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Hanging Lake Trail Damaged by Fire, Floods, Visitation, Closes for 100-Year Restoration

Hanging Lake Trail will receive much-needed restoration after high visitation, the Grizzly Creek wildfire, and flooding.

(Photo/Rachel Laux)
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The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is embarking on a $4.5 million restoration initiative that will close one of Colorado’s most popular and iconic hiking trails for most of the summer. Hanging Lake is an internationally revered hiking destination. It’s a historic natural landmark, an important boon to the local economy, and a geologic phenomenon.

But following exploding visitation through the 2010s, the Grizzly Creek wildfire in 2020, and the subsequent floods in 2021 and 2023, Hanging Lake Trail is in disrepair.

Burned tree limbs, snapped trunks, and other debris litter the canyon. The seven bridges along the hike are all dilapidated. A shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Core in 1938 is on the verge of toppling over. And sections of the trail need rehabilitation.

USFS aims to remedy all of that and take the restoration even further. This trail was originally built almost 100 years ago before sustainable standards and practices for trail building were established. USFS is taking this opportunity not only to restore the path to Hanging Lake but also to improve upon it and build a new trail that will last for another century.

hanging lake trail restoration project
(Photo/Rachel Laux)

“We want to facilitate a visitor experience and make sure that as many people are able to enjoy this trail, as possible. And we also want to protect the resources that are there along with it,” Emily Kasyon, White River National Forest program coordinator for the National Forest Foundation (NFF) told GearJunkie. “And I think this trail design really gets at that.”

The restoration project’s groundbreaking ceremony was held on May 2 at the trailhead. All the partners for the project were present — the National Forest Foundation (NFF), the City of Glenwood Springs, Get Outside Colorado (GOCO), Colorado Lottery, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and USFS.

The restoration efforts will begin as early as May 3. As a result, the trail will remain closed for most of the summer, although there will be weekends when it is open for hikers.

Hanging Lake Trail Restoration 2024: $4.5 Million, 100-Year Plan

hanging lake trail restoration project
(Photo/Rachel Laux)

Hanging Lake is one of Glenwood Springs’ biggest tourist attractions. In 2018, when the NFS started instituting a daily visitor cap of 615 people, the trail saw 186,000 visitors a year. According to the NFF, annually it brings in $4.6 million to the city.

At 1.2 miles long and with just 1,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s a very approachable hike. It’s also extremely accessible, as it’s just off the interstate. And it’s rewarding. The turquoise travertine lake at the top is a spectacular sight.

When the Grizzly Creek wildfire ripped through Glenwood Canyon in August 2020, many people feared the worst for Hanging Lake. However, the cool and humid air of the creek canyon protected it from being destroyed by the fire. The trail was closed until May 2021. It opened for all of 2 months before June rains caused massive flooding and debris flows from the fire that badly damaged the trail and all seven bridges.

hanging lake trail restoration project
(Photo/Rachel Laux)

A temporary trail was established and opened in June 2022. However, due to flooding, it was again closed intermittently through 2023.

“We knew that trail was a temporary fix, but we wanted to get people back up to Hanging Lake,” said Leanne Veldhuis, a district ranger with NFS at the restoration project’s ground-breaking ceremony. “So here we are today. And the work we’re kicking off is a $4.5 million reconstruction project to make a trail that will last the next hundred years.”

Hanging Lake Trail: What Will Be Restored

The trailhead where an open plaza will be built as part of the Hanging Lake Trail restoration project; (photo/Rachel Laux)

The $4.5 million was raised through several partners and donor organizations. Great Outdoors Colorado gave $2,282,000, White River National Forest raised $1,668,999, Colorado Parks and Wildlife contributed $250,000, the City of Glenwood Springs contributed $232,163, and NFF contributed $70,000.

NFF, which is overseeing the project, contracted NorTerra Services out of Idaho to handle the construction and renovation. Unlike many trail restoration efforts on USFS land, the Hanging Lake Trail project will not be handled by volunteers.

The Civilian Conservation Core shelter; (photo/Rachel Laux)

While the trail will remain on the same track, it is getting massive upgrades that will greatly change the visitor experience.

The trailhead will have a built-out plaza with seating and shading. All seven bridges will be torn out and replaced with new structures that will be helicoptered in. The Civilian Conservation Core historic shelter will be stabilized in collaboration with the State Historic Preservation Office. A rest area with seating and stonework will also be built around that shelter.

Spouting Rock Waterfall; (photo/Rachel Laux)

NFF said it wants to make the Spouting Rock waterfall above the Hanging Lake more of an attraction unto itself. As part of the restoration, a boardwalk will be built around this feature to mitigate erosion by keeping people on a defined path.

The plans also include rock work, flood debris removal, and native seeding and planting to prevent further erosion along Dead Horse Creek.

When Will You Be Able to Hike Hanging Lake?

Evidence of the Grizzly Creek Fire is visible on the canyon walls above the lake; (photo/Rachel Laux)

NFF said it wants to ensure that people can still access Hanging Lake during restoration. After all, the tourism it generates is part of what this project is meant to preserve. As such, the trail will remain open on weekends through certain parts of the summer.

“We are working with our contractor on, say, weekly check-ins and the whole deal, figuring out when we’ll be able to keep the trail open despite the work going on,” Veldhuis said at the ground-breaking.

USFS and NFF will consult with NorTerra Services, the City of Glenwood Springs, and H20 Ventures to gauge when the trail could be opened. It will just depend on what work is happening and where the project is at.

“Our plan right now is to have the trail open on weekends at the beginning part of the summer. And then we will have to close the trail once the bridges go out,” said Kasyon. ”But we want to try to keep it open for people on the weekends until that point.”

Reservations will still be required to hike the trail through the summer. Those will be available weekly from Visit Glenwood’s Hanging Lake webpage. Available hiking dates and times are released every Tuesday beginning at 8 a.m.

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