GLENWOOD CANYON — When the iconic Hanging Lake trail reopens this weekend for the first time since the devastating Grizzly Creek wildfire last summer, visitors will discover that one of the most picturesque spots in Colorado has lost nothing of the stunning beauty that makes it so alluring.
They will also be struck by how close the fire came to destroying it.
The water in the small emerald lake — a pond, really — is still impossibly clear. The waterfall that feeds it from above still whispers a soothing greeting to the unique geological setting that is situated a little over a mile and 1,000 feet up Dead Horse Canyon. An adjacent geological curiosity above the waterfall, known as Spouting Rock, still gushes water that percolates through porous limestone from far above before feeding the Hanging Lake waterfall.
But the cliffs that loom over the lake also bear scars that show how close the fire came.
“The fire stopped right above Hanging Lake,” said Max Forgensi, mountain sports administrator for the White River National Forest, pointing out the burn scars above the lake on Thursday. “You can see evidence along the immediate cliff faces. It’s surrounding us, above us on the cliff faces.”
The fire started on Aug. 10, somewhere along Interstate 70 near Grizzly Creek, a parallel drainage about 4 miles west of the canyon where Hanging Lake is located. Ultimately the burn area would cover more than 32,000 acres.
Forgensi remembers the sense of dread he had as the fire approached Hanging Lake. He was watching incident reports in real time that evening.
“It just died down right on top of Hanging Lake,” Forgensi said. “The ridge above it, it was coming across. As the daytime temperatures were cooling off and the relative humidity was going up, I was a little nervous that it was just going to rip right through that canyon. Timing and some luck were on our side. When I went to bed that night, I was saying, ‘We might have a chance for it to survive,’ and it did.
“I feel that the water around the lake and within the creek gave it a localized relative humidity, so the fire severity within the canyon wasn’t as much as other places that didn’t have that water source. It was a true sense of relief.”
Leanne Veldhuis, the forest service’s local district ranger, was new to the area and had been in her new post for only four weeks when the fire happened.
“It was a strange sensation for me to feel like my district could lose its most iconic destination, and knowing the impact that was going to have on the community and the draw of tourism,” Veldhuis said.
After the fire passed Hanging Lake, she waited nervously for reports from personnel who went on a helicopter flyover the next day.
“There was that sense of apprehension, anxiety, anticipation,” Veldhuis said. “Are they going to come back from their helicopter flight crying? Tears of joy, or just devastated? It felt like a huge win.”
There is evidence of fire damage in the canyon, although not nearly as bad as it is in Grizzly Creek, which reopened to hikers a month ago. In Grizzly Creek, large areas are devastated with blackened, lifeless trees and charred earth. Along the Hanging Lake trail there are occasional burned trees, but most of them appear to have fallen from above.
The fire hopscotched across the burn area through and above Glenwood Canyon, leaving blackened patches on both sides of the interstate, but it’s remarkable how much was left unscathed.
“It’s a mosaic pattern,” Forgensi said. “Some burned everything in its path. In other places, it was very low burn severity.”
How fast vegetation comes back in a given area depends a lot on how much damage was done to the soil.
“We have this mosaic of a burn in here, which is actually really good for our landscape,” said Liz Roberts, an ecologist for the forest. “You have areas that burned low, which just burned the underneath vegetation, which rejuvenates. That’s why you see so much green coming up already. Sometimes fire will carry on the top of the trees and won’t hit the soil. Sometimes it’s coming up from the ground and going up.”
Because of burn scars, the potential remains for erosion and debris flows, so CDOT will be monitoring weather forecasts. When there is a 30% chance of a flash flood watch in the area over the next 24 hours, spokeswoman Elise Thatcher said, the recreation path along the Colorado River and rest areas in the canyon will be closed. If a flash flood warning is issued, the canyon will be evacuated.
Reservations again will be required for hiking Hanging Lake, but this year there will be no shuttles from Glenwood Springs because of ongoing concern for COVID-19 transmission. Hikers may park at the Hanging Lake Rest Area or ride bikes to get there. There will be 51 permits sold per hour, in 12 hourly time slots, from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets cost $12 per hiker and are available through the Visit Glenwood website.
Lisa Langer, director of tourism for Visit Glenwood, said when they began selling reservations on April 1, 7,500 were snapped up in the first 90 minutes. To date, they have taken almost 23,000 reservations for May 1 through Oct. 31.
“But that’s only 20% of the total available,” Langer said. “So we’re not, by any means, sold out.”
The hike has always been considered steep and strenuous, and forest service officials are urging hikers to watch for obstacles.
“Following a wildfire, there are increased risks from falling rocks and trees, stump holes in the ground, and in the case of a rain event, possible debris flow and flooding,” Veldhuis said. “If you’re coming out, be alert.”
In fact, there was a recent rock fall that blocked the short path leading from Hanging Lake up to Spouting Rock. A dozen volunteers from the Wilderness Workshop, Wildland Restoration Volunteers and the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers cleared the trail on Wednesday, removing tons of rock.
“It looked like a scree field,” Forgensi said. “We thought it was going to be closed for opening day, but we were able to open it. Hanging Lake is a spectacular location, but I also really enjoy Spouting Rock. When water is pouring directly out of limestone, that’s one of my favorite places in the forest.”
Forest service personnel along the trail on Thursday seemed genuinely excited to reopen one of Colorado’s most inspiring destinations.
“Hanging Lake and the trail was spared,” Veldhuis said. “Other than occasional burned trees, some rock fall or soil impacts that we’re closely monitoring, we’re ready to go.”
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