Caving In to the Heat

By Carrie Patrick

A handful of Colorado's hot springs offer something different-a subterranean soak

To most homeowners, a basement pitted with tunnels and flooded with steaming water would be cause for alarm. To Linda Wright-Minter, it's something she wouldn't trade for millions-and that's no throwaway phrase. As owner of the Wiesbaden Hot Springs Lodging, she has turned down offers from developers that are almost as jaw-dropping as the blast of heat that emanates from the caves beneath this small motel in Ouray, Colorado.

Colorado has dozens of hot springs, from large resorts down to anonymous riverbanks in the wilderness. Of all of them, though, only a handful offer the option of going underground-each in a markedly different way.

Wiesbaden Hot Springs, Ouray

From the outside, the Wiesbaden looks like any other small country guesthouse, harking back to a time when peace and quiet were more important than the latest bath fittings. On a late-October visit, rain pattered and pooled gently on the red wooden porch connecting the rooms. Soft and gray as the evening mist they emerged from, four wide-eyed and hesitant mule deer tiptoed delicately over a scatter of golden aspen leaves on the lawn. A sign in the office reminded guests to close the door so bears and skunks don't get in.

If you're not a regular here, the unassuming stairs beside the check-in desk might look like they descend to a basement rec room. Padding down in bare feet, swimsuit and towel, I pass through several dim rooms, mostly deserted-in the last, there's a fantastically fit-looking older man doing a yoga headstand beside some plastic lawn chairs. Am I in the right place? Yoga Man sees me wavering on the brink of fleeing, like a mule deer that's worried about how it looks in a swimsuit, and smilingly indicates a heavy steel door in the wall.

Behind it is another world.

If anything, I had expected a basic sauna or hot tub in a square-cut rock hollow. But the door opens into a long cave chamber, gloriously hot and pouring steam, where a hot waterfall floods over a beautiful formation of smooth brown flowstone that's taller than me. The warm rock under my feet, while perfectly adequate for walking, isn't leveled to the uniformity of a concrete sidewalk; the water puddles among shallow ridges and rockpools underfoot. Beyond the waterfall, a battered, arched wooden gate swings closed on the darkness behind. Someone is in there.

I splash through the hot water pooling around the base of the waterfall and peek around the gate. Oh, boy-and I thought it was hot in the first chamber. In fact, on the way back out, that "hot" waterfall will feel like an icy mountain stream.

Behind the gate are two smaller chambers, sharing the twilight of a single bulb and echoing with the drip and bubble of the hot spring that emanates from the far wall of the cave. Two girls sit on a wide stone bench in the steaming darkness, idly swishing their feet through puddles of water that feels flesh-meltingly hot when I try a touch-test.

I pass these hardy souls and enter the last chamber. This rough-hewn oval cave is almost entirely taken up by the soaking pool. A knee-high concrete border confines the constantly flowing hot water to bathtub depth before it makes its way out at the other end of the pool. Reflections dance on the low, craggy ceiling.

Silence is requested within the caves, but somehow the rule seems redundant-there's something about this small, intimate underworld retreat that imposes its own silence on the visitor. The heat urges you to drowsiness, and the lap of water in darkness whispers, "Slow down there's time. For water and stone, there's always time."

"I asked one of these developers what he'd do with the place if I changed my mind and sold it," says Wright-Minter. "He said he'd level it and put up a big resort."

Back in the lobby, I look around at the garden of potted plants, the icy rain drumming on the skylight window, the aspens like thin golden ghosts in the fog outside. Imagining the surreal little world in the basement, I find myself hoping this woman lives to be 200-and never, ever changes her mind.

Yampah Spa Vapor Caves, Glenwood Springs

A very different but no less intriguing underground experience can be found in Glenwood Springs. The vapor caves at the Yampah Spa are a warren of natural steam rooms-no soaking opportunities here, but with the world's largest outdoor hot springs pool next door, it's unlikely anyone will complain about that.

A smoothly professional spa and salon building is the gateway to this underground sauna. Just walk right in and ask at the reception desk for a ticket to the vapor cave-you'll need your swimsuit, but towel rental is included in the admission price. Save a quarter for the coin-operated lockers in the changing rooms. Then it's a chilly dash down the hallway to the long flight of stairs that descends into the caves.

These are said to be North America's only natural vapor caves. To be honest, the level floor, curving concrete corridors and clear plastic curtains that divide the tunnels initially make the Yampah cave look far less natural than the Wiesbaden. But once through the curtains, it's unmistakeably a cave.

The hot spring water that provides these caves with their permanently thick steamy atmosphere is hard to spot unless you look for it. It's channeled out of the way of unwary feet and fingers, which is just as well, because it's very hot indeed. In the central part of the caves, a cold-water hose and shower head have been installed for visitors who need them. Small plastic buckets are also scattered around, to be filled with cold water and used as needed.

There's something very strange, yet oddly appealing, about sitting in a hot cave in a swimsuit with your feet in a bucket of cold water. Small alcoves in the corridors look like good places for goblins to hide, or perhaps a skeleton waiting to spring out at an Indiana Jones-style adventurer.

In the largest room, several teenagers have laid themselves out on beach towels, as if basking in a sunlight never seen here. A smaller chamber holds one wide slab of stone, like an altar for the burial of some primeval warrior king. But the body sits up as I look into the room-he reaches for his sipper bottle, checks his waterproof watch and settles back for another few minutes.

There's nothing for Indiana Jones to fear here. Maybe on the way out, even that intrepid hero might be inclined to ask about a coconut body scrub or herbal facial.

Indian Springs Resort Geothermal Cave Baths, Idaho Springs

The historic Cave Baths in Idaho Springs are, perhaps, a little more suited to the adventurous. Where the Wiesbaden is intimate and the Yampah is elegant, Indian Springs Resort makes no bones about its age. "Renovations are ongoing," admitted the front-desk clerk. If you're looking for a facility with even a basic amount of shine on it, this isn't the place for you.

What this cave offers, though, is the deepest soak of the three locations described here, the only one that is strictly segregated by gender, and the only one in which swimsuits are not required. In fact, they're not allowed. (Other pools and public areas at the resort are co-ed and clothed.)

The men's and women's caves are reached through separate entryways and locker areas, and each contains several sunken baths of varying temperatures.

These caves don't even make a pretense of being natural. Dug between 1903 and 1911, they retain the look of a horizontal mineshaft. Pipes and electrical conduits cross the cave roof, and the central walkway between the tubs is covered with old rubber pool flooring, torn or prickly in more than a few places. Wearing flip-flops is a good idea.

The bathing experience here seems barely different from what it might have been in 1911. In the women's cave, three of the four sunken tubs are simple rectangular pits, each divided into one-person-wide stalls into which the bather descends to stand chest-deep in hot mineral water. The fourth (and hottest) tub is long and narrow. It's acceptable for shy bathers to clutch a towel while out of the water-though there aren't many dry places to set it down, so leave an extra one in your locker just in case. For those who are willing to overlook the dilapidated environment and somewhat rough-and-ready ambience, the "aaah!" factor of total immersion can be delicious.

Aficionados who have visited all three cave springs will agree that Indian Springs Resort, the Yampah Spa and the Wiesbaden Hot Springs couldn't be more different from one another. But they all have one thing in common. Insulated from winter weather, isolated from the world above and wrapped in blissful silence, it's a fascinating new take on a basic pleasure of life: a very, very hot bath.

If You Go

Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodging
Corner of 6th Ave. & 5th St., Ouray. 970-325-4347, The cave is adults-only, mixed bathing, swimsuits required. Admission: free for Wiesbaden guests, $15 for non-guests.

Yampah Spa Vapor Caves
709 E. 6th St., Glenwood Springs. 970-945-0667, Swimsuits required. Admission: $12, or $9 with any spa treatment.

Indian Springs Resort
302 Soda Creek Rd., Idaho Springs. 303-989-6666, The cave is adults-only, segregated by gender, nude bathing. Admission: $18 Mon-Thurs, $20 Fri-Sun.