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White River National Forest hydrologist Justin Anderson, right, and ecologist Liz Roberts, left, navigate on the debris pile on top of the trail leading to Hanging Lake on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

GLENWOOD CANYON — White River National Forest ecologist Liz Roberts picks up her pace as she climbs the final, steep steps to Hanging Lake. She’s seen pictures of the pristine oasis clouded by mud and silt after devastating debris flows last week.

“Wow the lake has cleared up,” she says at the edge of the lush travertine pool swirling with deep green and blue hues.

Roberts, who has spent most of the last year reseeding vegetation in the scorched highlands of Glenwood Canyon following last year’s Grizzly Creek fire, marvels that the unique flora on the cliffs below the iconic Hanging Lake waterfall seems untouched by the canyon’s recent storms and fire. 

“The vegetation recovery has been very impressive with this fire,” Roberts says.

Hanging Lake and the burn area from the Grizzly Creek Fire, ignited in August 2020, seen on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Last week the White River National Forest closed the popular Hanging Lake Trail after torrential rains — including a once-in-500-years downpour — flushed countless tons of debris down Dead Horse Creek and over cliff walls, burying portions of the 1.2-mile trail in several feet of rocks, mud and charred timber.

The agency brought a gaggle of reporters up the trail Wednesday, revealing not just the damage of the debris flows, but the opportunities emerging from the devastation. 

The oasis remains untouched

White River hydrologist Justin Anderson hiked directly past the lake and beelined further up to Spouting Rock, where water from the East Fork of Dead Horse Creek gushes through rock and into Hanging Lake. 

It was clear as glass.

Another good sign. 

Anderson had toured the burn zone in a helicopter and did not see much charred debris in the East Fork of Dead Horse, so he had a feeling Spouting Rock would not get clogged. 

“This confirms what I suspected. Anywhere we’ve had debris flows come over waterfalls you can really see the damage … but right here I’m not seeing that,” he says amidst the mist of the Spouting Rock waterfall. “In other cliffs … we’ve seen a huge amount of water and debris and boulders and logs just free falling off a cliff. Not so here.” 

Hanging Lake seen on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

There is hope that as debris flushes down the canyon walls, eventually the storms that batter Glenwood Canyon and close Interstate 70 will be less damaging. There is only so much loose rock and dirt that can wash down the cliffs above the interstate. 

“The experts tell us we will continue to see debris flows but with each big flow we do move the sediment that has been stored and we get closer to more clear-water floods,” Anderson says. 

Yet another upside of the living laboratory that Glenwood Canyon has become after the Grizzly Creek fire: Before and after aerial lidar images of the canyon are helping the U.S. Geological Survey scientists better model where and when debris flows might strike burn zones. 

The U.S. Geological Survey models have been impressively on-point in Colorado this summer, with flows closely mirroring the survey’s maps showing canyons and gullies with increased likelihood of debris flow in burn zones. The research coming out of Glenwood Canyon is helping the survey’s scientists model even more accurately.

“And that sets us up in the future,” Anderson says, “for doing a better job of protecting the highway as well as safety, with better early-detection systems.”

Roberts spent the entire hike scanning for invasive weeds that were swept from the aspen groves atop Glenwood Canyon down into the Dead Horse Creek drainage, where there are very few noxious weeds. 

“Here’s an example of something I worry about,” says Roberts as she reaches the edge of Hanging Lake and finds a small field of weeds, including common mullein and thistle. “We need to come in and treat this. We want to give our native plants the opportunity to flourish.”

The thousands of tiny yellow seeds in each mullein plant, she says, can last in soil for 100 years.

“Once they get established in a place it’s a constant effort to get ahead of them,” Roberts says. “But overall, the species diversity in the recovery has been amazing. We are headed in the right direction.”

White River National Forest ecologist Liz Roberts takes a moment to look through the mudslide damage near Hanging Lake on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Forest Service folks are a glass-half-full lot. Especially when they are talking with reporters. It’s rare to hear doom-and-gloom from a federal land manager.

So it’s not that surprising that Roger Poirier, the recreation staff officer for the White River National Forest, shares the enthusiasm of Roberts and Anderson, even though the recreational impacts in Glenwood Canyon have been extraordinary. 

Rapids in the Colorado River have been forever changed by massive rockslides. Closures have pinched access to the river. The bike path along the river is buried in mountains of rock in some spots and completely submerged in other spots. And now Hanging Lake, a jewel in the Glenwood Canyon playground, is closed for the season and maybe longer.

Where Roberts likes the canyon’s plant recovery and Anderson is happy with how the debris flows have not impacted Hanging Lake, Poirier hopes to reimagine the trail that climbs up Dead Horse Creek. 

Poirier sees a chance to rebuild a better, most sustainable trail that can last another 100 years. 

White River National Forest recreation director Roger Poirier speaks along the trail leading to Hanging Lake on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“We have an opportunity right now, with all this, to rethink that trail,” he says. 

Maybe a new trail won’t have as many bridges and won’t necessarily be so close to Dead Horse Creek and susceptible to damage in the next big rain event. Maybe the new trail could be better able to handle the increased traffic of recent years that has forced the adoption of a reservation system.

“This trail built decades ago isn’t really conducive to high-volume traffic, right,” he says. “And really, this is in pretty good shape. It’s not as bad as it could have been.”

Hanging Lake is only one part of a much larger canyon restoration plan. There’s the upland team, working to make sure the scorched lands on top of the canyon are reseeded and less susceptible to flushing down cliffs. There’s a river team repairing damage to the Colorado River. And there’s a recreation team that will work with CDOT, the National Forest Foundation and other partners on a long-term plan to rebuild Hanging Lake Trail. The recreation crew also is working in the near-term to carve a more primitive trail up to Hanging Lake, so hikers can still visit as the more sustainable trail is planned and built. 

A debris pile covers the known hiking trail leading to Hanging Lake on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Next week Poirier will host a team of trail builders from across the state, to begin assessing and planning. Hopefully, he says, they can find a way to have a more rugged trail open by next summer.

The Forest Service does not have an emergency fund set aside for trouble like this. It doesn’t have staff to handle rebuilding after a disaster. So the agency is tapping every partner and funding source it has ever used to help in the rebuild. 

“We are leaving no stone unturned,” Poirier said, noting opportunities in the Great American Outdoors Act as well as state and federal river clean-up funds. 

Glenwood Springs tourism impacts

Before Glenwood Springs and the Forest Service deployed the reservation and permit system in May 2019, the Hanging Lake trail could draw as many as 1,300 visitors a day in the busy summer months. The reservation program caps the number at 615 hikers per day.

Traffic really spiked after Hanging Lake was deemed a National Natural Landmark in 2011, putting the hanging garden on the must-see-map for out-of-state visitors. 

The city and Forest Service collect 5% of every $12 hiking permit, which is used for trail maintenance and upgrades. This year the Forest Service was planning to build a shelter at the Hanging Lake rest area. 

Hanging Lake is among dozens of attractions for Glenwood Springs visitors, so the Hanging Lake closure “has not critically impaired tourism,” said Lisa Langer, the head of tourism promotion at the city’s resort association. 

“It is one of many things to do here. We are grateful for the multitude of trails, attractions and activities in our community and area,” Langer says. “That said, we are very grateful that Hanging Lake itself is not ruined and that the trail, although greatly damaged, is fixable.”

Lodging tax collections in Glenwood Springs were on a record pace through June, before the extended highway closures. The $634,693 in accommodations taxes collected through June marks an 18% increase over 2019. (And a 120% increase over 2020, when, like the rest of the state, Glenwood Springs was pretty much dark in April and May.)

Langer says most tourist-dependent businesses were seeing a 30% to 40% spike in revenues in the early summer compared with 2019. Many were reporting a record year, she said. 

When mudslides closed I-70 in Glenwood Canyon in July, revenue fell 50% below projections. But after the initial closure, lodges saw occupancy levels climb to 70% and restaurants reported occupancy back as high as 90%, Langer says, noting that the city attracts many visitors coming from the west. 

More of an earned hike 

Ken Murphy’s Glenwood Adventure Company manages reservations for Hanging Lake. When the trail closed last week for the season, he had about 15,000 reservations on the books.

A sign peeks through the debris pile near Hanging Lake on Wednesday, August 25, 2021, near Glenwood Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Hikers can go online and get an instant refund. Or they can leave their reservation intact and the money will go toward restoration of the trail. Many people are donating their reservation money to the repair project, he says.

That’s an upside of the reservation system. Another is that Murphy can swiftly adjust bookings to accommodate the Forest Service plans for rebuilding. If the agency wants to temporarily close the trail for a bit or limit the number of hikers to give trail builders more room, “we have  the ability to do that,” he says.

Murphy has always pitched Hanging Lake Trail as not too friendly for beginners. It is a steep and rocky ascent. Now it’s going to be even more challenging. At least until a new trail is built.

“I think people will like that,” Murphy says. “They are going to earn their hike and they are going to earn the beautiful view of Hanging Lake.”

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins