Forest Service looking at temporary Hanging Lake trail ahead of full rebuild
Debris flows covered large sections of trail, washed out one bridge, damaged others
It might have been upward of 500 years since Glenwood Canyon had seen the kind of rains it saw in late July, but a hike up the Hanging Lake trail reveals how the damage done during at least one of those events happened in mere minutes.
White River National Forest crews led members of the media on a post-debris-flow hike to the lake Wednesday morning.
The iconic lake itself is already returning to its usual greenish-blue color, and appears to be recovering from the mudflows that muddied its waters on July 29, 31 and again Aug. 1.
The slides caused by heavy rains on the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar ended up closing Interstate 70 below for 15 days straight, and the Colorado Department of Transportation is still busy removing debris and making repairs.
The trail was also severely damaged in spots, and will take years to rebuild, Forest officials said Wednesday.
“This is my first time seeing it today,” White River National Forest Recreation Staff Officer Roger Poirier said. “As you can tell, there are some parts of the trail that are in great condition, and other parts where you’re not really sure where the trail is anymore.”
Not even a quarter-mile up the 1.2-mile-long ascent to Hanging Lake, one quickly begins to put things in geologic perspective.
The first of seven bridges leading to the lake sits teetering on its abutments, the result of a powerful flood of water, mud, rocks and in some cases whole trees that came rushing down Dead Horse Creek. The National Weather Service confirmed afterward that more than an inch of rain fell in less than an hour along the north rim of Glenwood Canyon, approaching what meteorologists called a 500-year event.
A short distance upstream, the second bridge is completely gone, and a deep pile of rocks, mud and branches covers the trail on either side of the creek.
A few footsteps off the trail into the oak brush looking over the embankment one can see parts of the bridge, also caked with debris.
It’s the same at several different locations along the trail above, including a slide across the switchbacks above Bridge 5, which also suffered some damage.
The remainder of the bridges look to be in good shape, and the historic Civilian Conservation Corps shelter just above Bridge 6 sits unscathed.
Area remains closed
Hanging Lake, which now operates under a hiking permit reservation system, is expected to remain closed to the public indefinitely through the remainder of this year, and likely for a good part of next year.
“We are looking at a pretty long-term trail solution that would involve rebuilding a trail that can be there for the next 50 to 100 years,” said David Boyd, public information officer for the WRNF
“In the interim, we’ll see if there’s a way to have a short-term, primitive trail,” he said.
Whether that’s possible remains to be seen, but if so it would allow at least some visitors to return as soon as next spring or early summer.
What’s already a difficult hike would be that much more difficult, though, with stream crossings and tricky footing in spots, Boyd said.
Poirier said accomplishing that is a high priority for the Forest Service. But Hanging Lake wasn’t alone in sustaining impacts from the record-breaking monsoonal rains that occurred this summer, he said.
“That long-term effort is going to take a couple of years to get through,” Poirier said.
Forest crews, including hydrologists, trail engineers, environmental experts and others will continue assessing the trail damage through this fall and begin designing a new trail.
That could include identifying a route less susceptible to future slides and other events, and maybe some new features along the way, Poirier said.
A temporary primitive trail could be similar to the way it was before the modern trail improvements were made in recent decades.
“It would be a more rugged experience for the public, but provide a way for those who still want to get up here and who are willing to rough it a little bit,” Poirier said.
On the job experience
Bella Fendley is new to the U.S. Forest Service, having graduated from Louisiana State University recently with a degree in natural resource management, focusing on wildlife ecology.
Her first job has been as a member of the Glenwood Canyon Rec Crew this summer, and what an on-the-job learning experience it has been.
“It’s been a pretty dynamic summer to say the least,” she said as she observed Hanging Lake from the boardwalk. “I definitely learned so much, and I think I grew a lot from this journey.”
Much of Fendley’s summer was spent on the Hanging Lake Trail and on that same boardwalk, talking to visitors and answering their questions about the unique natural feature.
“It’s exciting just to see the way that ecosystems are constantly fluctuating and transforming,” she said. “This lake is extremely special just because of how resilient it is.”
She goes on to explain that the lake gets its unique color from the limestone rock formations above and the waterfalls that deposit calcium carbonate into the water.
“As you saw, just a couple of weeks ago the water was completely brown and murky, but it’s those natural deposits that is making it go back to its usual color,” Fendley explained.
Standing below Spouting Rock above Hanging Lake, Justin Anderson, a hydrologist with the WRNF, said there is still a concern that further mud flows and erosion could impact the subsurface water flows that produce the unique spouting feature.
“We don’t know exactly where that water penetrates into the subsurface,” he said. “So, we’ve had some concern, and still do, that if there’s a lot of erosion and debris movement upstream from here, that it could potentially block some of the inlets for those subsurface pathways.”
Anderson was part of a team that conducted an aerial assessment during a helicopter flyover last week. He said that, so far, there doesn’t appear to be any major erosion or new material flows above the lake.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.