Options to fight Hanging Lake overuse may include shuttle, reservations | VailDaily.com

Options to fight Hanging Lake overuse may include shuttle, reservations

Carla Jean Whitley
cj@postindependent.com

Tired of waking up early to snag a parking spot at Hanging Lake? Frustrated by a full lot? You're not alone, and in the coming months, you'll be able to weigh in on possible solutions that could limit visitor numbers.

"It can be frustrating for people, and I think having a reservation system might make it more understandable for people so they know when they're able to go there. It will perhaps mitigate some of the overuse of that area," said Roaring Fork Transit Authority CEO Dan Blankenship.

RFTA is one of many agencies involved in exploring possible solutions. Blankenship said environmental concerns are one of the potential issues caused by overuse.

White River National Forest recreation planner Kay Hopkins said a public process will begin in the spring or early summer to evaluate possible solutions.

Hanging Lake saw 137,000 visitors in 2016. White River did not have past figures immediately available, but said numbers had flattened a bit because of parking management instituted after years of steep increases. The Forest Service hopes to implement solutions for the popular site by summer 2018.

"Our goal is to get there as soon as possible because our current level of management is pretty tough and not sustainable," Hopkins said.

Recommended Stories For You

The Forest Service currently manages parking four days a week during high-use times.

The public discussion will be another step in a planning process that dates back to 2013. At that time, the Forest Service engaged U.S. Department of Transportation's John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to study long-term solutions.

In May 2015, Colorado Department of Transportation and USFS installed a gate to manage parking in the meantime. The gate is closed when the 112-space lot is full. In the past, illegal parking has created hazards, such as making it difficult for emergency vehicles to reach the site.

The Volpe Center conducted a capacity analysis, available at http://www.volpe.dot.gov. It indicates the area sees an average of 1,050 hikers per day on a 95th percentile week, meaning only 5 percent of weeks that summer saw higher visitation.

Several future scenarios are possible. A National Park Service ecological assessment will factor into capacity limitations, said White River National Forest spokesperson Kate Jerman. That will inform parking and transportation solutions that will address safety and environmental issues.

RFTA has been involved with USDOT and USFS for about a year and has prepared cost estimates for a shuttle service. That's one of several potential solutions. Others could include contracting with a tour operator; contracting with a tour operator and RFTA; or implementing a reservation system, according to Blankenship's January report to RFTA's board.

Blankenship said if contracted, RFTA would run a shuttle from West Glenwood Springs Park and Ride to Hanging Lake spring, summer and fall. Some capital improvements would be necessary — more park-and-ride space and expansion of RFTA's Glenwood facility in order to support the additional service. Provided those were met, bus fares would cover the system's additional operational costs.

The process is complicated by land ownership, which is fragmented. Hanging Lake is in the White River National Forest, but the parking lot is a CDOT safety rest area, which complicates fee and shuttle systems. The site could be in effect decommissioned as a rest area as part of the parking solution, but how that would work is yet to be determined, said CDOT regional spokeswoman Tracy Trulove.

"The whole idea is all of us together, as partners, want this place to be there for generations to come," Jerman said.

Stakeholders have collected information about visitor usage through a survey. Visitors shared information such as how they learned about the site and how far in advance they planned their trips. The study results will be publicly available as the process continues.

Hopkins said 36 percent of those surveyed learned about Hanging Lake via word of mouth and 14 percent via websites other than the Forest Service's own. Social media may be an influence; after all, a cursory search for the hashtag #hanginglake returned 51,000 Instagram results Tuesday.

"Social media is a powerful tool to share really unique experiences. I don't think Hanging Lake is precluded from that," Jerman said.

USFS representatives will attend RFTA's Feb. 9 board meeting as another step in the information-gathering process. USFS will discuss the feasibility of RFTA providing a shuttle service. Decisions will not be made until after the public process is complete.

The RFTA board meeting will take place 8:30-11:30 a.m. Feb. 9 at Carbondale Town Hall, 511 Colorado Ave.

Stakeholders

A number of agencies and communities are involved in mitigating parking problems at Hanging Lake. They are:

• Colorado Department of Transportation

• Colorado State Patrol

• Excel Energy

• Federal highways

• Garfield County

• Garfield County Search & Rescue

• Glenwood Springs

• Glenwood Springs Tourism Promotion Board and Chamber of Commerce

• National Park Service

• U.S. Department of Transportation

• Other nearby communities