Miracle on Hanging Lake: One of Colorado’s most iconic wonders was somehow spared by ferocious Grizzly Creek fire

Miracle on Hanging Lake: One of Colorado’s most iconic wonders was somehow spared by ferocious Grizzly Creek fire

Everyone feared the worst for Hanging Lake...

VicesAugust 26, 2020 By Will Brendza

When news came that Hanging lake had been overtaken by the Grizzly Creek fire, I had to step out of the office for minute. The wave of emotion that overcame me in that moment is hard to describe — I imagine it was not so different from the feeling French Catholics had as they watched flames engulfing Notre Dame.

I grew up just a short twenty minutes from that trail, and I’ve hiked it a hundred times — probably more. I’ve watched it change over the years; expanding from a pull-off day hike, growing in popularity to become the Instagram geo-hotspot destination that it is today. It got busier, it got better-developed and better-known, and still, its insane natural beauty never faded or ceased to amaze me for a moment.

Without a doubt, that is one of the most special canyon coves in all of Colorado.

So, on August 12th, when the Grizzly Creek fire swept over the Hanging Lake area, many people’s hearts sank — mine among them. Facebook was quickly filled with lamentations, posts in remembrance of that beautiful place, elegies for what was once, one of Colorado’s most iconic “hidden” gems.

What would it be like now? I wondered, as I stood outside Rooster’s office, staring westward into the haze that fire was spilling over the Rockies. All the old pine trees, the moss, the water falls, that familiar log laid across the crystal turquoise water, the bridges and the walkways… would any of it still be there? What of the fish and their delicate ecosystem? Could any of it survive such a grizzly wildfire?

Several days later the forest service answered those questions.

On the afternoon of August 14th White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams boarded a plane with his partner Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District. Their goal was to go survey the canyon, to take stock of the damage Hanging Lake had undoubtedly suffered. None of them were hopeful about what they’d find.

“From the get-go, we were not able to do any fire suppression or mitigation or anything in Hanging Lake,” Fitzwilliams tells the Aspen Times. “There were too many other higher priorities — people’s homes, the freeway, power lines … so we were just holding our breath.”

They were getting ready to roll out the news that Hanging lake and its immediate area had been scorched beyond recognition, Fitzwilliams says. But, much to their relief, and the relief of many others, when they passed over Hanging Lake in their Forest Service airplane, and the smoke below them parted, they saw something that brought true joy to every person in that plane: the area had survived, and the lake looked unscathed.

“When we saw that it wasn’t [burned], I just kept thinking about how much Hanging Lake means to Glenwood Springs, how it’s an icon for the area, and that this is a big day,” Fitzwilliams said. Adding that there were excited high fives and fist bumps between everyone in the plane.

“I could see Scott was just beaming, even though we were wearing masks,” Gilles says of her partner.

Several days later, when it was safe to finally approach the trail from the ground, Gilles accompanied firefighter crews and the special Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team, to get a closer look. They hiked the trail and were amazed to discover that almost all of the infrastructure, all the bridges, walkways, signage, the historic Civilian Conservation Corp shelter, was intact and unburned.

“We keep calling it a miracle, that not a single ember affected any of that,” Gilles says.

A miracle indeed. A glimmer of hope in this foul year cloaked in fuckery and misfortune. Good news that was sorely needed as the Grizzly Creek Fire continues to rip through Glenwood Canyon, spreading north and south, burning its way through some of the most beautiful parts of the Western Slope.

The Grizzly Creek Fire started on August 10th, just a few miles west of Hanging Lake, along I-70 near No Name. The source of the fire is still under investigation but, more than likely firefighters suspect that it was a cigarette tossed out a window, or a chain dragging along the asphalt and casting sparks.

Regardless of what started it, though, when it took off, it spread like… well, wildfire. In the 16 days it’s been burning, the Grizzly Creek Fire has torched some 32,060 acres.

However, when it reached Hanging Lake, it miraculously jumped right over it. Rangers suspect that the cooler canyon temperatures around the lake, waterfalls, and creek, the moisture in the surrounding soil and foliage and the steep canyon cliffs on three sides of the lake all helped protect it from the blaze.

It may still be a long time, though, before people are allowed to recreationally access the trail again. Wilderness services were already trying to limit the amount of foot-traffic that Hanging Lake saw, before the fire, and before COVID-19. In the weeks before the fire took off, visitors had been limited to just 200 per day (down from the previous cap of 615).

Now, besides the trail crews and firefighters working in the area, nobody will be allowed to access it. There are logs that have fallen across the trail in many places, and rockfalls and debris flows that rangers warn, could continue for a number of weeks. The trail is far from being “hikeable” in its current state — and firefighters are still concerned about flareups that could reignite a fire.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Gilles warns. “There are still hot spots out there, and there’s always the potential it could take off.”

So, the work is far from over, and the lake is still far from being totally “safe.”

“A lot of that hydrologic system is underground, and how fire affects that is something we won’t know much about for a while,” Fitzwilliams says. “That will be a wait-and-see.”

At least, though, this Grizzly Creek fire is now 61% contained. Which means that Hanging Lake’s fate is secure, at least, for the moment. Firefighters can now protect it far more diligently than they were able to a week and a half ago when the fire first burned through that area.

Which is fantastic news. In a timeline riddled with evil vibrations and historic strangeness, any kind of positive revelation is a powerful one. Especially when it concerns the welfare of such a sacred, beautiful and unique wonder of Colorado as Hanging Lake.

“Miracle” really is the only word for it.