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Could San Isabel Become the Next Hanging Lake? Overcrowded and restricted

Across Colorado, popular tourist destinations are under threat from crowds. As Southern Colorado grows could places like San Isabel be next to adapt new policies to limit access? (Madison Gill for PULP)

One of my favorite things to do to mark the beginning of summer is take a dip in the natural waterslides up at San Isabel.

I can remember the very first time I visited the waterslides. Recently having moved to the area, I heard about them as most do: from a local. I remember feeling honored to be filled in on such a local secret. I remember the excitement of being on a new trail, the exhilaration hopping boulder-to-boulder with the river roaring inches beneath my feet, the thrill of being swept down the water eroded rock formation for the first time, the brief panic as it dumped me into the shallow pool at its base and the current kept pushing me downriver.

Most of all though, I remember the isolation: not meeting anybody else along the trail, having the waterslide and surrounding oasis virtually to myself, and no signs of humanity beside the occasional fire-blackened pile of rocks that must have been someone’s campfire pit from the night before. That experience, unfortunately, is not the norm nowadays as more and more people have discovered this local treasure and exploited it.

It’s no wonder why you’re bound to run into more people on the trails in Colorado now more than ever. The US Census Bureau reported that the population of Colorado grew by upwards of 80,000 people between 2017 and 2018, ranking as the seventh fastest growth rate in the nation. Bottom line: more people are moving to Colorado, and why? For one, to enjoy the bountiful natural beauty that this state has to offer. Now while that may be a great thing in theory, it has become nothing short of detrimental in practice.

On my most recent trip to the San Isabel waterslides, there was significantly more trash on the physical trail and washed up on the banks of the river along the trail compared to my first time there – namely plastic water bottles, beer cans, shattered glass, and the like. A friend who accompanied me only went down the waterslide one time, and ended up cutting his foot open on a piece of glass from a broken bottle that had been carelessly disposed of in the river.

He had to hike the whole way back to the parking lot, including up the nearly vertical stretch of incline just off of the side of the highway, with glass stuck in his foot. The injury he sustained was great enough to require stitches. It makes me shudder to remember that first time I was there, and how not one of us even thought of wearing shoes to go down the slide back then.

It’s disappointing when this type of thing happens to a favorite natural area, but sadly not out of the ordinary. Take Hanging Lake, for example, that just unveiled its permit-only visitation system at the beginning of May designed to preserve the popular site after years of damaging effects due to severe overpopulation.

Tourism to Hanging Lake exploded back in 2011 after it was officially named a National Natural Landmark. As a result, the trail faced extreme erosion. Worse than that, people were leaving behind trash, relieving themselves in undesignated areas along the trail, trampling on sensitive natural lands, and swimming in the lake – all of which are forbidden. Parking at Hanging Lake became somewhat of a free-for-all, ill-equipped to support such large crowds. Long lines would form of people waiting for others to leave, causing even more traffic congestion on I-70. People would even attempt to illegally park directly on the interstate along the shoulder ramps of nearby exits to get into the wildly popular destination.

Since implementing the permit-only system, the daily visitor count at Hanging Lake has gone down from its previous average of nearly 1,300 people a day to little over 600 people. Access into the natural site is only available now via the Hanging Lake Express Shuttles that seat approximately 44 people and leave from the newly erected Hanging Lake Welcome Center every forty-five minutes from 6:45 am to 4:30 pm. Nearly 11,000 permits at $12 per person had been sold by the first day the new system went into effect.

Only time will tell how successful the new permit system will be at Hanging Lake. While the preservation effort has already proved to yield some real benefits for the popular natural landmark, one thing that is immediately apparent is the fact that visiting Hanging Lake is even less of an organic experience now than before. Just like I and many others remember a time when they didn’t have to share the San Isabel waterslides, I’m sure there are people who can remember a time when they could hike to Hanging Lake and be the only people there. Gone are those days when you could come and go as you please at Hanging Lake, and if we aren’t careful, the same may become true of San Isabel.

Obviously, San Isabel’s natural waterslides don’t have the same notoriety as Hanging Lake. But the fact remains that as time has gone on, more and more people have populated that trail. And consequently, the trail has suffered. Picture it: rails and fences put up around the areas of the river that feature the waterslides, park rangers stationed to monitor the amount of time each person is allotted to enjoy the slides, paved concrete paths in place of the pine needle-padded dirt trail, and let’s not forget that per-person fee required before even setting foot in this hypothetical future San Isabel.

A lot of times, preservation can take the form of commodification. But preservation ordinances are put in place because of humanity’s proven inability to preserve these natural areas on our own. As inhabitants of the world and especially of Colorado, we have a responsibility to take care of our natural lands. Unfortunately, left to our own volition, we neglect that responsibility. As a people, we have to be better. If we don’t want to see fences put up in our beloved natural areas, then we have to stop creating a need for them. That begins with each of us as individuals developing greater respect for our natural world and making a personal commitment to take better care of it.