number of reservations available, but many weekends throughout the summer are already booked solid, with the exception of some 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. slots, she said.
When reservations opened, 7,500 were made in the first 90 minutes alone.
To date, 75% of reservations are from Colorado residents, Langer said.
“We actually have 56 international guests who will be making the hike,” she said. “I find that very encouraging for travel.”
Rockfall, debris flow concerns
A couple of post-fire concerns persist as people begin making the trek up the 1.2-mile trail to the pristine lake and back.
While the trail and lake area were mostly unscathed by the fire, there’s still a concern for falling rocks and trees from the burn-scarred slopes above, and for debris flows if there is a major rain event, advised Leanne Veldhuis, Eagle Holy Cross District Ranger for the White River National Forest.
The Forest Service in 2019 launched its partnership with the city of Glenwood Springs, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and others to implement the new Hanging Lake management plan, requiring a permit and limiting the number of hikers, due to parking issues at the rest area and resource impacts along the trail.
“That enabled us to be flexible in addressing social distancing and post-fire challenges just one year later,” Veldhuis said. “And safety will be really important this year.”
Due to the debris flow potential, H2O Ventures will not be running the usual shuttle between Glenwood Springs and the trailhead this year, so that people can more quickly evacuate in their personal vehicles, if need be.
CDOT will also be keeping a close eye on the weather each day in order to be prepared to close areas and implement an evacuation plan if heavy rains are expected over the canyon.
“We are also advising people to be sure to check the weather if you’re planning on coming up to Hanging Lake, or just traveling through the canyon this year,” Elise Thatcher, CDOT Region 3 Communications Manager, said during the press conference.
She said CDOT is working closely with NOAA to obtain the most detailed hourly weather reports as possible, so that any trouble spots can be pin-pointed before a rain event happens.
If heavy rains are expected on a given day or over a period of several hours, CDOT may close the recreational path and rest areas along I-70 in order to limit the number of people who could be in harm’s way, she said.
“That way, when we evacuate, we can do it much faster and more safely if people are in their cars and not at the rest areas or on the bike path,” Thatcher said.
If there’s a flash flood watch, CDOT will have workers on stand-by and equipment at the ready, and those areas will be closed. If it turns into a flash flood warning, the canyon will be evacuated completely, the highway closed and law enforcement will be on hand to monitor things.
In the event of an I-70 closure in Glenwood Canyon lasting longer than two hours, CDOT is advising motorists this summer to take the northern detour via U.S. 40 and state Highways 9 and 13. The southern route via U.S. 50 is not recommended this year, due to a major construction project along that stretch, Thatcher said.
Fire recovery and rehabilitation
Along the Hanging Lake Trail on Thursday new growth was already visible in the underbrush, some amid charred trees that have fallen and been cut up and removed from the foot path by Forest Service crews.
The first patches of snow left over from the winter appeared about halfway up the trail, where the stream is beginning to flow.
At one spot a little farther up the trail, one of the new interpretive signs showed slight damage, likely from a falling tree or other debris. But the remainder of the infrastructure is still intact, including the numerous foot bridges, handrails and the boardwalk along the south end of the lake itself.
At some point over the winter, a major rockslide covered the short trail spur up to Spouting Rock, one of the popular features near the lake.
It wasn’t discovered until the snow melted just a few weeks ago, said Sarah Strehle, Glenwood Canyon Recreation Program Leader for the Forest Service.
This past week, crews were called in to rebuild the trail using pry bars and shovels to position the rocks that had fallen into a new stair-stepped trail that now serves the Spouting Rock area.
“We wanted to make sure it was ready for this weekend, and that it would be safe for people,” Strehle said.
Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, which arranges volunteer crews for trail projects in the area, has been heavily involved in raising funds for trail restoration work in Glenwood Canyon after the fire.
“There has been a lot of enthusiasm for that restoration effort,” said Jacob Baker, communications and engagement manager for RFOV. “Our job is to convert that enthusiasm to on-the-ground volunteers.”
On May 13, RFOV is hosting a virtual town hall at 6 p.m. with some of the stakeholders involved with the fire recovery effort, including city, Forest Service, CDOT and Union Pacific Railroad representatives.
The event will also serve to kick off a new $100,000 fundraising campaign to complete the trail work, Baker said.
Already, Alpine Bank has agreed to match the first $25,000 raised and Black Hills Energy has kicked in $12,000.
“Many businesses and hopefully individuals understand that Glenwood Canyon is important, and they need to make a commitment to its restoration,” he said.
The first volunteer trail project in the canyon is slated for May 22 on the Jess Weaver/No Name Trail.
And, on Sept. 25, National Public Lands Day, RFOV will be doing a major trail project to rebuild sections of the Hanging Lake Trail to National Park Service standards, Baker said.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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UPDATE: Both westbound lanes and one eastbound lane of Interstate 70, according to a 12:20 a.m. update from Garfield County.