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If you’re an avid adventurer like me, there’s nothing worse than an overcrowded hike. I purposely seek out less-trafficked trails and backcountry areas that lack loud children, overflowing trashcans, and packed parking lots. But despite its popularity, there’s one Colorado hike that stands as a worthy tourist attraction for residents and visitors alike: Hanging Lake. The 1.2-mile trek in Glenwood Canyon is steep and rigorous, but awaiting at the top is a true gem—a turquoise-colored travertine lake fed by a cluster of waterfalls.
Until May 1, 2019, hiking to Hanging Lake could be considered a free-for-all. On a peak day in July—the trail’s busiest month—the trail would see about 1,300 visitors a day. On weekends, if you weren’t at the Hanging Lake Rest Area by 8 a.m., your chances of hiking were slim. Not only did the parking lot fill up fast, but the flood of cars felt more like Black Friday than a relaxing outdoors experience.
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The crowds can be partly attributed to the fact that the lake is a National Natural Landmark. Back in June 2011, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, awarded the lake this designation to recognize and conserve the site for its rarity, diversity, and value to science. After that, “it exploded,” says Lisa Langer, director of tourism promotion for Visit Glenwood Springs. “It got picked up by all kinds of media around the world.” In fact, if you Google “best hikes in Colorado,” Hanging Lake is bound to be in the top five (if not number one). Plus, its short distance and close-ish proximity to Denver (about two-and-a-half hours by car) only added the hike’s popularity.
When I moved to Colorado almost two years ago, Hanging Lake was one must-do adventure item on my bucket list. So on a warm day last June, I arrived at Hanging Lake’s parking lot just before 8 a.m. and felt lucky to have found a spot. The lot was nearly full and more cars were already queued up, waiting for people to leave. The trail wasn’t much better—the first part of the hike, which is relatively steep and rocky, was packed with people trailing one after another. It was nearly impossible to pass slower hikers or move aside for faster wayfarers. Once I reached the lake, I was met with close to 60 other eager sightseers. Apart from being able to snap photos, my original idea to relax by the lake and enjoy the view was quickly abandoned when I saw the crowds.
Exactly a year later, I found myself back at the Hanging Lake trailhead to make the trek again. But this time, I came equipped with a permit. New this summer, the City of Glenwood Springs, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, imposed a reservation system in an effort to restrict the number of visitors who can hike to the landmark. Langer says the permits were necessary: Due to the high number of visitors to the area over last few years, the trail faced extreme erosion—and worse. Hikers were leaving trash behind, relieving themselves in random places, walking along the petrified log in the middle of the lake, and even swimming in the pristine waters—all of which is not allowed.
“There were just so many things that were bad and getting worse and worse,” Langer says. “And, obviously, the Forest Service didn’t have enough staff to be able to tell people to behave up there. It was just a mess.”
Now if you want to explore Hanging Lake, the only way to do so is by purchasing a hiking permit and reserving a spot on the shuttle provided by H2O Ventures, which totals $12 per person. The shuttle, which accommodates 44 passengers, leaves from the Hanging Lake Welcome Center every 45 minutes between 6:45 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., seven days a week. In total, the system allows for 615 hikers per day—a drastic decrease from the 1,300 who were visiting daily in years prior.
The new system all but eliminates the parking issues I experienced at the trailhead last summer. Visitors can no longer park at exit 125; instead, a remote-controlled gate is in place that only permits entrance to the shuttle and emergency vehicles. Additionally, parking is forbidden at nearby exits that access Hanging Lake. In years prior, Langer recalls that highway patrol was tasked with managing people trying to park on I-70. “Initially, when everything was blowing up with Hanging Lake and too many people were trying to park, they would park along the shoulder of the exit ramp,” she says.
The reservation setup also reduces the need to get to the trailhead in the early hours of the day to secure a spot, and allows three hours for visitors to complete the hike and get back to the rest area for the shuttle. The schedule was designed to spread hikers out throughout the day, Langer says, but it does limit your freedom to come and go as you please. If you’re a fast hiker, like me, and make it back to the rest area before your assigned shuttle departure time, you could be forced to wait for 45 minutes to an hour before you’re able to return to the Welcome Center. Conversely, if you take more than three hours to complete the hike, you’re at the mercy of the shuttle schedule and will be put on standby for the next available seat.
(Read: 4 Alternatives to Hanging Lake Trail)
While $12 isn’t too steep of a cost to see one of Colorado’s National Natural Landmarks, I do wonder if it’s truly affordable for a large family or those with a smaller income. But Langer points out that the reservation system isn’t in place to make money, but to assist with the burden of trail maintenance and reduce the number of people contributing to its overall wear-and-tear (the fee also covers the cost of the shuttle service and restroom upkeep).
“If you look at the cost of other attractions, they’re a lot more than $12,” Langer says. “The fact is, it’s meant to preserve and conserve. Whether you’re 3 or 65, you’re still a body on the trail, using it and eroding it.”
This time around, the hike was more enjoyable considering there was a fraction of hikers on the trail compared to last year. In addition to more space for passing slower hikers, I was able to leisurely sit alongside the lake and snap pictures, sans accidental photobombs. Overall—apart from waiting to take an earlier shuttle back to the Welcome Center—the new system is pretty seamless.
With new residents moving here every day and a flourishing tourism industry, mandatory permits could be the future of hiking in Colorado in order to regulate foot traffic and protect our trails from permanent damage. Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: While hiking to Hanging Lake might cost you, wandering along a near-empty Colorado trail on a perfect summer day is priceless.
If you go: Hiking permits and shuttle rides can be purchased online or at the Hanging Lake Welcome Center. 110 Wulfsohn Road, Glenwood Springs