One warm evening in July, we found Hanging Lake. Wanting an evening hike, we only had 2-3 hours. Like most people, we turned to Google — short hikes near Grand Junction. Several canyon hikes came up, but we sought something shadier, cooler.
Hanging Lake. One and 1/4 miles through a shaded forest to an emerald lake perched on the side of Glenwood Canyon. It sounded idyllic.
That evening, we parked at the Hanging Lake parking area, and walked up the bike trail. During the ascent up the winding trail, we saw maybe eight or nine people. Walking across a small bridge, we enjoyed the small lake with a waterfall delicately falling down the rocks in the background. For the experience we sought, it was the perfect destination.
During our two years living in Palisade, Colorado, we hiked up to Hanging Lake five or six more times. We took my father-in-law, who complained incessantly. One winter day, we came down the Hanging Lake Trail in the strangest way possible — on our butts. The trail was covered in ice, and we found butt glissading to be safer and way more fun.
Once we moved to the Front Range, we never hiked up to Hanging Lake again. With so many trails a mere 15 minutes from our door in Nederland, we didn’t feel the need to go all the way to Glenwood Springs.
Having long forgotten about Hanging Lake, I was surprised to read how popular the hike had become during the last several years. The Forest Service reported up to 1,200 people per day hiking the short trail to the picturesque lake.
The remedy? A quota system and a price of $12 per person to secure a permit to hike the trail. The news astounded me. $12 per person for a hike that is barely two miles and one hour round trip? The $12 gets you a ticket on a shuttle from Glenwood Springs to be dropped off at the bike trail.
Are you a biker riding the Glenwood Canyon bike trail? You’re not off the hook either. Bikers and runners still have to buy a permit. No one is allowed to use the Hanging Lake Parking Trail between May through October.
But surely in winter, when frequently the trail is covered in ice and snow, you can hike for free, right? Nope. You do get a small discount when the price goes down to $10 person and you’re allowed to park in the nearby parking area.
Who would pay for that, I mused. There are so many hikes throughout Colorado with incredible views — lakes, waterfalls, peaks. And 99% of them don’t cost a penny, being located on Forest Service or wilderness lands.
Apparently, a lot of people are willing to pay the price for nature’s beauty. As of Sunday, over 6,000 people had reserved permits online for the privilege of hiking to Hanging Lake. According to reports, most of those people aren’t even local — hailing from the Front Range or out of state. Add that all up and it’s over $60,000 in the pockets of the Forest Service.
Why does this matter? Because by charging for a hike that is very accessible to lots of people, you are inherently discriminating against a whole class of people. People of a socioeconomic class, who find $48 is too much money for their family of four.
Working for the national parks, we constantly tried to figure out how to attract diverse groups of people to parks. When you grow up poor in the inner city, you don’t go to Rocky Mountain National Park for a weekend of camping. We worked hard to tap into programs like Upward Bound, or staff booths at local street festivals to reach these people, and convince them to give nature a try.
Policies such as charging for short hike that normally attracts families of people of all ages excludes this group of people. Hanging Lake is now a hiking experience for those of greater means.
I understand the need to limit use to protect the resource. Creating a permit system to insure the trail is protected makes sense. But why did they decide they needed to charge $12 per person to do so? And where is that money going? Despite valiant research on the internet, I could find no mention of that. Couldn’t the Forest Service have implemented a permit system at a more modest price or provided free permits?
It makes me sad to see bureaucracy put a price on our natural experiences. I’ve often thought a hike in the woods is one of the few free experiences that is accessible to us all.
Except when it’s not.