Hanging Lake crowds threaten fragile ecosystem

Angelyn Frankenberg
Post Independent Correspondent
Logs block a shortcut along the Hanging Lake trail. The logs are accompanied by signs reminding visitors not to cut corners on switchbacks.
Christopher Mullen / Post Independent |

As the National Forest Service, Colorado Department of Transportation and other stewards of Hanging Lake seek solutions to the problems caused by increasing numbers of visitors, it’s important to note that the discussion is about more than getting a parking spot.

Officials also are concerned about environmental impact on the National Natural Landmark in Glenwood Canyon.

The first sign of a Hanging Lake problem that visitors notice is in the parking lot. Spaces are likely to be unavailable for visitors who do not arrive in the early morning. People sometimes create safety problems by parking along the Interstate 70 exit ramp and even onto the interstate itself, which is illegal.

Some visitors wait to grab a parking place vacated by a hiker returning from the Hanging Lake trail. But emissions from idling vehicles create one of the long-term environmental consequences of increasing numbers of people visiting the lake, especially during the peak season from May through September, when nearly all of the 130,000 annual visitors hit the trail.

People wading or swimming in the lake disturb the mineral deposition process and also leave body oils and cosmetic preparations such as lotion and sunscreen in the water.


The lake was formed by a section of the valley floor falling away and creating a bowl with a well-defined rim. Water that has picked up calcium flowing across limestone formations slows down as it crosses the rim, allowing some of the calcium to settle out along the edge and more of it to deposit at the bottom of the pool of water collecting below. Over thousands of years, this process, which continues today, created a travertine, or depositional, lake.

Rich Doak, White River National Forest recreation staff officer, described the effects of increasing numbers of visitors on Hanging Lake’s fragile ecosystem. People wading or swimming in the lake disturb the mineral deposition process and also leave body oils and cosmetic preparations such as lotion and sunscreen in the water. All of this interferes with cohesion of the mineral particles.

Hanging Lake’s boardwalk allows people to walk out above the water, rather than into it. Built along the south side of the lake, the original boardwalk was later extended because many visitors were walking to the lake’s opposite side to get into the water. A new boardwalk replaced the original in the early 1990s and, because of the continuing increase in foot traffic, a third boardwalk replaced it a few years ago, Doak explained.

Doak said the area above the falls that feed the lake is a delicate wetland. He said that it remained relatively undisturbed for decades, but in recent years, more people have ventured up to the top of the falls, increasing the same effects as wading and swimming in the lake itself.


All Hanging Lake visitors need to stay on the designated trail, Doak said, because “people are curious, and when someone walks off the trail and beats down a path, other people think it leads to something really cool and important.”

The high volume of hikers on the steep 1.2-mile trail during peak season also affects vegetation. Historically, heavy vegetation along parts of the trail left a path about 3 feet wide. But over the last 10 years or so, as traffic volume has increased and more people have explored beyond the defined trail, that has grown to 15-20 feet in some areas. Doak added that many are concerned about the long-term viability of plants that grow only in this rare type of environment.

Coloradans love their dogs, and many ignore Hanging Lake’s prohibition against them. Doak said very few who take their dogs are unaware of the rule but some may assume that the rule is about aggressive or uncontrolled animals and that “my dog isn’t a problem.”

But dogs, like humans, can upset the natural balance in and around the lake and on the trail. He added that dogs are welcome to hike with people in many places ­— Grizzly Creek and No Name are two such spots in Glenwood Canyon — but the ban is important to observe when visiting Hanging Lake.

Doak said the majority of Hanging Lake repeat hikers know and observe the rules and are good about explaining them to others. Most violators are not acting maliciously; they just aren’t thinking about the effects of their actions on the ecosystem and on everyone else’s experience. He added that if everyone follows the rules, it would help all visitors — many of whom are enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience — appreciate the site’s natural beauty and take that perfect picture.

How to manage the number of Hanging Lake visitors during the peak season by combining permits, fees, shuttles or other methods is a long-term question. But understanding and respecting the area’s fragile ecosystem will have immediate and lasting positive effects. Being kind to Hanging Lake’s environment ultimately supports tourism’s economic contributions by creating a good experience for all visitors and preserving this natural wonder for future generations.

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