Buses, day passes eyed for Hanging Lake crowds
An Aspen Maroon Bells-style public transit system to take people to and from the popular Hanging Lake area in Glenwood Canyon during peak summer hours is a possible long-term solution to overcrowding at the parking lot and on the trail up to the unique, ecologically sensitive lake.
In the meantime, users could also be required to buy limited day passes to control numbers, and RVs and semi-trucks could be banned from the parking lot, according to a proposal from the White River National Forest and Colorado Department of Transportation.
For the near-term, the agencies propose to restripe the parking lot area and main entrance off Interstate 70, improve electronic signs that alert motorists when the parking lot is full, and continue efforts to fund seasonal Forest Service and Colorado State Patrol officers to police the area.
All of those ideas are on the table for a public meeting from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday at the Glenwood Springs Library, 815 Cooper Ave., to discuss and take comments on the proposed action plan.
The Hanging Lake recreation area sees upwards of 130,000 visitors per year, mostly during the peak May-to-September period. That number has doubled in the last 20 years since the Hanging Lake area was separated from highway traffic when the Hanging Lake Tunnels were built as part of the I-70 Glenwood Canyon project.
That level of use has resulted not only in congestion in the parking lot, which can hold only 110 vehicles at a time, but crowding on the trail and degradation of the fragile natural environment at the lake, according to a joint press release from the Forest Service and CDOT.
The recommendations are the result of meetings over the past year by a group of stakeholders who worked to identify the major issues and come up with some solutions.
“The goals of the project seek to protect natural resources, manage congestion at the Hanging Lake parking lot, enhance public safety, and improve visitor experience and support local tourism,” according to the release.
This year, the city of Glenwood Springs agreed to contribute $15,000 from its tourism promotion fund to help maintain regular patrols at the parking lot and trailhead, following a second straight year of U.S. Forest Service budget cuts that reduced the number of available seasonal workers.
Hanging Lake, which is listed as a National Natural Landmark, is one of the most-visited trail destinations in Colorado, not only because of the unique geology and suspended lake feature that sits atop a steep 2.5-mile-long trail, but because of its convenient location just off I-70.
That convenience, however, has led to over-capacity conditions in the parking lot during peak times and illegal parking along the interstate on- and off-ramps, even backing up onto the interstate at times, according to CDOT.
That causes not only safety concerns for motorists, but can prevent emergency vehicles from passing through. In 2013, there were between eight and 10 ambulance calls to the Hanging Lake area, mostly for injured or ill hikers.
Other problems include no room for large vehicles to turn around in the parking lot, and no consistent funding to provide staffing to monitor use, manage the parking lot and enforce the trail rules. No dogs are allowed on the trail and especially at the lake, where swimming and fishing are also strictly prohibited in order to protect the environment.
In previous years, the State Patrol was able to pay overtime for troopers to patrol the parking lot during peak hours, and turn vehicles away when the parking lot fills. The city stepped in to help with that effort this year.
On the trail, various volunteer outdoor organizations have also helped with ranger patrols.
To ease things, local residents have been encouraged to visit the area during the less-busy times early in the morning or in the evening, and to bike to the Hanging Lake rest area via the Glenwood Canyon bike path either from town or the No Name or Grizzly Creek rest areas located to the west.
Included among the near-term recommendations are for the city of Glenwood Springs to consider continuing to pay for patrols. The city is just now starting its 2015 budget discussions.
In future years, the Forest Service could also sell day-pass permits at an on-site kiosk, which would include interpretive maps and help provide funding for seasonal employees, according to the list of recommendations on the table for the Tuesday meeting.
The Forest Service may also conduct a visitor trail capacity study that could lead to further management decisions. If large vehicles are prohibited, CDOT would also have to formally change the designation for the rest area, which now allows for all types of vehicles
Should a future shuttle system be pursued, a transit hub would need to be established in Glenwood Springs that could take visitors to the Hanging Lake trailhead, similar to the free Maroon Bells shuttle that is provided under contract with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority between Aspen and the Maroon Bells area.
Such a shuttle could provide stops at other points in the canyon, according to the recommendations. The shuttle could either be free or require a ticket.
A shuttle would also likely only operate during peak seasonal periods and times of day, during which the parking lot would be closed to private vehicles. Bicycle access along the Glenwood Canyon bike path could also be maintained for free or under a permit system.
Other organizations participating in the recent study have included 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.
The public is encouraged to attend the meeting Tuesday to hear more about the conceptual solutions being considered for the site, and to provide input and suggestions.
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Over 75,000 hikers visited Hanging Lake during this year’s peak season. Via signage, the city hopes to point more of those hikers also in the direction of downtown Glenwood Springs.