GLENWOOD CANYON — Briana Nickas and her husband are active outdoors folks who have lived in Colorado for seven years, but when wildfire and landslides closed the Hanging Lake trail the past two summers, they began to regret having never made the hike that has inspired countless Coloradans and summer tourists.
Maybe it was a mistake to take it for granted, the Castle Rock couple thought. And so, when they learned the iconic trail would reopen on June 25 after an 11-month closure due to the damage caused by last summer’s monsoon-driven mud and rock slides in burn-scar areas, they went online and got reservations the first day they became available.
“We always meant to come up here,” Nickas said Tuesday on the deck beside the lake after making the 1.2-mile hike with a 1,200-foot ascent. “You think places will always be around. You don’t realize they can be temporary, things can happen, weather takes over and they’re not there anymore. Once we found out this was opening back up, we were like, ‘Gotta make a trip and make it happen.’”
The trail was closed in the early weeks of the pandemic in 2020, reopened and then closed again that summer because of the Grizzly Creek wildfire which ignited about four miles to the west and came perilously close to the path. It reopened last spring but closed two months later because of mud and rock slides that destroyed a wooden bridge and left debris on sections of the trail. (See our full Hanging Lake timeline below.)
Now, blackened trees are still noticeable along parts of the trail, but the blue water of Hanging Lake is as brilliant and pristine as ever. The waterfalls above it are running strong. And the trail is in great shape.
Nickas brought a tripod for her camera to make sure she got the perfect photograph at the lake, which is so beautiful that it has become a huge draw for Instagrammers.
“I definitely want to capture it the best I can, and try to show people the beauty of it, to inspire them to come out and experience it for themselves,” Nickas said. “It makes me feel happy. Nature is my happy place, and I love water. The flow of water is just so moving. The water itself is moving, but it stirs something inside me and makes me feel that movement as well. Oh, there’s a hummingbird! Beautiful.”
To Justin Bennett, her husband, the scene at the lake felt serene and relaxing.
“Kind of reminds me of Hawaii, but with pine trees, just the peace and the tranquility,” Bennett said. “This is amazing. I never realized the water was this blue. It’s so beautiful.”
Mitch Kudrna of Fargo, N.D. said he was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the trail, given what he’d read online about the fire and subsequent mudslide damage.
“We were pretty impressed,” said Kudrna, who was hiking the trail for the fourth time in 10 years. “A lot less damage than we thought.”
Fritz Dern of Fairfax, Calif., was making the hike with his family as part of a three-week vacation that included Colorado stops at Mesa Verde, Ouray, the Maroon Bells and Rocky Mountain National Park. He said he envied Coloradans for the state’s beauty, which he conceded was saying a lot coming from a Californian.
“They’ve done an outstanding job with the trail,” Dern said. “There’s a lot of rubble, but the rubble is generally flat. It’s not easy, but it’s also not terribly strenuous.”
Ohioan Laurie Logan made the hike with Hedy Demsey, a friend who lives in Carbondale.
“I think it’s spectacular,” Logan said. “They did a fabulous job. You could see where the repairs were made, and it was very easy to navigate. It was very interesting to see the burned-out logs and to see where a mudslide took down a big metal sign, just for people to remember how powerful all of this is.”
That sign, a forest service informational marker titled “Water is Life, the Life-Sustaining Link Between Forests and Water,” was dented in one of last summer’s slides when a large tree fell on it. Above it is a steep slope covered with rocks. Restoration crews this spring removed the tree from the sign and rocks that covered the trail adjacent to it.
Demsey felt reminders of the fire and its aftermath send an important message to visitors.
“If they intentionally didn’t remove some of the burnt logs, I think it’s a great reminder for everybody of what can happen,” said Demsey, who hopes to volunteer on the trail next summer. “Most fires are started by man.”
Fire investigators never pinpointed a specific ignition source of the Grizzly Creek fire, but they did conclude it was human-caused. Last summer’s landslides in burn scars caused multiple closures of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon.
The threat of landslides remains. On Tuesday morning, CDOT closed the canyon’s rest areas and the recreation path along the Colorado River because of rain in the forecast later in the day.
“If the recreation path or rest areas are open, crews cannot evacuate the canyon quickly,” said CDOT spokeswoman Elise Thatcher. “Clearing just the roadway, I-70, requires approximately a half hour. The mudflows that came down last year were very fast, so it is extremely important that crews are able to clear the roadway without adding time by having to search the recreation path and rest areas. With these factors in mind, the rest areas and recreation path are closed when there is rain in the forecast.”
That doesn’t necessarily apply to Hanging Lake visitors, though. The company that manages Hanging Lake visits in cooperation with the White River National Forest and the city of Glenwood Springs, H2O Ventures, has its own evacuation plan for when the weather turns. When the other rest areas in the canyon were closed Tuesday morning, the Hanging Lake parking lot and trail remained open for those with reservations, which are required.
That may have confused some travelers who saw CDOT signs regarding the rest stop closures when they hit the canyon and couldn’t be sure if Hanging Lake was affected by the CDOT closure. Ken Murphy, the owner of H2O Ventures, said his staff warns reservation holders by email and text if Hanging Lake has to be closed.
“If you don’t hear from us, keep coming,” Murphy said. “We have lines of communication with our guests, and we’re with our guests. If this canyon does get closed, we can communicate with our guests and get people out. When cars are parked at (other rest areas), it’s the unknown of where are (those people)? Also, understand, we are dealing with Mother Nature. She is our boss. She can roll in quite fast in the mountains.”
The hope now is that summer rains this year aren’t as epic as they were last July, because burn scars remain susceptible to debris flows in the case of extreme events such as those the canyon experienced last year. That necessitated a substantial restoration project this spring to get the Hanging Lake trail reopened.
“It really makes you appreciate nature when you can,” Nickas said. “I want to know who I can thank for reopening the trail.”
A Hanging Lake timeline through fire and floods
May 2019: In an effort to mitigate crowding at the iconic attraction, White River National Forest officials collaborate with the city of Glenwood Springs to manage visitation by requiring reservations to access the Hanging Lake trail from May to October.
March 2020: Hanging Lake trail closes due to pandemic, reopens June 1 with greatly reduced visitation.
August 2020: The Grizzly Creek wildfire begins Aug. 10 in the Grizzly Creek area of Glenwood Canyon, about four miles west of the Dead Horse Creek drainage where Hanging Lake is located. The fire quickly grows to more than 32,600 acres, doing major damage to much of Glenwood Canyon including the Hanging Lake area. Hanging Lake itself is spared, except for some ash that temporarily clouds the lake’s famously clear water. Interstate 70 is closed for 13 days.
May 2021: The Hanging Lake trail reopens for visitors, but not for long.
Spring 2022: A recovery project to get Hanging Lake reopened includes replacing one bridge and repositioning the other. Portions of the trail that were covered by rocks are cleared.
June 25: The Hanging Lake trail reopens to the public.
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