GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — On a sunny Saturday in late May, there's something different about Hanging Lake, one of the most popular hiking trails in Colorado.
At 10 a.m., there is not a single car in the trailhead parking lot — and that's just the beginning.
Hanging Lake Trail, located just off Interstate 70 a few miles east of Glenwood Springs, is known for its stunning beauty and the serene waterfall located at the end of the 1.5-mile hike. (The hike is 3 miles total out-and-back.)
(Use the slider below to view the lake as it looked in 2015 compared to 2019. Can't see the slider? Click/tap here)
Visitor restrictions come to Hanging Lake
The trail has been subject to overcrowding in recent years: In 2012, 78,000 hikers visited. By 2016, that number had nearly doubled to 150,000.
Those numbers, as well as trail damage and vandalism, led the U.S. Forest Service to implement a plan to curb any effects on the surrounding ecosystem.
The changes started May 1. They include a daily capacity of 615 visitors through a fee-based online reservation system, as well as a shuttle service that leaves from the visitor center during peak season (May 1-Oct. 31).
The center is located at 110 Wulfsohn Rd., just over a mile from the heart of Glenwood Springs on the south side of the Colorado River right off Midland Avenue.
What to expect when you arrive
Guests that have made reservations online and paid the $12 fee will check in and learn the new rules before getting on the bus.
Visitors are asked to get there at least a half hour before their reservation and get the badge they will need for the trip.
Those badges show two key pieces of information: the departure and arrival times (front) and the broken that led to the changes (back).
Here are some of the rules:
- Leave no trace. (Dispose of all waste in trash cans.)
- No pets allowed on the trail. (Dogs are not allowed on the shuttle bus or at the welcome center. Dog boarding options are listed on the reservation website.)
- No swimming or dipping body parts in the water. (Any contamination of the water could damage Hanging Lake.)
- No standing on the log in the lake and no standing under or on top of the waterfall.
- No fishing allowed. (The water is so clear fish can be seen swimming in the lake.)
- There are no restrooms on the trail. Use the facilities at the welcome center or trailhead.
(Use the slider below to look at the log on the lake in July 2015 compared to May 2019. Can't see the slider? Click/tap here)
Visiting during peak season
The differences between a peak season day at Hanging Lake in years' past and this year are as clear as the water. Finding a spot to sit on any bench at the lake in the past was even tougher than finding a spot in the parking lot.
With groups now limited to about 45 people arriving every 45 minutes, there's plenty of room to sit and enjoy the view of Bridal Veil Falls flowing into the lake. Instead of weaving through crowded walkways around the lake, families now pose for pictures and photographers take their time waiting for that perfect shot.
The slider below shows the same walkway on a weekday around the lake in summer 2015 before the restrictions — and what it looked like on Memorial Day weekend 2019. Can't see the slider? Click/tap here.
The walkway is now the only area at the lake that can be explored. Chains, signs and a new bench block people from climbing closer to the falls. People are warned about the sensitive area and told to keep out.
Along the 1.2-mile trail up to Hanging Lake hikers will also notice other changes. With so few people, there is time to pause at the seven bridges and other beautiful points along on the trail. Hikers can stop and take in the scenery and listen to the sounds of nature that had been drowned out in the past by summer crowds.
Vandalism was another issue on the trail in years' past. A three-sided shelter had become a target of people looking to leave their mark on the area. That shelter appears to be repaired and those carvings patched and painted over. New chains block the path to the shelter and the signs close to the structure warn people that any carving is considered vandalism and a crime.
A better experience for visitors
While a lot of thought went into the new rules and restrictions, just as much thought went into making the experience even better for visitors.
The welcome center has last-minute items available for purchase, everything from water to sunscreen to snacks. Hiking poles and backpacks are also available for rent.
The staff at the center said they have tried to think of every scenario.
Visitors are guided through the timeline of their visit when they arrive. Each person is told they will have three hours for their visit. Badges show the time each person has a place reserved on a bus back to the welcome center.
If a guest spends too long on the hike and misses their time slot, they have to wait in a stand-by line for space on another shuttle.
The staff at the welcome center said every effort is made to make sure everyone is able to make it back to the welcome center each day.
If for some reason most people wait until the trail closes at 8 p.m. for the last bus, extra shuttles will run to collect those guests.
If someone stays at Hanging Lake past that time, there is $250 penalty to run a private shuttle for the 10-mile trip back to Glenwood Springs. Shuttles run about every 30-45 minutes and adults are allowed to stand on the bus if all the seats are filled.
Bikes are not allowed on the new shuttle buses, and those riding to the trailhead along the bike path still need a reservation to hike to the lake.
(There are several nearby locations to park and then ride a bike to the trail: The Shoshone Power Station is 2 miles away and Bair Ranch is 3 miles away. Other locations include Grizzly Creek and No Name rest areas, which are 5-6 miles from the Hanging Lake trailhead.)
A boon for the local economy
More than 10,000 people in early May had already made reservations for the spring and summer 2019.
Visitors are expected from nearly every state. People as far away as Europe, Australia and Hong Kong have also made reservations.
Earlier studies found 40 percent of those who visit Hanging Lake are from out-of-state or a foreign country. Seven out of 10 are typically seeing Hanging Lake for the first time.
The City of Glenwood Springs said those visitors brought in $33 million to the local economy in 2016.
One staff member at the welcome center said she has been surprised at what a destination the lake has become.
In the first weeks that the reservation system was in place, a couple arrived from Louisiana. They told the staff they could have picked any place for their honeymoon, but they wanted to see Hanging Lake.
Not the only destination
Hanging Lake is not the only destination along this trail. Just before arriving at the lake, look for the signs for Spouting Rock.
This waterfall is located just a few hundred yards above Hanging Lake. Runoff from all the snow during the winter has created several waterfalls.
It's worth an extra few minutes, even if it means waiting in the stand-by line and catching a later bus back to Glenwood Springs.