Hanging Lake damaged from mudslides, not reopening until 2022 at least

GLENWOOD CANYON — Buried beneath an enormous pile of fallen timber, boulders, gravel and dried mud lies the remains of a hiking bridge that was swept off its footings on the Hanging Lake trail and carried down Dead Horse Creek by one of the burn-scar debris flows that struck the iconic recreation destination last month.

Another bridge stands askew, its steel structure bent by the force of boulders that tumbled downstream during one of the six deluges that hit the area last month. In many places along the 1.2-mile trail, which will be closed to the public at least until next summer, huge rock piles cover the tread that led generations of Coloradans and tourists to one of the most beautiful spots in Colorado: Hanging Lake, known for its remarkable emerald color and impossibly clear water, and the dramatic Spouting Rock waterfall above it.

Hanging Lake itself is looking better every week. In the aftermath of the storms — one of which was classified as a “500-year” storm after delivering 1.1 inches of rain in a 15-minute period — the lake was brown with runoff. In recent weeks it turned to a milky green, and it’s getting clearer every week. The lake is fed from above by waterfalls and flows over a brim into the creek below.

“It’s cleared up a lot since the rains of late July,” said Justin Anderson, a hydrologist for the White River National Forest. “We expect that it will continue to clear up, because there is clear water running in, replacing the cloudy water. There was finer sediment, suspended in the water, that has now settled out.”

White River National Forest officials are determined to reopen the area as soon as possible and are hopeful that can happen next summer. That would mean letting visitors hike the trail in what they call its current “primitive” state while they develop long-term plans to rebuild it. The altered hike would likely require some rock scrambling similar to the experience hikers encounter on fourteeners.

“What we’re trying to say is, how can we have a trail for the short term that allows people to get to the lake, knowing that it’s going to be a little more challenging?” said Roger Poirier, recreation staff officer for the White River National Forest. “There’s not going to be defined tread (in places). There may be some route-finding. You might be hiking through a creek instead of walking over a bridge. And it may be a little more strenuous.

“I think some people will say, ‘We got up to Hanging Lake and saw it within a unique context, had a great time, had an adventure. We got our feet wet, but I would love to do that again.’ That’s the experience we’re trying to provide in the short term, because we want people to come see Hanging Lake,” Poirier said.

The rains that fell in July, causing massive mudslides in Grizzly Creek wildfire burn scars, were staggering in volume. Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon was closed multiple times. CDOT crews removed more than 4,100 truckloads of material, according to CDOT. Each truckload can hold 13 tons of debris.

The Hanging Lake trail suffered significant damage from last year’s Grizzly Creek fire with blackened trees and fallen timber in many places, but it was open for hiking this summer until the torrential rains came in July. Now there are huge rock piles along the narrow canyon from debris flows that have diverted the creek in places. At one of the trail’s seven bridges, rocks piled up against it, so the creek goes around the bridge instead of underneath it.

Trail specialists will soon inspect the trail to begin the process of trying to figure out the best way to rebuild it for future generations. That could take two years or more. How that will be funded is yet to be determined.

“It’s going to be a mind meld,” Poirier said. “We’re going to get the best trail builders in the Rockies here to say, ‘If we have an opportunity to build a new trail for the next 50 to 100 years, how do we get one that accommodates the numbers of people that are using it, how do we provide that world-class experience?’ A world-class destination is up there. How do we get a great path for visitors to get there?”

When forest service officials conducted a media tour on Wednesday, Poirier was seeing the trail for the first time since the mudslides, and he came away encouraged.

“All I see is opportunity here,” Poirier said. “I see a lot of the existing trail that is actually in good shape. I see debris flows that are going to pose a challenge in the short term and long term, but I see the ability for us to figure out a world-class trail for the long term. I see the opportunity for a primitive trail that can get people up here in the short term to really enjoy this experience.

“It’s going to be a little bit more rugged, and I think that’s going to really appeal to some users,” he said. “I see a lot of work, but I don’t see a catastrophe that we can’t somehow get around. I feel like this is a multi-year project, but that’s what it takes to get us through another century of experience up here.”

Forest officials seem highly motivated to get the trail open next year “in some form,” Poirier said.

“It would be very easy for us to say, ‘We don’t have the funding, we don’t have the staffing, and the trail is going to be closed for a couple years.’ That’s not how the White River operates,” Poirier said. “This is one of those places people want to go to. We’re going to do everything we can – we’re not going to leave one stone unturned – to find a way to get this thing back up and operating. And, long-term, make it an even better experience for folks.”

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