Agencies seek to thin crowds at Hanging Lake | PostIndependent.com

Agencies seek to thin crowds at Hanging Lake

Randy Essex
ressex@postindependent.com

Les and Nancy Selzer tell visiting friends to hike somewhere other than Hanging Lake.

"We discourage them because it's gotten so crowded," said Les, a Glenwood Springs resident.

Billy McMillan takes all his friends on the popular hike to the small, turquoise lake, "but I tell them we have to be there by 6:30 to beat the crowds."

With 131,000 people a year hiking the 2-mile trail, almost all of them between May and September, the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Department of Transportation and State Patrol are among those looking for a solution to take pressure off the small parking lot about 9 miles east of Glenwood on Interstate 70.

More than 200 people a day have been turned away from the trail, vehicles often idle waiting for parking spots, and some park on the exit ramp and even on the interstate, creating hazards.

How soon is a solution needed?

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"Last night would have been great," State Patrol Sgt. David Evridge said Tuesday at a public meeting at the Glenwood Springs downtown library. Representatives of several agencies were available to answer questions and take written comments from the public — though bureaucrats and journalists outnumbered residents by at least three to one.

Those public comments, taken on note cards or simply heard orally by government representatives, will be factored into continuing discussions among officials as they seek to devise a plan over several years to ease crowding.

Richard Doak, recreation and land staff officer for the White River National Forest, said initial changes, as soon as next year, could involve better electronic messaging along I-70 advising visitors that the parking lot is full, along with other traffic control measures. The Forest Service has added a full-time employee for the parking lot and hopes Glenwood Springs or Garfield County can contribute — as Glenwood did with $15,000 this year — to additional patrols.

"We have so many people in here on many days of the summer that some of them are starting to have a bad experience," Doak said. Some visitors travel from out of state, and a growing number are international visitors, he said.

"We know the importance, emotionally and economically, of Hanging Lake to Glenwood Springs — really from Grand Junction to Vail," he said, adding that besides traffic, the crowds beat up the trail and put at risk the fragile travertine layer that gives the lake its rare color and clarity.

So something must be done before Hanging Lake is loved to death.

Evridge said the greatest law enforcement concern is access for emergency vehicles when someone falls on the trail, for example. The lot can be so clogged that it becomes impassable. At times, tempers flare. He said one short-term solution discussed is a gate controlled remotely by CDOT that closes access to the lot when it's full.

Doak said the plan is for a continuum of changes, with some improvement each year. The organizations involved — which include the Federal Highway Administration, Colorado State Patrol, Glenwood Springs Fire Department, Garfield County Search and Rescue, Glenwood Springs Chamber and Resort Association and the Glenwood Springs Tourism Promotion Board — are part of a process being led by the Volpe Center, a U.S. Department of Transportation think tank of sorts that seeks solutions to difficult transportation problems.

After immediate traffic control steps, mid-term solutions likely include some sort of ticket or fee system. A poster at the meeting Tuesday suggested that recreational vehicles and large trucks could be banned from the parking lot.

Ultimately, the Forest Service may begin a bus service similar to the Maroon Bells shuttle operated by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.

Les Selzer, an economist, supports a ticket system with pricing set to control crowds. "If all the tickets for the day sell out in an hour," the price is too low. "You want to set the price so you sell about 90 percent of the day's available tickets," he explained.

And, during the off season, locals might be able to go for free, his wife suggested.

McMillan has proposed a private partial solution. He's bought a 29-seat bus and has sought a permit from the Forest Service to shuttle visitors from Glenwood. He would let his passengers know what to expect and what not to do. Dogs, for a number of reasons, are not permitted on the trail. He's seen people at the trailhead with strollers, which is highly impractical.

The Forest Service isn't buying, though.

"Pretty much every direction I go, I hit a wall," he said. But he was carefully filling out a comment card to add to the ideas.