Hanging Lake cap praised; some worry 615 visitors a day is too low
Hanging lake public meeting
When: Wednesday, Aug. 30, 5-7 p.m.
Where: Glenwood Springs Library, 815 Cooper Ave.
Why: To discuss the proposed management plan and allow for public comment.
How to comment: Deadline for commenting is midnight Sept. 21. Follow this link to make comments electronically.
Otherwise, written comments can be submitted via mail, fax, or in person (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays) to Aaron W. Mayville, District Ranger, c/o Paula K. Peterson, Project Leader, P.O. Box 190, Minturn, CO 81645, FAX: 970-827-9343.
A proposed limit of 615 daily visitors to the Hanging Lake area in Glenwood Canyon strikes a balance that should make the area more easily manageable, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.
But it’s a number that immediately raised some eyebrows among some Glenwood Springs and Garfield County officials who say it may be a bit too low given the area’s popularity among locals and visitors, and its economic value.
“Unfortunately, the reality of that attraction is that it has been loved to death,” said Glenwood Mayor Michael Gamba, who remembers hiking the trail when he was as young as 5 while growing up in Glenwood Springs. “If we don’t do something about that, it’s going to be destroyed.”
The peak daily visitor numbers the area now sees, which can reach 1,200 on a busy summer day, is way more than the area can handle, Gamba said. But something in the range of 750 to 800 seems like a more reasonable compromise, he offered.
“I anticipate there may be some push back on that low number,” he said.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky agreed the capacity limit could be a sticking point, and one that may make the proposed shuttle access out to Hanging Lake hard to maintain financially.
“I support the plan, but I do think 615 is an especially small number,” he said. “I understand the need to protect the resource, and we as a commission probably won’t comment on it. I’m just not sure how that limit could affect other things.”
The Forest Service on Tuesday formally released its long-awaited draft management plan for the popular area that has seen annual visitation balloon from 99,000 in 2014 to 150,000 last year.
The proposal is the culmination of the three-year effort to try to get a handle on the increasing crowds and the resulting environmental damage and overflow parking problems at the area situated 9 miles east of Glenwood Springs along Interstate 70.
In addition to the daily visitor limit, the plan relies on a fee-based reservation, permit and mandatory shuttle system during the peak season, May 1-Oct. 31.
Permits would still be required during the off-peak season, from Nov. 1 to April 30, but visitors would be allowed to drive to the trailhead then.
Bicycle or foot access via the Glenwood Canyon Bike Path would be allowed while the shuttle is in place, but anyone hiking the Hanging Lake trail would still need to make a reservation and show a permit at the trailhead, Aaron Mayville, district ranger for the White River National Forest, clarified during a telephone conference with reporters Tuesday morning.
There may be a reduced permit fee for those not taking the shuttle, he said. Currently, about 5 percent of visitors access the Hanging Lake area via bicycle.
Details on how to carry out the plan, the amount of fees and how the shuttle will operate are yet to be determined. That won’t come until after an initial 30-day public comment period, followed by more opportunity for comment this fall before the anticipated final decision over the winter.
The Forest Services hopes to have the plan implemented by May 2018.
“We see this as a solution to improve the visitor experience, and to keep Hanging Lake around for people to visit and enjoy for many years to come,” Mayville said.
The Forest Service in recent years has been grappling with how to handle increasing crowds at Hanging Lake and on the steep, rugged 1.2-mile trail that accesses the rare feature and nearby Spouting Rock.
Crowds can reach more than 1,100 visitors on summer days, which leads to overcrowding on the trail, damage to the sensitive travertine lake ecosystem, and illegal overflow parking at the trailhead and rest area parking lot that is managed by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Forest planners, working with CDOT, the Colorado State Patrol, the city of Glenwood Springs, Garfield County, consultants from the Volpe Center and others, arrived at the proposed capacity number after looking at several management scenarios, Mayville said.
Numbers ranged from a low of 400 to a “minimal reduction” of 750 visitors per day. The middle-range 40 percent reduction from the typical peak, at 615, is what was settled on for purposes of the draft management plan, he said.
“We ran all those numbers through an analysis looking at economic viability, trail congestion and how those numbers look on the trail,” Mayville said. “We found that 615 met that balance we were looking for.”
Lisa Langer, tourism marketing director for the city through the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, said the management plan was long overdue.
“In lieu of some of the recent graffiti up there and vandalism, and the public shaming that has come with people violating the rules, people are ready for a plan that will protect the resource,” she said.
Among the rules are no dogs on the trail, no swimming or fishing in the lake, and no walking out on the log that has rested across the water extending from the east bank of the lake for decades.
A 40 percent reduction from the current peak number of visitors seemed like a reasonable compromise for management purposes, said Langer, who sat on the stakeholder committee that worked with consultants to help draft the plan.
From a tourism standpoint, she said the plan could help drive more visitors to the shoulder seasons in the late spring and fall and through the winter.
“I think it could serve to restrict the number of people trying to come and do Hanging Lake in the middle part of the summer,” she said.
Mayville noted that 58 percent of visitors to Hanging lake come from the Front Range, with a large percentage of national and international visitors. A smaller percentage of visitors are local, but are more likely to be repeat visitors over the course of the year, he said.
The plan does take into account the fact that Hanging Lake is important to the area’s economy, he said.
It would institute a shuttle service to be operated by a third-party provider during the peak season. The shuttle provider would choose a visitor pick-up and drop-off location, most likely in Glenwood Springs, and set a schedule, Mayville said.
“Glenwood Springs makes the most sense at this point,” Mayville said. However, “it’s whatever makes financial sense for a third-party operator,” he said.
Mayor Gamba said he would certainly prefer to see the shuttle originate from Glenwood Springs. And, he would prefer that it be operated by the city through its Ride Glenwood bus system.
The Forest Service has had initial conversations with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority about operating the shuttle, but the service could go out to a competitive bidding, as well.
Glenwood Springs contracts with RFTA to operate Ride Glenwood, but Gamba said it may make sense for the city, rather than the multijurisdictional RFTA, to take lead on the Hanging Lake shuttle.
“I do feel strongly that it should be run through Ride Glenwood, rather than RFTA,” Gamba said. “I would be less opposed to a private shuttle operator, if someone has a better way to tackle the problem.”
During the off season, the Hanging Lake area would be managed to the same daily capacity of 615 people using a reservation and permit system, but people would be allowed to drive to and park at the trailhead.
If parking exceeds capacity during the off-season period and illegal parking and safety issues arise, the daily capacity of visitors could be adjusted or other changes made, Mayville said.
“We would be using what’s called an adaptive management strategy,” he said. Through regular monitoring of the area’s use, the plan can be adjusted accordingly.
“It’s a way to check our decisions and see if they are achieving the goals we are hoping to achieve,” Mayville said.
The plan also calls for removing the Federal Highway Administration’s “safety rest area” designation for the Hanging Lake Rest Area that serves Interstate 70 travelers in addition to trail users. Under the proposal, CDOT would grant a five-year renewable lease to the U.S. Forest Service for the trailhead and rest area.
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Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon may be closed intermittently Wednesday through the weekend, as highway crews break down and remove boulders and patch potholes caused by Tuesday’s rock slide.