Mixed emotions about Hanging Lake shuttle | AspenTimes.com

Mixed emotions about Hanging Lake shuttle

Thomas Phippen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
The waterfall at Hanging Lake and the steep hike to view it has become immensely popular in recent years.
Thomas Phippen / Post Independent

Gone are the days when we could exit Interstate 70 and hike Hanging Lake on a whim.

Today marks the start of the new Hanging Lake shuttle and reservation system designed to protect the environment and trail to Glenwood Canyon’s most iconic natural wonder.

The Hanging Lake trail currently has areas of deep snowpack, and in places winter debris and rocks add texture to the footpath, but that didn’t stop many people, probably hundreds, from getting in one final free hike over the weekend.

“Being a local, having grown up here, I’m so saddened to be at the place where we can’t just spontaneously do things,” said Glenwood Springs resident Ann Stewart, who visited Hanging Lake on Saturday.

Like others in the area, Stewart recognizes the need to protect Hanging Lake from overuse.

“I totally get that. But in my heart and soul, it’s hard to know that we can’t spontaneously hike (Hanging Lake). So I called up a friend and said, ‘Let’s do it while we can still do it spontaneously,’” Stewart said.

“We got the last (parking) spot,” said her friend Barbara Adams. At 9 a.m. on a sunny Saturday in April, the parking lot was already full, and a number of cars were seen circling the lot.

Adams said she would probably purchase hiking reservations and ride her bike to the trailhead in the future, or use the shuttle when family and friends come to visit.

“I keep telling my family, ‘I live in the best place in the world, come visit,’” Adams said.

The new system also means tourism can resume promoting the Hanging Lake hike. The Glenwood Springs Resort Chamber Association stopped advertising the lake years ago, but visitglenwood.com, where anyone hoping to hike the trail must purchase reservations, now prominently features pictures of the famous waterfalls on the east fork of Dead Horse Creek.

The shuttle and permit system is meant to solve a problem years in the making. Visitors to the lake increased dramatically over the past decade, starting around the time the Department of Interior named it a National Natural Landmark in 2011.

“It really put it on everybody’s radar,” Lisa Langer, then-vice president of tourism marketing for the Glenwood Springs Resort Chamber Association (now director of tourism promotion), said in 2014. “It became a must-do hike.”

Over the past years, officials have stressed the fragility of the small body of water on Dead Horse Creek, a travertine bowl perched on a cliff.

The influx of visitors threatened the lake’s fragile ecosystem, officials said, and despite numerous signs and warnings, people still disregarded the rules — no climbing on the log, no pets on the trail, no wading.

It took several years for the Forest Service, the chamber and the city of Glenwood Springs to devise a long-term solution.

Starting in the fall, the governing bodies developed the plan and put out a request for proposals for contractors to run a reservation system year-round and a shuttle to the lake during the peak months from May 1 through Oct. 31.

In February, the city finalized the contract with H2O Ventures, a partnership between Glenwood Adventure Co., Adventure Office and Peak 1 Express, to operate the permit and shuttle system.

Fewer than 200 people will be spread out on the 1.2 mile trail even at peak times, according to Ken Murphy, who heads H2O.

The $12 permits will limit the number of visitors to 615 per day, and the shuttle during peak season will ensure that visitors are staggered. Visitors also may purchase reservations to bike out and hike the trail.

Annual visitation to Hanging Lake exploded from 90,000 in 2013 to 186,000 in 2018, according to the Forest Service, but the 615 cap could be adjusted, up or down, based on need.