Iconic and Instagram-friendly Hanging Lake will remain closed indefinitely because access trails and bridges were ruined by late July mudslides at Glenwood Canyon and will have to be rebuilt, federal and local officials announced Wednesday.
The U.S. Forest Service is canceling 15,000 reservations remaining for the season for the popular hike and lake destination, though officials noted the lake itself is intact and the ethereal waterfall that feeds it is undamaged. The boardwalk on the edge of the lake also survived. The water remains an unsightly milky soup, but the fish appear alive and the water can likely recover its emerald green color, said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
“I wish I could tell you how long we need to get up there and do a little better assessment of what can be done,” Fitwilliams said. “But this is not a minor trail reroute or something like that, it’s really a complete reconstruction that’s needed.”
Glenwood Springs officials sounded devastated on the call announcing the extended closure, noting Hanging Lake’s international profile as a natural site and tourist draw. They begged visitors to keep coming through the newly reopened canyon to get to Glenwood, and to switch their timed reservations to other popular sites like Maroon Bells if that can save their summer and fall trips.
“We know this is tough news for the community, tough news for people who really are fond of Hanging Lake, but it will get back to life. We are committed to doing everything we can to get the trail open and get people back to visiting the lake as soon as we can,” Fitzwilliams said.
“If I had the money today, it would take a year to do that. It’s a huge project. It will take a whole new redesign of that trail. We have a new landscape. I would be very surprised if that trail is passable next year at this time,” he said.
“This iconic destination is so close to the hearts of our community, the state of Colorado and in many ways the world,” said City of Glenwood Springs Manager Debra Figueroa. “We’re committed to working closely with our partners, including looking for strategic funding opportunities. If you’re wondering how you can support our community, please still come to Glenwood, we’re very much open. We have so many other trails and amenities and things to do for you to enjoy.”
One extra challenge for a Hanging Lake rebuild is that the ticketed reservation system created a revenue stream that kept some of the money under control of the local national forest. So not only is the forest losing operating revenue, the high costs of a full trail renovation will need new sources of funding.
In addition to the 15,000 existing reservations lost for this season, “there was the ability to add about another 20,000 people to that during that time frame,” said Ken Murphy of H2O Ventures, a private company that handles the reservations and shuttle bus system for the U.S. Forest Service.
Murphy said customers calling into H2O’s system to formally cancel a reservation or get information can either get a refund for 2021 tickets, or donate the money they already paid to a Hanging Lake restoration fund. A representative from a national forest foundation also said their group would be refocusing nationwide fundraising to a Hanging Lake-area effort.
The company’s staff is trying to help Glenwood Springs and surrounding towns by steering disappointed hikers to any number of other open trails or adventure activities in the area, Murphy added. “Our staff has become sort of a concierge to alternatives, and educating them on coming to Glenwood, everything from biking through the canyon to rafting,” he said.
Chief deputy CDOT engineer Keith Stefanik gave a short update on road work and protection through the canyon, where I-70 partially opened to two-way traffic Saturday morning. Drivers and recreational users will notice a number of 3,000-pound sandbags on the slopes and protecting the highway in some areas near the canyon, Stefanik said. They are meant to act as a form of bumper for either new mudslides or loosened rocks continuing to fall from the July deluge.
“The intent of those are to provide a layer of protection for our workers and for also the traveling public as they’re moving through,” Stefanik said. “Whether they work or not, we’re very confident, but time will tell and they can’t hurt. They can only help.”
With more rain in the forecast, CDOT is operating under the assumption that I-70 and canyon structures are “not in the clear yet. . . we are not sure exactly how this canyon will react to the next event.”
With slopes still loosened by the heavy rains, and so many physical structures damaged, Fitzwilliams said, it will still be some time before the Forest Service gets all the naturalists and engineers uphill into the Hanging Lake area to make detailed assessments and consider new routes and bridges.
“We’re going to build the trail for the next 100 years, not not to just get by,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had a 500-year storm and rain event. And hopefully I don’t live long enough to see the next one of those,” Fitzwilliams said. “But that’s the hard part, you just never know, this is how rivers and canyons are created.”
This story was updated at 11:12 a.m. on Aug . 18, 2021, with new information and photos.
This story was updated at 1:05 p.m. on Aug. 18, 2021, with more photos and new information about donations and reconstruction.