After years of heavy impacts, the overcrowded Lake gets a break—but hikers pay the price.

Colorado continues to grow. Sometimes faster than we want it to. Case in point: The Forest Service implemented a fee-based access system for the hike to Hanging Lake outside of Glenwood Springs in May, as a way to lessen the destructive force of the lake’s popularity. Limiting access was inevitable: In the summer of 2018, up to 1,200 visitors hiked the 1.2 mile trail on any given Saturday. Parking overflowed onto the highway, and the heavy use, along with complete disregard for Leave No Trace practices, were trashing both the trail and the delicate riparian areas of the lake.

With the need for a better management strategy apparent, the local Ranger District of the White River National Forest collaborated with the town of Glenwood Springs to award a concession contract to H20 Ventures. In return for exclusive access to the lake, the company has agreed to provide shuttle vehicles, an online booking platform, and employees for the storefront and check-in desk. The $12 permit fee goes almost entirely to H20 Ventures, with just $.60 allocated for the City of Glenwood’s marketing team to promote the hike. The Forest Service still staffs a full-time ranger at the trailhead, but does not receive any percentage of the fee.

Permit systems are not new to the West, and neither is the privatization of services. Limiting access to delicate natural areas has become common practice in the last decade as under-funded land management agencies scramble to protect resources. Many destinations that have received an exponential increase in exposure do not have the infrastructure to safely support the number of visitors they have been seeing. Competitive permit lotteries and daily quotas have become a normal experience for outdoor enthusiasts, and are further restricting access to an already elite population of users.

Hanging Lake is a unique example of this phenomenon, however, because the land itself has been transformed into a monopolized commercial product. Visitors must pay the reservation fee, which includes shuttle access regardless of whether they ride the shuttle or bike to the trailhead.

But the alternative? Until we can create a major shift in our culture to value and respect the natural land, and better fund national parks and forests to protect and educate the public, the land itself bears the cost if no action is taken.

—Lindsay DeFrates