MINI TOUR: Spring(s) time in the Rockies

By Dan Leeth

Glenwood Canyon
Glenwood Canyon Recreational Trail
© Dan Leeth

Most 19th century Colorado mountain towns owe their origins to ore dug from the ground. Glenwood Springs was different. Here, dissolved minerals sprung to the surface, warm and wet, and for the miners, getting soaked by local businessmen became a worthwhile endeavor.

“Our hot spring water is basically high in sodium, heavy metals and sulfur, which is wonderful for drying impurities from your body,” claims Yampah Vapor Caves owner Patsy Steele. “Miners from Leadville came to detoxify and open their lungs.”

Today, 21st century de-stressing provides just as good an excuse for getting soaked in Glenwood Springs, a 160-mile drive from Denver or 90 miles from Grand Junction. Most folks come in the summer, turning Glenwood’s pool into a boisterous school of splashing humanity. For those who crave quiet, springtime at the springs offers a calmer experience. Crowds are absent, deals aplenty and hey, it’s Colorado, which at the town’s 5,800-foot elevation means pre-summer visitors may enjoy falling flakes or sumptuous sunshine, often on the same day.

The first visitors to Glenwood’s hot mineral springs were, of course, the indigenous Ute tribe who used streamside, vapor-heated caves for ceremonial and curative purposes. To the Utes, the caves were “yampah,” meaning “big medicine.”

Today’s visitors can simulate the native experience at the Yampah Vapor Caves (970-945 0667), albeit on a much more luxurious scale. A stairway and stone corridor lead to three aesthetically-lit underground alcoves where emerging hot water turns the rocky chambers into 115-degree steam baths. Patrons rest atop marble benches and inhale the sultry vapor for 15-20 minutes at a time. A fourth cave provides a cool-down room.

“I’ve seen amazing things happen after people have been in those caves,” claims Steele, “but we’re not allowed to say that the caves are actually healing.”

The Yampah Vapor Caves also offer private, Japanese-style mineral baths, a spa for body treatments and an AVEDA salon for hair, skin and nails. Steele admits some guests spend the entire day luxuriating here.

The more popular way to “take the cure,” as hot springers used to call it, is to plunge into the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool (800-537-7946). The main swimming area extends more than a football field in length, making it the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool. Water temperatures run 90-93 degrees, ideal for lap-swimming adults and their frolicking offspring. At one end of the main pool is a smaller, more relaxed “therapy pool” filled with soothing, 104-degree liquid.

Glenwood Hot Springs Pool
Glenwood Hot Springs Pool
© Dan Leeth

Beside it all stands a three-story sandstone bathhouse, which opened in 1890. It originally held tubs, parlors and a formal casino where gamblers needed to wear tails. Today, the historic structure houses locker rooms, a sport shop, athletic club, snack bar and the new Spa of the Rockies where guests can be kneaded in Victorian-tinged treatment rooms.

Not far from the pool stands the Hotel Colorado (800-544-3998). Opening in 1893, this Euro-styled edifice ranked as one of the state’s premier hostelries. Over the years, its guests have included Buffalo Bill Cody, the unsinkable Molly Brown, gangsters Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson, and at least five presidents including Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, the hotel claims the teddy bear was invented there when maids gave the 26th president a stuffed bruin as consolation after an unsuccessful hunt.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel’s lobby hearkens back to the Victorian era, and corridor walls are dotted with period photos. Wandering its hallways is like visiting a museum.

While the main structure looks much as it once did, the three-sided inner courtyard no longer holds its glorious 185-foot-tall water fountain. Gone, too, is the railroad siding where visiting gentry parked their private Pullmans.

Visitors to Glenwood can still arrive by rail, with Amtrak’s California Zephyr providing service from Denver or Grand Junction, but most make the trip via pavement. For those venturing from the east, that means driving through Glenwood Canyon.

Placing an interstate highway through this red rock ravine took 12 years and nearly a half-billion dollars to complete. While some might argue that no freeway is beautiful, the route through Glenwood Canyon comes close. On a warm spring day, it’s a great place to drop the top or open the sunroof for all-over views.

An even better way to enjoy the canyon’s beauty is to pedal it. A 16.2-mile paved trail parallels the highway from Exit 133 (Dotsero) on the east to the Yampah Vapor Caves on the west. Canyon Bikes (800-439-3043) rents two-wheelers in town and can provide shuttle service for those unwilling to ride roundtrip.

Another way to enjoy Glenwood Canyon is to float it. Raft trips, which usually commence in April, begin near the Shoshone Hydro-Electric Power Plant midway through the canyon. The Class III whitewater run provides thrills without being daringly dangerous.

“It’s a wonderful family experience,” suggests Johnny Cantamessa of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. “It’s a darn great way to spend the day bonding with friends and family.” Downstream, the town recently opened the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park for kayakers, complete with learning pools, eddies, holes and waves for practice and competitions. When spring runoff rages, the park becomes one giant wave stretching from bank to bank. That’s when it attracts surfers as well as kayakers.

“You’ll see lots of people down there with short boards and long boards,” laughs Lisa Glaser of Alpine Quest Sports. “It’s quite interesting.”

For those who prefer dryer fun, there’s Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park (800-530-1635). Originally known as Fairy Caves, its subterranean grottos display a showcase of highly decorated rooms, and getting there requires riding a gondola up the mountainside.

Three tour levels are available. The regularly scheduled walking excursion traverses easy-to- negotiate pathways with handrails. Flexible folks willing to crawl can reserve space on an Adventure Tour that requires shimmying through a 24-inch underground orifice. Not tight enough? There’s also the Wild Tour that involves wedging through an 18-inch opening. “They’ll let you practice in a simulator before you go in,” promises publicist Mandy Gauldin.

In addition to the caverns, the Adventure Park features the year-round Canyon Rush alpine coaster where riders in individual cars hurtle down the mountainside on 3,400 feet of elevated track. Indoors, there’s a laser tag arena and Colorado’s first 4D Theater, complete with moving seats and special effects that include bursts of air and mist. A discounted Winter Fun Pass covers all.

Sunlight Mountain Resort
Sunlight Mountain Resort
© Dan Leeth

For a real wind in the face feeling, Glenwood Springs offers easy access to the usual Rocky Mountain snow sports, with Snowmass Village and Aspen a short drive away. Closer yet is Sunlight Mountain Resort (800-445-7931) where lift tickets cost roughly half as much as Aspen’s or Vail’s.

Sunlight offers old-style skiing with nary a high-speed lift sullying its 470 acres. Instead of a mini-mansion subdivision, the unpretentious base area consists of a sunny deck, beer bar and 3,000-square-foot cafeteria vending burgers, pizza and fries.

“We’re using 100% organic, grass-fed beef from a local rancher,” says marketing director Dylan Lewis. “We think it’s important in these economic times to support our local ranchers.”

Cross-country skiers and snowshoers will find 18 miles of groomed trails nearby. For those preferring motors to muscles, Sunlight offers guided snowmobile trips through backcountry aspen groves and meadows.

No matter how the snow is enjoyed, Glenwood Springs serves up an après ski option few other resort towns can: muscle-soothing, body-thawing hot mineral water. Getting soaked by the locals is still a worthwhile endeavor.

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer and photographer based in Aurora.

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