Meet one of the many people behind Hanging Lake’s reopening

Ray K. Erku
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Jamie Werner, a White River National Forest Stewardship Coordinator for the National Forest Foundation, in Glenwood Springs on Friday.
Ray K. Erku/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Jamie Werner knew hard work would soon follow the surges of mud, rocks and debris that crashed down in Glenwood Canyon last summer.

“I knew from that moment it was going to impact our community,” Werner said. “I did not know how much it was going to impact my professional life, but that became clear very quickly.”

Werner, 38, is an experienced professional in environmental science who also currently sits on the board of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative.

Yet she was about five months into her new role as White River National Forest stewardship coordinator with the National Forest Foundation when a rare, 500-year rain event bore down on the Grizzly Creek burn scar in July 2021. The burn scar was, of course, a product of the Grizzly Creek Fire of 2020.

This series of catastrophic debris slides not only trapped motorists but destroyed parts of Interstate 70, disrupted interstate commerce and traffic and led to the closure of Hanging Lake Trail, one of Colorado’s most prized possessions.

The disaster also prompted a $116 million request for federal emergency funds. 

“That night, when the folks were stuck in the tunnel and the canyon was closed, it’s important to maintain a perspective on it,” Werner said. “Hanging Lake is a treasured landscape and is a very important place to all of us, but human safety is paramount.”

One of her main responsibilities throughout this entire ordeal was to ensure Hanging Lake Trail recuperated and reopened. This meant tirelessly interfacing with federal, state and local leaders and officials, nonprofit organizations, local businesses, scientific researchers, trails specialists and average Colorado residents. The aim was to procure the funds necessary to restore a natural wonder and have this seemingly impossible feat accomplished as quickly as possible.

Jame Werner on a hike up Hanging Lake Trail.
Jamie Werner/Courtesy photo

“Tackling a project of the scale of the Hanging Lake Trail restoration in such an ambitious time frame would be impossible otherwise,” Werner said.

The history of Hanging Lake Trail stretches back to the late 19th century. Based on legend, a man accidentally stumbled upon this cliff-side basin while searching for gold. Since then, the location eventually turned into a 1.2-mile ascent to a mountain oasis, complete with angel hair waterfalls splashing into a rocky travertine lake of emerald waters.

White River National Forest Public Affairs Officer David Boyd said having someone as effective as Werner at the helm in this situation has “been amazing.”

“Very often as I’m hearing about a project and I’m getting more information, they’ll say, ‘This is funded through the National Forest Foundation.’ We’re coordinating a lot,” he said. “It’s great, because (Werner’s) from the area, and she knows the area very well.

“It’s been hugely helpful having her in this position.”

Hanging Lake Trail wasn’t expected to reopen so soon, but that changed Friday when Gov. Jared Polis and Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., paid a visit to Glenwood Springs.

Because Werner took the forefront of facilitating a contract between the U.S. Forest Service and Summit to Sea trail builders, bridges were fixed, a temporary trail was installed, and Polis and Boebert were cutting ribbon to usher in its grand reopening Friday.

“(Werner) was out front on that and really making sure everything was getting done and organizing everything and just stayed in very close communication with the (Forest Service),” Boyd said.

Friday was big for Werner.

“It’s a massive moment for our community and not just our local community but all the folks who come back to Hanging Lake again and again,” she said. 

Werner said it’s also a huge moment for the economy of Glenwood Springs to have their most-visited tourist attraction back up and running.

“I live here in Glenwood Springs, and so it’s a personally important project to me as well,” she said. “Since mid-April, to repair and replace three bridges, clear all that debris off the trail, is really, really remarkable.”

The project is not at the finish line yet, however. Werner has her sights set on managing the upcoming $2.28 million trail redesign and reconstruction effort supported by Great Outdoors Colorado.

Werner, who just purchased a new home with her husband, Jeff, in Glenwood Springs, leads a quintessentially Coloradan lifestyle. They’re either frequenting her favorite restaurants in Glenwood Springs, skiing groomers throughout the Roaring Fork Valley during winter or, when it’s nice, hiking all over Colorado high country.

So, when Hanging Lake has a permanent trail connecting to it hopefully within the next three years, Werner can perhaps enjoy the fruits of her labor.

“I really couldn’t ask for more,” she said. “I have a blast.”

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