How crews are getting Hanging Lake trail ready to reopen soon despite significant landslide damage

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After torrential rains and debris flows in Glenwood Canyon left massive rockpiles last summer on the steep trail that leads up to picturesque Hanging Lake, it was difficult to imagine the hiking experience returning to normal anytime soon.

Forest service officials expressed hope that they would be able to reopen the 1.2-mile trail, which involves a 1,200-foot ascent, in a “primitive” condition this summer. That would have required rock scrambling for visitors to navigate some sections, rendering the classic Colorado hike considerably more difficult.

But in a few short weeks since work began in late April, crews have made amazing progress in repairing the iconic trail, to the point where officials plan to reopen it all the way to Hanging Lake on June 25. And there’s no more talk about the route being in a “primitive” state.

“The trail experience is going to be very similar to what it was,” said Jamie Werner, the White River National Forest stewardship coordinator for the National Forest Foundation. “We do not anticipate any changes in the difficulty of the trail.”

Crews from Summit to Sea Trails, a trail building company that was contracted for the project, moved a bridge that had been knocked off its abutments and placed it back into position. This week, they were putting the finishing touches on a new bridge to replace Bridge No. 2, which was swept into the creek. Next, they will move to segments of the trail above Bridge No. 2, where they will clear the trail of obstructions.

“In the areas where those debris flows came and you had to climb over (rockpiles),” Werner said, “we’re going to be regrading those to bring them back to a sustainable grade.”

They won’t be using road graders, though. No heavy machinery is being used. Everything is being done by utilizing winches and hoists that offer mechanical advantages. That’s how they moved Bridge No. 1 back into position, and it’s how they will move boulders off the trail above Bridge No. 2.

“Mechanical advantage is definitely our best friend when we’re moving the big ones,” said Joe Murphy, a member of the trail crew who is camping in a tent beside the Colorado River with red rock canyon walls soaring above while working on the project. “But you’d be surprised, if you get the right rock that’s weighted nicely, they roll pretty well. You can use gravity as well.”

Sometimes it’s just a matter of pure muscle. Building a new Bridge No. 2 required delivering 41 2-inch-by-12-inch wooden boards, all of them 20 feet long, a quarter of a mile up the steep trail. Mechanical aids were used in some spots, but mostly it came down to two men carrying each 120-pound board up the trail.

“It’s a good way to stay strong and in shape,” Murphy said. “I don’t have a gym membership, for a reason.”

The trail has seven bridges in all. Five survived last summer’s slides intact, although crews will be removing some debris around one on the upper part of the trail. Officials expect all of the trail restoration work to be completed when the trail reopens next month.

“It’s much earlier than we thought we were going to be able to open that trail,” said Lisa Langer, director of tourism for Visit Glenwood Springs.

Forrest Gale, with Summit to Sea ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Forrest Gale, with Summit to Sea Trails, works on the new Bridge No. 2 on the trail to Hanging Lake on Wednesday.

The initial damage to the Hanging Lake Trail was caused by the Grizzly Creek wildfire in August 2020. The trail reopened last May but was closed again in July after a half dozen epic rainstorms caused huge mud and rock slides in burn scar areas. One storm was classified as a 500-year event after dumping more than an inch of rain in a 15-minute period.

About $150,000 has been earmarked for the current phase of repair, which officials are calling a “temporary” fix. Those funds have come from the city of Glenwood Springs, the Glenwood Canyon Restoration Alliance, the Glenwood Springs Chamber Foundation, the National Forest Foundation and the White River National Forest.

Soon the focus will turn to a permanent solution that would reduce the risk of damage from future extreme weather events.

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