Clear mountain water cascades into a greenish blue lake, with pines dangling over the edge. Even for Colorado, it’s unique. Hanging Lake is described as a jewel in the White River National Forest. For many years, it was an unspoken secret that only Coloradans knew.
But there’s a problem. The secret is out.
In the past eight years, visitation to the site just off Interstate 70 west of the Continental Divide has tripled. In 2015 more than 130,000 people visited Hanging Lake. The 2016 hiking season is on track to beat it.
Social media is exacerbating that trend - not just at Hanging Lake but at other sites around Colorado. Pictures and articles go viral and become synonymous with a particular place - making more and more people want to replicate it.
A search of Instagram yields 44,000 pictures with #hanginglake. Sometimes that quintessential shot breaks the rules and leads to the eventual destruction of the area, a fate officials hope to avoid at Hanging Lake.
“It’s not going to last much longer, if people keep walking on it,” said Aaron Mayville, acting ranger at the White River National Forest. People walk right past the sign saying "Please Keep Off The Log" to stand on the downed tree that juts across the water. It's become for many a must-have social media picture.
It wasn’t as much of a problem when it was just a few errant visitors. But the popularity of places like Hanging Lake in part driven by their fame on social media is degrading the rare travertine rock, the water quality and the infamous log.
“With that number of people, you increase the number of people breaking the rules like jumping in the lake, walking out on log - even though it’s not allowed, it’s really popular,” Mayville said.
Hanging Lake is an economic driver for nearby Glenwood Springs and Garfield County, making protecting it, while keeping it accessible a delicate balancing act.
“No one wants to close Hanging Lake,” Mayville said. “We’re putting together a long term management plan so we can manage visitation more effectively. In the interim, we are trying to educate people about better times than others to visit [Hanging Lake] and have them be responsible visitors.”
But why take and share the same photo as everyone else?
“Places are symbolic and they have symbolic value and there are culturally shared meanings of particular places,” said Germaine Halegoua, assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas.
“Visiting these places have some sort of value within social networks,” she added. “Although it’s the same picture, it doesn’t hold the same type of value and meaning for everyone…it might be that a travel blog said, ‘that’s the place to go’ that year, or your best friend went and you want to share that experience with her, or an image has become iconic and has come to stand in for Colorado.”
How we share these images has evolved. Instead of slide shows in a room of friends or photo albums, social media presents us with potentially tens of thousands of people - most of them complete strangers - who can access and replicate personal images. That in turn makes places like Hanging Lake too popular for their own good.
It’s so crowded at the lake that fist fights break out in the parking lot when frustrated drivers find it full, Mayville said. People park illegally and sometimes even back up onto I-70, causing traffic and safety problems.
“We need the public to start thinking about putting the collective experience first. There is value in unplugging on the forest, but there is also value in snapping a beautiful photo memory and sharing it on your news feed. It’s really fun,” said Kate Jerman, social media coordinator for the forest.
“The White River National Forest isn’t here to say how people should or shouldn’t experience the outdoors,” she said.
But not everyone is indifferent to the destruction caused. According to Jerman, they’ve seen social media users call law enforcement and object online by shaming rule breakers and their pictures.
In 2017 forest officials will use social media to ask people what they think should be done about the overcrowding problem at Hanging Lake. Ideas include a shuttle from Glenwood Springs, about 10 miles away to control crowds. Tickets may also be required.
The Forest Service hopes that the public will understand the need to restrict access for the good of the ecosystem - even though it may make those photos even more desirable when they are harder to get.