Penny-Smashing Road Trip
Millions of tourists visit Colorado each year with a short list of things to see while they’re here: Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods, Estes Park, the Coors brewery and the like. But for some 'elongate collectors', the pilgrimage to these locations is made to obtain more than just new memories.
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On our way back to Denver, we stopped to see the stupefying red sandstone walls and spires of Garden of the Gods, while also checking out the visitor center’s two penny machines. During the summer, there are easily 200 to 300 people a day smashing pennies there, said Bett Brown, who has worked at the gift shop for five years. “It’s the most popular thing in our entire store,” Brown said, adding that she hears the sound of the penny machines’ cranking gears in her dreams.
In our backyard
Back in Denver, our penny quest brought us to two animal attractions we had always wanted to visit: the Downtown Aquarium and the Butterfly Pavilion. The aquarium has three machines, two of which are right next to the stingray petting zoo. “Don’t stingrays … you know, sting?” we asked. Yes, the helpful stingray attendant told us, but their stingers are like fingernails that can be clipped without hurting the animals.
You can’t, however, pet the sharks or the tigers. The aquarium’s Sumatran tigers inhabit a special indoor jungle and, on Tiger Tuesdays, they put on swimming demonstrations. As thrilling as those carnivores are to behold, the most exciting thing might have been the mermaids, who swim amongst the less dangerous fish. After swimming around for a while, the mermaids surface to talk to curious kids. Once, a little boy asked a mermaid what her favorite sea creature was, said operations manager Allison Harper, and when the aquatic lady said the sea turtle was her favorite, the boy fished through his pocket to retrieve the sea turtle penny he’d just smashed and gave it to her as a token of his affection.
The Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster is easy to find – just look for the building with the 12-foot praying mantis statue out front. Though the museum is dedicated to all invertebrates, the tropical butterfly room steals the show. You traipse through a giant greenhouse with 300 plant species – including coffee, guava, ginger and pineapple plants – as more than a thousand vibrantly colored butterflies and moths from all over the world flutter about.
The best part of the visit was when we went to the Crawl-A-See-Em and got to hold Rosie the Chilean rose hair tarantula. (There are actually more than 70 Rosies, who work shifts of a few hours every week and a half, or so.) After Rosie completed her tickly traverse of my hand, I returned her to her minder and walked over to the nearby penny machine to squash an “I Held Rosie” penny.
Paradise on Elkhorn
We spent a few weeks getting all the pennies near Denver, in the course of which we paid our first visit to the Coors brewery, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Buffalo Bill’s grave. Once we’d seen everything in the metro area, we were ready for our excursion to Estes Park’s Elkhorn Avenue, the crown jewel of penny smashing in Colorado.
Estes Park sits in a wide valley with epic mountain views in every direction. It’s the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and home to Colorado Life Magazine, but first you have to drive down Elkhorn Avenue, which seems to have more gift shops than there are in the rest of the state combined. No fewer than seven of these shops have penny machines, and from our conversations with the shopkeepers, it was clear we were hardly the first to come here specifically to smash pennies.
The machine at The Hiking Hut sometimes hauls in enough quarters to pay the store’s utility bill, owner Michele Riedesel said. Down the street at Indian Village Trading Post, Brooke Garrett has seen some high rollers come in to use the machine there. “I had one gentleman bring in $40 worth of quarters and his grandson and used him to press all $40 worth,” Garrett said. “He brought his manual labor, and he was hitting all the machines in town.”
Brittany Moe, who works at a shop aptly named The Copper Penny, once met a man who came in and asked for two rolls of pennies and a roll of quarters. As he smashed away at The Copper Penny’s machine, he told her he is a full-time tourist who travels the world, going only to places with penny machines. He had already squished his way across Japan and Europe. After hearing these and similar stories of penny tourists in Estes Park, I began to suspect my clever travel idea wasn’t as unique as I’d thought it was. I did a little research and found a number of Coloradans who far surpass my devotion to the hobby.