DCSki’s Editor is in the midst of a road trip through western states, in search of snow and adventure. On Sunday, February 18, 2018, he skied at Colorado’s Aspen Snowmass Resort. After a cold and windy day on the slopes, he took the next day off to ride a gondola to a different kind of destination.
Sometimes on an extended ski trip, you just don’t feel like skiing. The daily grind of transporting yourself to the slopes and inventing new forms of physics to try and get your feet into your ski boots can start to wear you down. When the forecast calls for heavy wind, negative wind chills, and poor-to-no visibility, skipping a day becomes a temptation. Sometimes you have to follow that temptation.
Such was my dilemma on Monday, February 19. I had spent the previous day skiing at Snowmass, and due to strong winds it wasn’t much fun. Those winds were forecast to continue. So I decided to delay my return to Snowmass and instead spent a day in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Actually, I spent several days in Glenwood Springs — after spending a couple nights in Rifle, Colorado, I repositioned to Glenwood Springs and used that as my “home base” for a few days. It was about an hour away from Vail, Beaver Creek, and Snowmass, and lodging in Glenwood Springs is significantly cheaper than options at those resorts.
With skiing off the table, I glanced up from my hotel and saw a gondola rising 1,400 feet up one of the mountains surrounding Glenwood Springs.
“What is this? A scenic lift ride?” I pondered.
Turns out, it’s much more than that. The European pulse gondola design, manufactured and installed by Leitner-Poma of America, is one of the first ever installed in the United States. The gondola — known as the Iron Mountain Tramway — transports guests to the top of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. Located at 7,100 feet above sea level, the mountaintop park is the home of two commercial caves.
The cave system was first discovered in the late 1800s by Charles W. Darrow. In 1895, he opened the cave up to the public, and in 1897, he installed electric lights in the cave — one of the first caves to include artificial lighting.
The caves were closed to the public in 1917 as World War I consumed the nation. A second owner later purchased the caves, but did little with them. Then, in 1999, the current owners — Steve and Jeanne Beckley — purchased the mountaintop land, performed restoration work, and re-opened the caves to the public.
The popularity of this tourist attraction led to long lines for guided cave tours. To help entertain guests while they waited for their tours, the Beckleys began installing amusement park rides and attractions, a mountaintop visitor center, and the Poma gondola — which enabled year-round access to the expanding western-themed adventure park.
Today, in addition to the cave tours, attractions include an alpine coaster (the first to be installed in North America), a swing-style attraction that takes guests right over the edge of the mountaintop, and even laser tag.
For $42, I purchased an Adult Winter Funday pass, which covers unlimited admission to all of the attractions at the Adventure Park. (Cheaper options include just a tram ride to the top of the mountain, or a tram ride plus cave tours.)
As I rode the tram up the mountain, wind began to pick up and light snow began to fall. I made a beeline over to the alpine coaster, fearing it could close due to the approaching storm. I had never been on an alpine coaster, and was curious to try out the phenomenon that is increasing in popularity across the nation. (For example, Maryland’s Wisp Resort has installed its own alpine coaster.)
I can sum up the experience with one word: fun!
(Also: cold! A mountaintop roller coaster ride through windy, sub-freezing, snowing air is the kind of thing that will drive you immediately into the lodge to warm up afterwards.)
Unlike traditional roller coasters at theme parks, an alpine coaster gives you some control over the ride. The track doesn’t rise very far off the ground — it follows the contours of the mountain, making a lot of banked turns and occasionally going through dips, but no inversions. One or two riders fit in a train and the driver can use a brake to control the speed of the train — going as fast or as slow as comfort allows. After reaching the bottom of the ride, there’s a long, slow pull up to the top of the ride.
I only had a chance to ride the alpine coaster once, because as soon as I returned to the top of the mountain, it was time to rush to the first of two guided cave tours.
Two separate cave tours are offered, and although the cave entrances are located within a few minutes walk of each other, each cave offers a distinct experience. One of the caves has smaller rooms and passages, while the other has some expansive underground rooms. I’ll be honest — the caves are not the most spectacular I’ve seen. Over the past century, there has undoubtedly been some plundering and damage of cave features. But the caves are still fascinating and there’s a lot to see and experience on the tours. What really makes the tours stand out are the guides. I had two separate guides for the two tours, and while they shared a deep expertise of all-things-cave, they had their own distinct personalities and style of tours.
The first guide was almost professorial — an amateur geologist, his enthusiasm about the cave regularly bubbled over. The tour was packed with all kinds of history of the caves, the mountain, and everything we were seeing. Since Glenwood Springs is located in a high desert alpine environment, there isn’t a lot of moisture — and that makes features such as stalactites grow much slower than other caves. A slow drip-drip-drip of water can take thousands of years to add a small amount of growth to these features. The guide pointed out that it’s considered good luck if you get dripped on in a cave, and I got dripped on a lot during the tour — so I must be very lucky!
The second guide was equally enthusiastic during her tour but she was also a comedian. The rapid-fire of puns, jokes, and impressions throughout the tour caused chuckling to repeatedly reverberate throughout the cave. One particularly memorable moment was when she was describing an early explorer who had to squeeze through a 9-inch gap to get to the room we were standing in now. It took him close to an hour.
“And once he poked his head up, he said, ‘wow, look at those stairs!’,” the guide deadpanned, referring to the concrete stairs we were standing on which had been added much later to allow tourists to navigate the cave without squeezing through 9-inch holes.
In between the two cave tours, I headed over to the newest attraction at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park: the Haunted Mine Drop, which opened during the summer of 2017 and was included in USA Today’s 12 Most Anticipated Thrill Rides of 2017.
A lot of theme parks have drop rides. For example, if you’ve been to Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the Tower of Terror ride, which plunges guests down an elevator shaft faster than gravity.
The concept of the Haunted Mine Drop ride is similar, but with one key difference: the “mine” part isn’t just artificial theming — you actually drop into a mine carved 110 feet into the inside of Iron Mountain.
This makes this ride unique and special in ways no other drop rides are. As you plummet into the mountain, you can smell the earth — and you can feel the temperature change as you reach the bottom of the mine. It’s a very well done ride, and has theming on par with the best theme parks.
“Adventure” is in the name of the park, and for my visit, some extra adventure was thrown in at no extra charge.
Remember that approaching storm? It arrived while I was on top of the mountain. And it kicked up winds that were gusting above 50 miles per hour.
The park had been scheduled to be open until 6 p.m., but based on the treacherous conditions, a decision was made to shut the park down at 2 p.m.
There was just one problem: the only way off the mountain was through that gondola.
And gondolas don’t do so well with 50+ mph winds.
Thus, I was holed up with a few other guests in the mountaintop lodge, watching trees on the mountain bend horizontally and the gondola cabins bouncing and swaying around in the wind.
The operations manager walked up to me and struck up a conversation, explaining the safety features of the gondolas.
“Every tower has sensors that measure the exact position of the cable as it crosses the wheels,” he explained. “If the cable is just slightly off-center, the gondola begins to slow down. Eventually it will stop completely.”
The park cleared the gondola of all guests and tried to keep it running at the slowest possible speed — which was a crawl so slow you could barely see the gondolas moving along their 4,300-foot path.
“If it comes to a complete stop, we have to go through a time-consuming process to restart it, so we try to keep it inching along until the winds die down,” the manager said.
Since the park closed early, the manager distributed tickets to return in the future for free to the guests that remained on the mountain.
The tram is the way down for both guests and employees, so we all mingled together waiting for the wind to offer a reprieve. Some folks played board games, while others watched the Olympics, tuned in on one of the televisions in the lodge. I sipped some peppermint hot chocolate while listening to the howling winds outside.
Eventually, enough time lapsed between strong guests and we were cleared to descend the mountain. It was a slow and windy descent — the gondolas were bouncing around in the wind, and ran much slower than normal, but that provided a great chance to view Glenwood Springs below.
Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park is a gem. The park reminded me a lot of Tennessee’s Dollywood, located just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Glenwood Caverns is a family-run affair, with employees who were universally cheerful, friendly, and seemed really enthusiastic about their jobs. While originally starting with small cave tours, Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park has been adding attractions regularly and is quickly rising as a must-visit theme park, particularly given its unique mountaintop location. Shortly after my visit, the park announced that it will be building a new gondola in late 2018, increasing capacity from 300 people per hour to 1,000, and expanding the weather conditions that the gondola can operate in.
After my mid-day adventures, there was still more to explore in Glenwood Springs. Once the sun went down, I headed over to the attraction the town is perhaps most famous for: the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort.
Having grown up in Colorado, I remember seeing steam rising above an enormous swimming pool that was visible from I-70 as it passed through Glenwood Springs, but I had never been there.
The resort first opened in 1888, tapping into the Yampah spring, which provides an endless source of heated water enriched with minerals. This water feeds two separate pools: a main pool, which contains over a million gallons of water and is 405 feet long — longer the length of a football field — and a smaller therapy pool. While many swimming pools are heated, the pools at Glenwood Hot Springs Resort are cooled. The Yampah spring water is cooled from 122 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit before it enters the main pool, while the therapy pool is cooled to about 104 degrees, providing an experience not unlike a hot tub. The resort also includes a section with swimming laps, a diving area, and a water slide. In addition to the hot spring-fed pools, a complete spa is located on site.
It’s hard to describe the serenity of floating in these pools looking up to the sky as a light snow falls, feeling the contrast between the warm water and the cool mountain air. I alternated between the two pools, soaking in the warmth and relaxing my muscles which were sore from days of skiing at Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, and Snowmass.
There are over 15 minerals found in the spring water that feeds the pools, and the resort adds chlorine to the mix to meet health department regulations. Like all hot springs, at times there can be a sulfur smell to the water — which is best described as rotten eggs. While harmless, some guests may find the smell unpleasant, but I was not bothered by it.
The current cost of an all-day pass to the resort, including towel rental, is about $20. That cost drops to a little over $10 if you just want to visit from 9-10 p.m., and they really do make you wait until 9 p.m. exactly before you can pay and enter. I enjoyed my first visit so much that I returned a couple nights later after a day of skiing at Beaver Creek.
If you’re looking to save money on lodging while being a quick drive to several iconic Colorado ski resorts, check out Glenwood Springs. In addition to providing a nice base to operate out of, there are fun ways to spend your evenings and off-days within the town.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
Good stuff! The thing about the Glenwood Hot Springs is that it's so huge, it's not a hot tub or hot pool. It's like swimming in a hot lake. One of my most restful pit stops during my nine week ski trip in 2015 was spent in Glenwood Springs. After two weeks skiing in CO I spent one night at the Quality Inn and Suites there before continuing to Utah. Got a suite for $45 including tax off Priceline. Felt like a king after the tiny place I had stayed at in Minturn for the previous two weeks.
So note to self dont ride a gondola with Scott.
Love the pool at Glenwood. Although I once thought I could swim a workout there in the lanes....the heat and the altitude did me in .
I thought they had a big truck as a back up to the gondola but I guess not.
see if you can get a few turns in at Sunlight!
JimK: Swimming in a hot lake is a good way to put it! There's so much space that even on crowded days, I think it wouldn't be so bad.
oldensign: They do have a bus as a backup to the tram, but the narrow, winding (unpaved?) mountain road that goes to the top was covered in ice and snow, so I don't think they considered that a safe option and instead told us we'd have to wait it out. A group of employees decided to hike down the mountain rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time for the tram to resume, and I think they said that would be a 1+ hour hike down. I was tempted to join them but had only brought a light jacket since I didn't expect to be outside much. (The caves are in the mid-50s year-round.)
Mr. Scott - the one deficiency in your reports is - DID YOU EVER FIND A GOOD 'BURGER AT A SKi RESORT.
Great Scott !! As it turns out, I booked a condo in Glenwood Springs for January 2021. Taking my 19 yo kid. We plan to ski of course but not all the time, so good to see your description of the theme park - a pairing of words I normally try to avoid. I ran across this article in a web search. Cheers, Dave
edit: curiously, the best burger i've had a ski 'resort' was at Wintergreen when cooked on the big grill on their patio. Strange, right?