GLENWOOD SPRINGS - The secret is out about Hanging Lake. The short, but somewhat strenuous, hike leads to a gorgeous, clear green lake. It's a must-do in Colorado.
Fist fights in the parking lot.
Fender-bender crashes triggered by hot tempers over saving spots.
Waiting in line to get access to parts of the trail.
Cars backing up from the trailhead parking lot onto the I-70 interstate.
Boardwalks supposed to last 25 years are in disrepair after just seven.
These are all things that have happened (some more regularly than others), according to the District Ranger for the area, Aaron Mayville.
"The Trajectory we’re on is one of loving this place to death," he said.
This story was born, in part, based on many comments from 9NEWS viewers about the growing problem of overcrowded trails in Colorado after we posted a story about a pleasant hike to try in Jefferson County.
Loving Hanging Lake to Death
Of all the land in the White River National Forest (which includes most of Colorado's ski resorts), Hanging Lake sees the most visitors per mile of trail.
On peak summer days, upwards of 1,100 people come to hike the trail.
Daily, if not hourly, Mayville says someone is likely breaking one of the cardinal rules of the park: they're swimming in the lake's water, walking along the famous log across its clear waters, or trying to smuggle their dog along the trail.
When there are rangers up there, they'll ticket people. And people abide by the rules. But, there simply isn't funding or resources to keep it fully staffed, 24/7.
Mayville and the U.S. Forest Service team rely on education as well as other hikers to convey the message of respecting the environment. Their goal is to explain why these simple rules are so important.
Hanging Lake is a Travertine Lake. It's incredibly sensitive to human skin oil and waste (such as dog waste), according to Kate Jerman, a Public Affairs Officer for the White River National Forest.
In short, the rules are there for a reason.
"We ask people to behave in a certain way up there. Minding the rules - no dogs, no swimming, no walking on the log," she said. "We're trying to keep it as safe as we can for the future."
"It's a fragile ecosystem," she added.
Aside from the rule-breakers, good-natured hikers simply enjoying the trail cause wear and tear. If visitation volume were to continue as it has over the past several years, infrastructure, bridges, and the boardwalk around the lake will fail.
The wooden platform and boardwalk encircling Hanging Lake was built in 2010. It was supposed to last 25 years, but Mayville says after just less than seven, it's already begun to deteriorate.
As trails grow more crowded, the trail itself becomes a concern as well.
Hanging Lake's Future
Let's talk about the future.
Just three years ago, annual visits to Hanging Lake were about 90,000 people. Last summer? That number had climbed to more than 137,000.
Is it possible one day Hanging Lake could be closed to the public for good?
It's possible, District Ranger Mayville said, but it's likely not going to happen any time soon.
"I want our future generations to be able to enjoy this place," he said.
Instead, Mayville and the Forest Service are working on a plan to control the amount of people allowed to hike in the area on any given day.
It's the product of more than three years of study and consulting with experts.
Beginning in the summer of 2018, you won't be able to park in the lot anymore. While the team is still working out exact details, individual cars will be replaced with a shuttle system.
And, daily capacity will be limited. Like, a lot. Just 615 people a day will be able to hike to the crystal-clear lake. representing about a 25 percent overall reduction of the annual visitors to Hanging Lake.
While the existing parking lot serves as a sort of natural capacity limiter, it's far from a viable system, as three years on the trail has taught Mayville.
The shuttle system would likely pick up and drop off hikers in Glenwood Springs during peak season (at least Memorial Day to Labor Day). You'd have to reserve a time slot in advance and pay to use it.
No parking whatsoever would be allowed in the lot.
In the end, the traffic, the flaring tempers, the overcrowding - all of these things degrade the experience rangers are trying to hard to preserve.
Why Don't People Just Follow the Rules?
A great question.
Most of the people visiting the park are great ambassadors of nature.
But, if you search #hanginglake on social media, you'll find thousands of posts, and some of them show people blatantly disregarding the rules.
For example, this week 9NEWS got several tips on a video showing a man walking across the log (although the sign saying "don't walk on the log" is just out of view of the video).
The person posting the video made it public in the hopes of finding the person who did the deed.
"I like to see people who are following the rules are upset when someone doesn’t," Mayville said.
Here's where education and outreach can spread beyond the folks in the ranger uniforms along the trail.
"The public is very good about educating people who are misbehaving on social media," Jerman said.
Often before the Forest Service has to address something like this through their channels, the public has addressed it on social media for them, she added.
If a concerning video or posts surfaces and is brought to the attention of the USFS, they can reach out to local law enforcement for further investigation.
The Forest Service has the same goal as you or I: they want hikers and nature lovers to be able to enjoy the trail for generations to come. They simply ask visitors to also be good stewards of the land and keep special places like Hanging Lake, well, special.
"It is a really special place and we want it to be here in the future so everyone can enjoy it," Jerman said.
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