Nearly one year after the Grizzly Creek Fire came close to scorching Hanging Lake, new life returns emerges from beneath the ashes. Photo by Paula Mayer.

Peak summer heat. Drought and Code Red winds that had brawled with billowing skies of black, gray and amber. Fifty square miles of wildfire shut I-70 down for thirteen days. Between the recent Lake Christine Fire, COVID, global warming and species collapse — the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire unleashed grief among locals.

“That initial helicopter flyover — the day following, when we knew that the fire was here, in the vicinity of Hanging Lake — it started with a feeling of apprehension and anxiety,” said U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis during an April 29 media tour. Hosted by Glenwood Springs, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the U.S. Forest Service, reporters, photographers and news anchors from Grand Junction to Denver attended.

“What were we going to find?” Veldhui asked. “For those folks who got to go up, seeing that it had survived was a huge sigh of relief, and joy, amid the rest of the ongoing fire. We had this one win to hold on to.”

The press gathered just two days before the official re-opening of the Hanging Lake Trail on Saturday, May 1. The atmosphere was electric yet hushed — we would be the first private citizens to visit Hanging Lake since its closure.

The approach was eerie; familiar but different. Right away, we passed a trail worker chainsawing a snarl of charred Wood’s rose. Yet, below, tender new leaves glowed green at the feet of its dead parent, rising from the black.

With the canyon to ourselves, National Forest Service rangers and ecologists shared stories of rockslides, avalanches, blow-ups and fleeing wildlife.

Inside the canyon, shadows of fire chased decaying snow across ephemerally saturated soils. Tendrils of virgin green beckoned us upward. Suspended in the senses and emotions, time vanished. Suddenly we’d arrived: the slick pages of magazine and website photography took form before us:

That famous log. The hanging gardens. Limestone cliffs and waterfalls — it was all there, still aqua, still clear, and still magical. Brookies finned quietly through swaying chartreuse algae and travertine. 

Inches from the plastic boardwalk framing the lake, lay the remnants of a pinyon from two centuries ago. The fire had scooped its heart out, leaving a crescent edge. Counting across the remaining rings, burnished by the swipe of a chainsaw, more than 80 years of kinship between lake and pine were laid bare. How many wildfires before this one, hidden in rings of history and now gone to ash?

“We’re going to let the area naturally recover,” said Veldhuis. “We need to do a little bit of stabilization in some areas, but the trail’s good. It’s ready to go.”

Scattered along the boardwalk, reporters and photographers sought sound bytes and imagery equal to the moment. Ripples from a rising trout spread outward. “Miracle” comes to mind.