Summer hordes hit Hanging Lake ahead of changes
Ascending from a packed parking lot on the holiday weekend that kicks off summer, visitors huffed up the rocky, mile-long Hanging Lake Trail armed with cameras, GoPros and selfie sticks.
By 9 a.m. Saturday the messaging sign at the interstate exit read that the parking lot was full.
Memorial Day weekend was the start of Forest Service patrols for the season at famed Hanging Lake, a natural beauty 9 miles east of Glenwood Springs that’s won wide recognition as a top attraction. But that popularity, fueled in recent years by social media, has also led to its degradation, one footstep, cigarette butt and dog poop at a time, by hordes of tourists.
Though the tightly packed, 100-space parking lot and stream of cars being turned around at the gate is business as usual in the height of tourist season, White River National Forest is soon to propose some big changes to the trail.
Aaron Mayville, Eagle-Holy Cross district ranger, said Saturday that the Forest Service’s proposed management plan, expected to be unveiled in late June, will include a shuttle system and entry fee.
Many of details are still being worked out, like where that shuttle will originate and how much the fee would be. When this proposal is introduced, a public comment period will begin, and White River National Forest aims to implement the new plan in May 2018.
Who will operate the shuttle is also being worked out. White River is in talks with Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, but it could also use a private company.
Mayville is less concerned about getting buy-in from locals, whom he says are pretty well-acquainted with Hanging Lake’s issues. But getting word to the Front Range and beyond might be more challenging.
RFTA, on its end, has questioned whether capping the number of visitors to Hanging Lake will make such a shuttle financially viable. Such a service would cost from $700,000 to more than $1 million by RFTA’s estimates, and coming up with a fee system to cover that amount will be challenging.
“My sense is that people know the issues that Hanging Lake faces and will support these management measures,” said Mayville. Survey results have shown that people are generally willing to ride a shuttle and pay a fee, said the district ranger. “And people in the Roaring Fork Valley are familiar with shuttle systems, such as the shuttle to the Maroon Bells.”
A crucial difference between the Maroon Bells system and the one envisioned for Hanging Lake is that Maroon Bells does not have a visitor cap, said Mayville.
During peak days, Hanging Lake sees about 1,100 to 1,200 visitors. And White River’s proposal will aim to cut that in half.
From these layers of analysis, White River has determined that 615 daily visitor is the magic number. That’s about 40 percent of the number of visitors Hanging Lake sees on an average day. Currently, there is no cap on the number of hikers on the trail. The only limiting factor is the number of parking spaces, and people can always bike or walk in.
Impacts from the flood of foot traffic are well-documented, but they’re worth repeating. Hikers bringing dogs, widening of the trail, people crawling on areas and features marked as fragile, visitors swimming in the lake, walking on the log in the water, litter and general rule-breaking have created a “bad-apples scenario” that has spoiled the experience for others and threatened the ecologically fragile lake, said Mayville.
In April, vandals marked up the area with graffiti, leading a frustrated Forest Service to consider closing the trail, though it did not take that step.
The parking lot also sees illegal parking, damaging the landscape and creating a safety hazard if emergency vehicles can’t access the area.
On the steep final section of the trail ,the Forest Service has a handrail that was supposed to last 30 years, but after only eight years is starting to break down. “Which is not surprising, because it wasn’t designed to take 140,000 people,” said Mayville.
Last year Hanging Lake saw 137,000 visitors, and this year the number is expected to be about 140,000.
Starting on Memorial Day, the Forest Service staffs the area with six people during big weekends, but more often with five, and sometimes fewer. White River National Forest doesn’t have the money to keep Hanging Lake manned year-round.
Four of the staffers are there just to baby-sit the parking lot, which requires some careful logistical maneuvering, leaving two to patrol the trail and lake itself.
The parking lot becomes full, then staffers allow vehicles to line up. Anyone who pulls up after the queue is full is turned around and urged to try later. Staffers work to avoid cars backing up to Interstate 70, creating a hazard. The Forest Service can call Colorado Department of Transportation and have the exit closed if it gets to that point, a step that Mayville called the “nuclear option,” which does happen from time to time.
When people are turned around at the gate, they might not be happy about it, but they’re rarely surprised, said Mayville. That shows that the Forest Service is getting the message out about how heavily used Hanging Lake is. That could also be good for the upcoming proposal, he said, because the work has already been done to answer the “why” for this proposal.
“I feel like we’re at a place where we’re managing the problem, but we’re not solving the problem. We’re just keeping the canoe upright,” Mayville said of the parking system. The number of visitors is still high, and this system has served to plateau those numbers, spreading them out throughout the day, but not reduce them.
The parking management system is also pretty new, having started in 2014, when the forest had only one seasonal staffer at Hanging Lake. She was the one who started getting data on the flow of people and who recommended changing the way parking is managed.
With a mix of ownership at the trailhead — White River, CDOT and Xcel Energy — the management plan has to factor in a mix of priorities. Glenwood Springs counts on Hanging Lake for tourism. Colorado State Patrol’s primary interest is in public safety. CDOT focuses on infrastructure.
Since 2013, the cross-section of interested groups has been trying to get its arms around these issues. “And since then we’ve collected a lot more data,” including capacity studies, demographics surveys, a transportation-operations plan and trail counts, said Mayville. The years worth of data are culminating in the upcoming Hanging Lake proposal.
Kittie Anderson, from Phoenix, with family in Denver, said she first came to Hanging Lake 11 years ago, and since then it’s become a regular family trip.
“I don’t think you can really put words to the beauty at the top of this mountain,” she said. On the potential for a shuttle and fee, Anderson said those steps would be worth it if huge numbers of people are going to keep hiking the trail. With her on the trip, Kristy Peterson, from Ohio, said the Forest Service knows best how to preserve natural wonders like Hanging Lake, “and this place is clearly worth preserving.”
Whether they would return if they had to go through the shuttle process was, however, questionable. Though she definitely wants to return, Anderson said it would depend on how busy it is and how long in advance they would have to buy a ticket.
Also taking in the view at Hanging Lake was Hillary Storm from Littleton. She’s been coming to Glenwood Springs and Hanging Lake her whole life, as her father operates the Hotel Colorado.
In that time Storm says she’s seen some outrageous behavior from visitors, people jumping into the lake, walking on the log and ignoring signs about fragile areas.
“I do think it’s worth it to take those steps,” she said of the shuttle and fee. “I’m obviously bummed because, as a person who’s been coming here my whole life, I don’t want to lose that freedom of being able to drive right up and go,” she said.
“But what if one day it’s not here because it’s been destroyed? It’s worth paying some money to protect. Sadly, the average person will litter, climb on the trees, jump into the water; they don’t understand their impact,” said Storm.
Danny Barnes, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, was with his girlfriend at Hanging Lake for their first time on Saturday. The pair was stopped there on a trip to the Grand Canyon.
“Personally, I like it better the way it is,” Barnes said of the potential access changes. He said the Forest Service’s parking system seems fine now. “I prefer to be able to drive in myself.” However, the two were also lucky in the parking lot and didn’t have to wait but five minutes for a spot.
His girlfriend, Carissa Schlegel, said she would support a shuttle system and fee if it means protecting the area from the impacts of overcrowding.
“And we have a similar system to restrict the number of visitors to Kohler-Andrea State Park in Wisconsin,” she said.
Rebecca Ross, originally from Grand Junction and now of Northglenn, was visiting Hanging Lake with her children, her first time since she was a young child. Ross said she’s caught in the middle on the possible changes to Hanging Lake access, but she leans in favor of limiting visitor impact. “But I absolutely get it. We want to save this place for generations to come. I’d hate for it not to be here for my children and grandchildren.”
Ross said she and her family will “absolutely be coming back” whether there’s a shuttle and fee or not.
“So far, the message has been ‘Please come visit Hanging Lake responsibly,’” said Mayville. But this year the message is going to be “Changes are coming.”
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