DeFrates column: Thoughts for an even better Hanging Lake experience
On June 10, my 6-year-old son, Hunter, surprised me by running up the Hanging Lake Trail. It was one of those moments as a parent when you realize that your kid hit some major milestones while you weren’t looking, and you start to wonder what else they could do.
We took the shuttle from the Hanging Lake Welcome Center and were both wearing our identification tags like some scientists in a secret Russian base. The only thing that slowed his pace was the fact that the creek was flooding the trail for much of the hike, far beyond the usual rock-hopping spots, forcing most people off trail.
Hunter deftly negotiated the torrents and refused rest at any of the seven bridges. We were at the top, eating snacks and getting mauled by chipmunks, in under an hour.
It was a wonderful day. Blue skies and a cool morning got us up and down just inside the three-hour recommended hiking time. All we had to do was pay $24 and keep those name tags swinging freely.
Hanging Lake Trail has been a permitted hike since May. Limited now to 615 hikers a day, down from an insane 1,200 hikers a day on peak weekends last year. The shuttle is provided by the private company H2O Ventures and two affiliates. The shuttle costs $12/person, and all but 60 cents of that goes to the private shuttle company. Even bike riders from Glenwood Springs, or those taking a shuttle with another company to ride back from the eastern side of the canyon, are required to pay at least $9.50 for the hike.
On the one hand, the shuttle system limits people on the trail and gives them a chance to learn how to respectfully interact with the land and succeed on a challenging hike. That’s very good. On the other hand, they have to pay quite a bit of money to get there now — money that allows a single, private company to profit off this public land gem.
That’s less good.
Hikers to Hanging Lake have to pass through Glenwood Springs now, bringing added tourism revenue — good.
The exclusive shuttle contract prevents the clients of other small businesses from accessing the hike, despite years of successful business models — not good.
The solution to public land management is never a clear-cut right or wrong. There is no way to make everyone happy, and I understand that the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District and city of Glenwood Springs worked very hard to come up with what they believed was the best solution.
Yet, one thing needs to be made perfectly clear in order to inform future management decisions: one company now has a monopoly on all Hanging Lake activities.
Private companies profiting from public lands is not new. Special use permits for resource extraction, grazing and guide services have been issued by the Forest Service for nearly a century. At least H2O Ventures is a local company, which has many ties to the land and community. And the contract is adaptive.
However, there are several aspects of that contract which do need to be re-evaluated when it comes up for review in the fall.
1. H20 Ventures and affiliates do not own the trail, and if you don’t use their shuttle service to get there, you shouldn’t have to pay them. The shuttle system resolves parking issues and staggers the majority of users, but if you can get there by yourself, you should not be paying a private company for a service you aren’t using. The number of bikers and hikers will not overwhelm the trail.
2. The company should also participate more fully in trail maintenance. They are profiting from it even when flooding forces more hikers to damage the surrounding area by scrambling off trail. The Forest Service still funds a ranger at the trailhead, and local nonprofits like Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers provide free trail maintenance every year.
The city of Glenwood funds most of the Hanging Lake advertising and interpretive programming. The contract stipulates that the shuttle provider cleans the restrooms, sometimes, but otherwise they are set up to benefit from all that free, public land upkeep. The least they can do is pay their employees to show up on Sept. 21 and work on the yearly trail restoration project.
3. Start having free interpretive hikes with a Leave No Trace expert. To make a good-faith effort to further educate and connect people with the land, Glenwood and H2O Ventures should create regular, guided hikes up Hanging Lake, hosted by someone who has substantial background in land stewardship. Let a certain number of people hike for free, and teach others what they learn.
Share your thoughts on the Hanging Lake Shuttle contract with your Glenwood City Council representative and Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District.
Lindsay DeFrates is a freelance writer living in Glenwood Springs. She can be reached at http://www.roaringforkwriter.com.
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