Hanging lake hikers

Hikers carefully wind their way down from Hanging Lake on Wednesday, the first day in which hikers on the trail were required to have permits. After extensive studies, handrails were added to this steep section of the Hanging Lake Trail.

The future officially began Wednesday for Hanging Lake, the popular tourist draw in Glenwood Canyon known for its breathtaking scenery.

From now on, the former rest stop along Interstate 70 will be accessible by paid permit only, via the Hanging Lake Express Shuttle from the Hanging Lake Welcome Center. Located in the space occupied in the winter by the rental shop of the Glenwood Springs Recreation Center’s ice rink, the welcome center is about a 25-minute ride from Hanging Lake.

The buses, which seat 44 people each, will leave from the welcome center every 45 minutes this summer from 6:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., bringing a total of 615 permit holders to Hanging Lake each day. The last bus will return from Hanging Lake each night at 8 p.m.

Permits ($12 per person) can be purchased in advance through visitglenwood.com. A limited number of permits may become available for walk-up purchase at the welcome center, but that’s yet to be decided. As of Wednesday morning, more than 11,000 permits had already been sold for this summer, with purchasers coming from as far away as Australia, India and Hong Kong. (Permits also will be required in the winter, but winter permit holders will be able to drive to Hanging Lake.)

Cyclists are still allowed to bike the Glenwood Canyon Trail to Hanging Lake, but they will need a permit (with a 45-minute arrival window) to hike to the lake itself, which, with its waterfalls, crystal-clear water and lush vegetation, is one of Colorado’s truly iconic locales. Unfortunately for Hanging Lake, that spectacular scenery is what lured the ever-growing crowds that necessitated the changes that took effect Wednesday.

Hanging lake bus

Carl Orlowski, a mountain sports ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, steps off the inaugural Hanging Lake Express Shuttle on Wednesday morning. The shuttle takes permitted hikers from the Hanging Lake Welcome Center in West Glenwood Springs to the trailhead and back.  

“What precipitated this was a few things,” said Aaron Mayville, the U.S. Forest Service district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross district. “One was the chaos of humanity happening at Hanging Lake — traffic backing up, fights breaking out in the parking lot. It was just not good at all. More importantly, the sustainability of the lake itself was at risk.”

The crowds first started approaching the tipping point more than a decade ago. A few years later, the wheels were set in motion on the current changes. As the area has been part of the White River National Forest since 1972  — before that it was a Glenwood Springs city park — there were protocols that had to be followed and a lot of red tape to cut through to transfer the land back to the city, which is why the changes took as long as they did.

Ultimately, a stakeholder group, which included the city, the Forest Service, Colorado Department of Transportation and others, put out a request for proposals and chose Glenwood’s own H2O Ventures, which runs transportation, rafting and adventure operations in the area, to operate the shuttle buses and the welcome center. In addition to permits, the center sells Glenwood-branded clothing, socks, backpacks, water bottles, trekking poles and other gear that hikers to the lake might need.

H2O Ventures owner Ken Murphy explained that the size and frequency of the buses means that a maximum of roughly 170 people will be at Hanging Lake at any one time, spread out between the drop-off area and the steep, mile-long trail to the lake. That’s a far cry from past years, when 1,200 visitors a day would show up, many parking illegally wherever they could in the crammed parking lot. On most days, the trail was overrun by hikers.

The shuttle service officially kicked off Wednesday morning with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the welcome center. Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross district, opened the proceedings by talking about the problems the rest stop faced and the need for improvements to give visitors a better experience. She was followed by Glenwood Springs Mayor, Jonathan Godes, who has been on the job for all of two weeks, and its outgoing mayor, Michael Gamba, both of whom praised the cooperative process that got the project done.

Hanging lake ribbon

Officials with the city of Glenwood Springs and U.S. Forest Service cut the ribbon to mark the opening of the Hanging Lake Welcome Center in West Glenwood Springs and the Hanging Lake Express Shuttle, which takes hikers to the trailhead. The new permitting system has already received more than 11,000 reservations.

After the ribbon was cut, forest rangers, city personnel, media members and visiting dignitaries filed into two waiting buses for the ride to Hanging Lake, where more words were spoken by Brian Ferebee, the U.S. Forest Service’s regional forester for the Rocky Mountain region, as well as representatives for U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.

One of the speakers recounted how she and her family used to come to Hanging Lake when she was a little girl, and they’d often have the place to themselves. There’s no going back to that, obviously, but with the changes unveiled Wednesday, Hanging Lake took a major step toward becoming the singular Colorado outdoors experience it used to be.

The final touches on the area’s six-month makeover were completed Tuesday night when CDOT installed gates at Hanging Lake and its career as a rest stop ended for good. Now the stakeholders have to spread the word about the new system, which they’re doing through social and traditional media. It’s likely not everyone will hear about it, and, at least this summer, plenty of people are destined to show up permit-less and be disappointed.

But in the long run, anyone who saw the chaos at Hanging Lake before and experiences the tranquility now will agree that the changes were worth it.

“What we’re really hoping to see out of this is an improved visitor experience,” Mayville said. “We’ve made it better start to finish. People are really going to enjoy it, and the lake will benefit as a result.”

Todd Hartley is the special sections editor for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at todd@aspendailynews.com.