Forest Service considers temporarily closing Hanging Lake Trail after vandalism

John Stroud
This tree is among the spots vandalized last week on the Hanging Lake Trail.
U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service is considering a temporary closure of the Hanging Lake Trail after a vandalism incident last week that added to ongoing frustrations over illegal activity and overcrowding at the popular attraction.

Last Thursday, a Forest Service volunteer discovered the word “Blest” with an accompanying arrow spray-painted on rocks, trees and infrastructure in several places up and down the trail in Glenwood Canyon.

“This is outrageous,” District Ranger Aaron Mayville said Tuesday in a news release. “People who vandalize and blatantly disregard the rules have no business being on the National Forest, and we plan on finding and charging the individual responsible.”

The graffiti, combined with ongoing problems including illegal parking, swimming in the lake, walking on the old log that extends out onto the lake and bringing dogs onto the trail, all of which are all prohibited, is prompting the Forest Service to consider tighter restrictions on use of the area.

If the trends continue, and it’s been a wild spring up there, we may have to do something.

A possible closure of the Hanging Lake Trail area until seasonal ranger patrols are in place starting Memorial Day weekend is also on the table, Mayville told the Post Independent.

“If the trends continue, and it’s been a wild spring up there, we may have to do something,” Mayville said. “It’s not a direction we want to have to go, but the graffiti incident is just one of many things we’ve seen recently.”

Mayville said he has discussed the situation with White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, and a temporary emergency closure is a possible remedy.

“We will continue to monitor things for the next couple of weeks, but it’s one tool in our tool box that we need to seriously consider,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is working with local authorities to gather any leads that might result in an arrest of the latest vandal or vandals.

The graffiti was discovered by a volunteer on April 13, and the paint appeared to be fresh, Mayville said. Witnesses or anyone else with information about the vandalism is asked to contact the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District at 970-827-5715.

Damaging or marking federal property is illegal, and can result in prosecution.

“The rules are in place to protect this public treasure, but if people can’t follow them, I have a responsibility to the greater public to tighten restrictions until the behavior is stopped,” Mayville said.
Staffing and capacity issues on the trail have kept the Forest Service from maintaining regular ranger patrols at Hanging Lake, and summer rangers will not be in place until late May.

“Spending money to clean up graffiti means I have less to spend on hiring summer rangers, and their patrol season will be shorter,” Mayville said, adding it will cost about $3,000 in staff time to remove the graffiti.

Warm spring weather has prompted a large volume of early-season visitors at Hanging Lake, and the usual peak season problems have already started. That includes illegal parking on grassy areas around the parking lot, on the bike path and even backing up the Interstate 70 off ramp onto the interstate itself.

Parking is only allowed in designated parking spaces. If the parking lot is full, motorists are advised to circle back around and return at another time later in the day. To avoid parking issues, visitors are also advised to arrive early in the morning or in the evening.

“Photos and video of people breaking the rules are popping up on social media almost daily,” Mayville added. “The regularity of photos and videos demonstrates how many people blatantly disregard the rules for the sake of social media, and they are jeopardizing the experience for everyone else.”

Maryville encouraged people to take “appropriate, rule-abiding photos that demonstrate mindfulness at Hanging Lake” and to share those. However, taking photos of illegal activity at Hanging Lake and posting it on social media could result in tickets and fines.

Hanging Lake is one of Colorado’s top tourism destinations and has continued to see a large increase in visitation over the last decade. In 2016, more than 137,000 people visited the lake during the summer months. A typical peak summer day can see 1,100 visitors.

The Forest Service has been working with other entities including the city of Glenwood Springs, Garfield County, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, to address the issues and possibly consider a shuttle. A capacity-based permit system limiting use to around 600 people a day is another option, Mayville said.

A draft Hanging Lake Visitor Use Management Plan including those and other options, followed by a formal Environmental Assessment process and opportunities for public comment is expected to commence later this spring.

The 1.5-mile climb up to Hanging Lake rewards hikers with views of awe-inspiring waterfalls pouring over rocks into the clear, blue-green, but fragile lake. Strict rules are in place in order to preserve the lake’s sensitive ecosystem. Because dogs and oils in human skin can disrupt the lake’s ph balance, dogs and swimming or even walking out onto the log and fishing in the lake are prohibited.

Hanging Lake is a National Natural Landmark, dedicated by the Park Service in 2011, and is one of the unique examples within the southern Rocky Mountains of a lake formed by travertine deposition.