‘Unsustainable’ crowds up 60% this year at Hanging Lake | PostIndependent.com

‘Unsustainable’ crowds up 60% this year at Hanging Lake

Will Grandbois
wgrandbois@postindependent.com

Don't put so much as a toe in the water. Don't walk out on the log. Don't bring your dog. Don't wear flip-flops or high heels. Above all, don't expect a parking spot after 8 a.m. any day of the week.

So far this year, roughly 80,000 people have made the climb to Hanging Lake, up from 50,000 for the same period of 2014.

"We have nearly twice as many people this year as we did last year," said White River National Forest spokesman Bill Kight. "That's just unsustainable."

Attempts to mitigate overcrowding on the trail and at the Interstate 70 rest stop 9 miles east of Glenwood Springs that serves as its parking lot have been only marginally successful. U.S. Forest Service staff and volunteers tasked with keeping order have been disregarded and cursed.

“There seems to be less civility in our society anymore, and it manifests itself at Hanging Lake.”Bill Kight U.S. Forest Service

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When a gate installed this summer at the entrance to the parking lot isn't staffed, cars circle endlessly, waiting for a spot, while others end up parked on the grass, on the sidewalk or blocking emergency access and fire lanes.

"Our number one problem is human behavior," Kight said. "There seems to be less civility in our society anymore, and it manifests itself at Hanging Lake."

While most of those making the trip are well-behaved, the sheer volume of visitors means something's got to give.

"Any kind of lake that sees that many human visitors is going to be impacted," Kight said. Hanging Lake, which owes its turquoise appearance to travertine deposits around the shoreline, is particularly fragile. Travertine, a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs, can be destroyed by the oils from human skin.

"We want the public to have a quality experience, and that quality is fast disappearing," he said. "When you go to the Grand Canyon and look in there, you don't want to see it full of garbage."

The first step for the Forest Service is to begin issuing parking tickets.

"We've bent over backwards to accommodate people," Kight said. "We're not going to do that anymore."

Still, the Forest Service is dedicated to protect natural resources, not control traffic, and the long-term plan will take cooperation with Colorado Department of Transportation, among others.

CDOT is already well aware of the issue.

"Our maintenance crews have seen this for years, it's just more boots on the ground to experience what's happening there," said CDOT spokeswoman Tracy Trulove. "Everyone wants us to have a solution and have it quickly. Folks don't understand that we have statutes and policies that we're tied to. We have to go through a process."

DISCUSSION AHEAD

The biggest piece of red tape is the parking lot's designation as a safety rest area. Without it, the Forest Service could hire a concessionaire to charge a fee, maintain the facilities or even run a shuttle from Glenwood. Removing that designation is one option slated for discussion in a special meeting this month between the Forest Service, CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration. With so many agencies involved and the need for public comment, no one expects a decision to be made right away.

"There's no easy solution, or it would already have been figured out by now," Kight said. "It's going to happen, it's just going to take time."

Regardless of the infrastructure and enforcement, public education will have to be part of the solution. That's where the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association is lending a hand.

"We want people to come here, but we want to set the right expectations," said Lisa Langer, vice president of tourism marketing for the chamber.

A lot of visitors underestimate the difficulty of the hike, which gains 1,000 rocky feet over the course of a mile and change. Some have even called the chamber to ask about concessions or canoe rentals at the top — a clear disconnect with both the fragility and size of the lake.

Indeed, Langer observed, the Department of Interior might have been better served to call the feature a pond when it established it as a National Natural Landmark in 2011. That's when things began to change.

"It really put it on everybody's radar," Langer said. "It became a must-do hike."

PICTURES EVERYWHERE

The chamber has since dialed back on publicizing the hike, and recently redid its widely visited web page on the subject to emphasize the regulations.

Other publications haven't been so shy, and the Internet and social media play a big role as well.

"The pictures are everywhere," Langer said. "It's one of those things that has snowballed."

The popularity likely means more people stopping in Glenwood — if only to complain about being turned away at the gate — and more money in the local economy, but the cost may be too high.

"If people are going to continue to treat it the way they're treating it now, we're not going to have that resource," Langer said.

Even visitors have a sense that it might be too much.

Robyn Martin of Florida used the hike as a goal to get in shape.

"I just kept looking at the picture of it, but I knew I couldn't do it," she said. "If you're going to have a goal, you might as well have it be a treasure trove."

After years of planning and months of training, she made it to the top to find a pair of hikers balancing on the log in the middle of the lake. Although she found the view everything she hoped, both she and her husband expressed annoyance at the casual disregard of posted signs.

"I think these days people think rules aren't there if you don't get caught," said David Martin. "That's why they put up fences, and then the people that follow the rules have to suffer."

GET UP EARLY

Some visitors were caught off guard by the crowds.

"We didn't expect it to be this busy on a Wednesday," said Jordan Stanley of Colorado Springs.

Kiley Boland of Denver found the parking lot full on Tuesday, but got up early with her friend Emma Faucher of Chicago to tackle it on Wednesday. The pair decided to make the trip after a friend posted a photo on Instagram.

"Social media has changed everything," Faucher said.

A trio of brothers heard from friends in Salt Lake City and locals alike that Hanging Lake was the place to go when visiting Glenwood. Spencer, John and Trevor Hille decided not to bring the kids along on the trek, and made it to the top just as the light hit Spouting Rock. Although they didn't seem to mind the crowds, Trevor at least wouldn't have minded a little more serenity.

"Can you imagine how pretty it would be to get here with no people and no path — as it was?" he said.

It was certainly a contrast for Cassandra McKee, who made her first trip to the top 30 years ago with her son.

"There was nobody with us when we came up," she said. "The beauty hasn't changed. It's still majestic. It's worth the hike. It's a beautiful journey and a great cardio workout."

In fact, one Front Range football program used the trail for training, timing fresh athletes to the top and back. Dan Petro of Arvada stayed up top to make sure the teens were on their best behavior.

"We tell 'em to be courteous," he said.

At the bottom of the hill, the bus drivers sat nervously by illegally parked buses, ready to move them at the first sign of trouble. It's the first year they've run into parking trouble on a weekday. Next time, they may end up going to another rest stop and coming back later.

"They need more parking here. That's pretty obvious," Tom Fremgen said. "This is one of the most popular attractions in the state."

Becky and Ben Herrerra of Idaho Falls gave up entirely after one lap around the parking lot.

“I hear it's gorgeous," Becky said. "I want to see it, but I don't know when to come."

THREATS TO THE LAKE

It took thousands of years to form the lake, now threatened by waders, dogs and more.