Town Story: Glenwood Springs

The Ute Indians first discovered the 124-degree mineral water bubbling from the Earth at Glenwood Springs. Since then, everyone from U.S. presidents to Molly Brown has come here to experience the water’s healing powers.

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They recently performed a song in which cast members hung upside down from the stage dressed as the bats who live in Glenwood Caverns. The critters made comedic complaints about having to share their cave home with tourists exploring Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.

The caverns on Iron Mountain are one of Glenwood Springs’ oldest and newest attractions. Cave tours started in the late 19th century but stopped in 1917, and until 1999 they were closed to the public.

As a student at the Colorado School of Mines in 1982, caver Steve Beckley read about the awe-inspiring mineral formations in the caverns and begged the owner to let him explore – even showing up at his home with ice cream cones to curry his favor. It took a dozen years of cajoling before the owner relented and let him in. On his first visit, Beckley brought his girlfriend, now his wife, Jeanne, to explore the caverns on one of their first dates. Some passages were so narrow they could only move a half inch at a time, and then only when they exhaled. But the payoff was worth it when they reached cave rooms like “the Barn,” 240 feet long with 60-foot ceilings.

The Beckleys bought the caverns a few years later and opened it to visitors. Their further exploration revealed 2 1/2 more miles of passages, and they widened narrow parts to let people to walk rather than squeeze through. They also added an adventure park near the caves with a roller coaster and rides, including a new swing that spins riders over a 1,300-foot cliff.

Those who think sailing over a cliff sounds more terrifying than fun might find the Strawberry Days festival is more their speed. Since 1898, Glenwood Springs’ old-fashioned town celebration has featured a parade followed by free strawberries and ice cream for all.

The strawberry theme even led the festival to attempt a Guinness record by baking the world’s largest outdoor-cooked strawberry shortcake. Curiously, while the event originated to honor the area’s strawberry growers, there no longer are any local strawberry farms. The town simply kept the name out of tradition. Or perhaps they reasoned that it would be too cumbersome to name the festival after all the things Glenwood Springs does have – it’s far easier, apparently, to name it after the only thing it doesn’t.

(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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