How to Hitch a Ride to Hanging Lake

Published in the Summer/Fall issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine | Photography by Zach Mahone

On the first morning of May in the middle of mud season 60 miles west of Vail Village, a small crowd gathered by the trailhead at Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon and made history. As the last wisps of clouds from a late-spring snowstorm parted to reveal jagged, frost-covered cliffs accented by a cerulean sky, the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District’s head greenhat, Aaron Mayville, addressed a group of VIPs that included representatives from the offices of both of Colorado’s senators and a camera crew from the Denver nightly news. 

“It’s all quiet and peaceful … it’s a little weird,” joked Mayville. “Maybe we can park on the grass and start a fistfight.” Charged with stewarding the White River National Forest—the country’s most-visited parcel of forestland, spanning 2.3 million acres from Aspen to Summit County—the US Forest Service (USFS) rangers in attendance nodded and chuckled knowingly, because this was no joke. Visitors leaving their cars wherever they pleased and engaging in fisticuffs over parking spaces covered only some of the mayhem that has unfolded at Hanging Lake during peak summer months in recent years. Traffic jams backed up onto I-70 on weekends, swarms of hikers trampled vegetation, defiant pet owners ignored posted rules banning dogs (and failed to clean up after their pets), and visitors even swam in the lake despite ubiquitous signage indicating that such behavior posed a risk to fragile shoreline mineral deposits. The final indignities happened two summers ago, when a graffiti artist obnoxiously blazed boulders along the trail with an ironic spray-painted tag (“BLEST”), followed by the owner of a Brazilian sportswear company staging a photoshoot of models striking yoga poses in the lake, eliciting outrage from hundreds on Facebook who called for a boycott of the brand.

The inaugural run of Hanging Lake’s hiker shuttle from Glenwood Springs. Photo: Zach Mahone

The public outcry put pressure on a government stakeholder group (including the City of Glenwood Springs, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado State Patrol, Garfield County, and the USFS) that had been meeting since 2013 to finally do something to mitigate the influx of summertime visitors, which had surged from 90,000 in 2012 to more than 137,000 by 2016. Shutting down trail access altogether was discussed, but the group instead opted for a reservation system (like those in place at Aspen’s Maroon Bells and Utah’s Zion National Park) that would cap the number of visitors at 615 per day. From May through October, hikers would be required to purchase permits online, park their cars at a new welcome center at Glenwood Springs, then board a shuttle that would ferry them to and from the trailhead every 45 minutes; cyclists (and motorists wishing to park at the trailhead during the off-season) could forgo the shuttles, but not the $12 permits—which must be presented at the trailhead—a necessity to offset the cost of
the program.

“We’re celebrating a milestone today,” declared Mayville earlier that day as he cut a ribbon slung in front of a whitewashed “Hanging Lake Express” school bus waiting to ferry its first load of hikers to the trailhead. “The next phase of Hanging Lake.”

One where preserving a precious public resource costs less than of a month of Netflix. 

Hanging Lake Welcome Center

110 Wolfson Rd, Glenwood Springs

Reservations required May 1–Oct 31

$12 (includes round-trip shuttle)

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