A vapor cave? Its here! I define a vapor cave as a ‘sauna deep inside a mountain’. The largest natural hot springs pool in the country? The length of a football field and then some. Caverns and white water rafting? What place is this? Glenwood Springs, Colorado!
My first summer long vacation I decided to take it here in Glenwood Springs. An incredible train ride from Los Angeles the Amtrak depot was right downtown and near the grand Hotel Colorado famous for being modeled after a 16th century Italian villa.
Nestled in a beautiful mountain valley, Glenwood Springs sits in the western region of Colorado and is a major connection to Aspen (40 minutes south), Vail (45 minutes east) and Grand Junction (90 minutes west).
The Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers converge in (guess where) Glenwood Springs making for incredible white water rafting!
The Colorado River makes its way out of spectacular Glenwood Canyon and roars right through town. It’s popular for rafting, but walking or biking alongside it is also a treat. And if you’re into untold beauty, well-traveled trails, seek out the steep but worth-it hike up the Hanging Lake trail. At the top, you’ll see how the lake got its name.
Along the Colorado River, this natural hot springs mineral water now called Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves, has served residents and visitors for well over a century.
The hot springs and mineral caves in Glenwood Springs was the main reason for the settlement of this resort town. The cleanliness and village-like feel of downtown is quaint and European like.
The friendly open attitude of the townspeople to tourists still amazes me. I even made life long friends with some locals and did volunteer work for one of the thrift stores near downtown. And also attended great classes at the new age and holistic health center downtown as well.
Centuries before the hot springs were known to outsiders; they were well known to several Indian tribes and were fought over and used for both healing and sometimes punishment by the Arapaho, Utes, and Cheyenne Indians. Ute Indian tribes primarily used them for their healing aspects and ceremonies. But when the vapor cave was taken from them the Ute Indians summarily put a curse on it.
When I went there in the summer of 1996 the Ute Indians had just lifted their curse. What incredible timing for me as I’m part Indian!
Now called the Hot Springs Lodge and Pool and the Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves it offers cleansing vapors for both bathing and drinking. These are the only known natural vapor caves in North America …others are manmade and not even remotely comparable.
The hot springs source is in the hillside behind the spa. I walked across the long expansion bridge that crosses the interstate from downtown Glenwood Springs with a friend. We went there and paid a small fee in the lobby. The host told me and my friend that special rules had to be followed. The women had to wear bathing suits and if you didn’t have any they would be supplied. But if you are a guy you can go in sans any clothing! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Reluctantly me and my friend took the proffered swimsuits into the locker room and changed. We were given big towels too. And locked our personal clothing and belongings away.
The facilities include separate dressing rooms and showers for men and women, many private massage rooms and a beautiful solarium with a skylight and fountain. Since my visit it has been redecorated and is more modernized.
Hot spring-fed vapor caves and spa salon! The best of both worlds and unique to Glenwood Springs these springs are the only known natural and largest hot springs in America! The hot springs water flows through the vapor caves at a searing 125 degrees, creating steam vapor laden with minerals leached from the heart of the mountains. Generally regarded as therapeutic, the mineral waters have a very faint sulfurous aroma which takes some getting used to if you have a sensitive nose like I do. (So, a friendly warning; only visit if you are NOT going out afterwards but straight home for the evening).
When we were dressed in our bathing suits and had our towels (wrapped around us) we were led down the long hall to a closed door at the end of the hall. The host opened the door and you found yourself peering down a long flight of stairs into murky darkness. I could not see the bottom yet we got a hint of what was to come when a wave of sulphuric scented warm air wafted up to us. I was excited and could hardly wait. I loved the idea of caves and this was only my second one. A true spelunker this was the moment I had been contemplating for a long while.
But first we had to listen to some last minute rules and warnings. We are told to not go past the barriers to any of the unauthorized areas of the cavern. They were off limits and not safe. We could stay as long as we wanted but to be careful as the water could be very hot. We nodded and were then left alone. We began our descent down the stairs. Both of us were barefoot and walking down the stairs I discovered they were stone! Warm and slightly moist. We touched the walls and made another startling discovery. The walls, ceiling and the stairwell were all the same dull grey color and warm and wet. And I exclaimed,
“The walls are sweating too!”
We both laughed already in open-mouthed awe.
It seemed this stairwell might have been carved out of solid rock!
We continued down the stairs and finally reached the bottom. We stopped and surveyed all in front of us. We were in a huge room with several corridors leading off in different directions and going deeper into the cavern. We began walking and passed by something that looked like a portable shower. I made note of its location for future reference.
A young man came up and greeted us. There were several men there and I think I saw one or two other women but I was surprised it was mostly men there. This one guy asked us was this our first time visiting there? We told him it was and we chatted a little. He was a guest too but had been there before so we plied him with questions. Was it true that the guys didn’t have to wear anything? He pointed to his towel around his middle. He said,
“Yep. I have nothing underneath here.” I must have turned 10 shades of embarrassed!
He continued giving us the benefit of his experience.
“If you need it the shower here is great! It’s the closest one. It can get pretty hot down here. And don’t be ashamed to have to go and cool off!”
He was right. We noticed that the deeper into the cavern we went the hotter it seemed to get. It wasn’t just our imaginations! Our new friend began walking down a corridor and we quietly followed. He turned into a little alcove among several. They were so cute and strung with greenery and flowers which might have been real but given the temperatures there were probably plastic. Each alcove was an artistic carving straight out of rock with a half crescent shape to some of them. All were this grey color with little variation at that time. The alcoves were rock but the benches might have been marble but not sure. Some benches were like the length of loveseats or longer. Perfect for sitting or reclining. I liked the thought of the more private smaller alcoves. Behind a few was a pool of water I thought were specifically for cooling off when things got too hot.
Well, the guy went into an alcove toward the left and my friend joined the one next to him. I took a sort of personal smaller one toward the right. It was so cute with greenery and flowers.
And one of those small pools of water was right behind it. It was perfect!
I sat down, amazed at how warm it was but not uncomfortably so. I finally just put both my feet up and soaked in all that amazing rejuvenating heat and steam.
I had attended a sweat lodge only about 10 months before and had outlasted nearly everyone. I didn’t even take breaks!
So, I thought this will be a ‘cake walk’!
But, as time went on I found myself constantly mopping my brow and patting my chest dry, thankful for the large towel they gave us. After several minutes my friend and the guy left. She passed me and gave me a nod.
“What? They’ve quit already? Such babies!”
But, as the minutes ticked by, I found it beginning to get very stuffy and hard to breath. I thought I needed a cool drink of water. Why hadn’t I brought a water bottle? Then I remembered! Directly behind me was a little scooped out pool of cool water. Just the ticket!
I leaned back a bit, about to stick my hand in to scoop up some of that enticingly clear, cool water but something told me to stop! And just stick in the tip of my finger first. I thought, why would I do that? It’s obviously here to cool off the guests but listened to my ‘inner voice’ and merely stuck in the tip of my forefinger.
Yikes! I quickly drew back my finger! It was hot enough to boil eggs!
My friend had not come back yet so I figured they were still cooling off. Reconsidering now, that wasn’t such a bad idea as I mopped my forehead and chest again literally sweating rivulets! Was it getting even more stifling and hot in here or was it just me? How could that be?
I had survived an intense Sweat Lodge in Belen, New Mexico not that long ago and prided myself on holding out longer then anyone there! Not even a break (and at the very end I had this amazing vision! But once it was over and I finally stepped outside of the huge teepee I dry heaved for 3 whole minutes! Not a pleasant experience but everyone was congratulating me on doing so well on my very first sweat lodge. It was wonderful!
Yet, here I was barely 30 minutes and ready to (literally) throw in the towel! What a baby I was! I had stayed in that sweat lodge for 4 hours plus!
Then my friend came by alone and said she’d show me where the shower was as it was free now. Without a word I quickly followed her out. When I got to the shower and got under its cooling flows I ohhh’d and ahhh’d like I’d found nirvana!
Once I finished my friend and I decided to leave. She said the guy had left. We had made plans to go to a local movie house in downtown Glenwood Springs and would just make the last show. Yet, as we made our way up the stairs and down the hall to our lockers, we made a startling discovery. We both smelled of sulphur! It was in our hair, skin and even our breath! Yet, we decided to go to the movie anyway.
That was not a great idea although no one seemed to find us too disgusting (that we knew of) yet we both felt very ‘unclean’. Icky all thru the movie.
So, my suggestions are (strongly) to make the vapor caves your last stop for the evening. Then go home and soak the rest of the night in bath salts, bubble bath and 3 hair washings!
The other activities were great too. My time was my own. I found a trail that lead from downtown, over the bridge and down the side and past the spa and vapor caves parallel with the interstate and leading out of town to the river and hiking. I was alone and marveled at the clean crisp air even though a major interstate went through the small resort town it was wonderfully pristine! You could take deep breaths without doubling over and coughing!
By following the directions of my host I had two choices for solitude and adventure; either go walk along the river or hike up the mountain and see the ‘hanging lake’.
I decided to make the river my first trip and was amazed at its awesome beauty and incredible granite cliffs!
And I discovered stepping stones nearly to the middle of the river itself at one particular point. They were a bit bigger then stones actually. More like mini boulders. Except the largest and the last one was a boulder perfectly sized for one and almost in the center of the river! I decided it was a perfect backdrop to meditate. Not many people were nearby. Over the weeks that I went and meditated I saw few people and then only from a distance. The only real intrusions were the rafting groups. Now they were interesting!
I’d be deep in meditation, nothing but the sound of rushing water all around me, the sun on my back. But when the rafting groups came it was pretty much over. The people would wave and shout “Hello!” “Hi!” And, of course, you had to wave back. You couldn’t help but smile at the fun and friendliness of the groups. But also it meant a second group was not far behind. And the same thing. Waves! Shouts! Laughter! I’d give up and just enjoy the view before heading back to town or eat my lunch leisurely.
So, there was rarely anyone close enough to approach me except for this one lady, this one time.
I was in the middle of a beautiful meditation and heard this voice calling out. I thought it couldn’t possibly be for me. And kept on meditating. The voice got louder and more insistent! Reluctantly I opened my eyes and turned in the direction of the voice. It was a lady on the shore waving in my direction. I looked around. It had to be me she was waving to. There was no one else around. I waved back. She began to walk towards me and I noticed she was a typical tourist; camera, backpack, shorts, hat, shades, etc. I smiled. Oh well. She looked friendly enough and wondered what in the world she wanted? Was she lost? Did she want to chat about the area?
When she got closer she said I made a wonderful picture! Was I meditating? I admitted I was. She said incredible.
Could she take my picture? That one I hadn’t expected.
She hurriedly added that the backdrop of the granite cliffs and rapid flowing river behind me meditating made for a great photo op. I said. “Sure”.
She took several shots and then asked for my mailing address with promises she would mail me the finished picture. I have to admit I didn’t think I’d ever hear from her again but sure enough, several months later I got the picture (see below). And she was right. It was incredible scenery for pictures. The beauty of the river and the rocks was breathtaking! It was an unforgettable experience and I will be forever grateful to that lady for taking such a beautiful, memorable picture and sharing it with me.
Other days I felt like hiking up the mountain and this was always a full days hike and I would almost take a lunch and start off fairly early too. This was a bit further from the main trail but the same one that lead to the river (to the right) going to the mountains was to the left but also was a walk over the interstate itself. Then to the base of the mountain and into the cool shaded greenery of the canopy of evergreens, trees, berry bushes and ferns along the well worn trail and gently leading up the mountain herself. You were now on the mountain, lush, green and wet. With a river keeping you company the first half of the trip along side your right. As the trail got steeper suddenly the river changed to a minor stream and then crossed back over the trail. You had to literally walk on stepping stones to cross it to continue on. It was wonderful! At certain times of the year you couldn’t cross it at all I learned. After crossing the little stream you lost sight of it for awhile.
During the entire hike you found yourself rarely alone. All kinds of people (adults, kids, grandparents, dogs) were your trail mates. Laughter, talking and shouts were almost constant. I liked soaking in the scenery and nature and took my time and found I was being passed like a slow Ford Pinto by Porsches and Corvettes on a highway! Some points were so narrow you had to step literally into briars and berry bushes, etc. to allow them to pass. That could be very uncomfortable and so I didn’t particularly like doing that but it couldn’t be helped at times. I’d either be lost in thought or nature and they’d suddenly be right there behind me wanting to pass me. If I had some advance warning, most of those times I just stopped at a good roomy point and waited for them to come and pass me there. I was far too slow but it couldn’t be helped. Chatting and laughter just seemed to spoil the whole experience of my nature hikes.
I realized that if I wanted solitude I’d have to find another trail. That didn’t seem likely. But one day it happened.
I had gotten nearly to the top and could hear the increasing noise of a larger-then-usual group of hikers coming up behind me and gaining fast. You could just tell it was a pretty big group and snatches of their jokes, bantering and shouts wafted up ahead of them up to where I was. Up till that moment I had been pretty much alone most of the way. What to do? I just didn’t see anywhere on this part of the trail to allow such a large group to pass.
Then I saw it. A slight opening to my right into a tall thicket and just big enough for me. I ducked in as the sound of the hikers came ever closer. They must’ve been jogging! I stepped back deeper into my little hiding place and suddenly found myself standing in a wide open clearing. It was actually a huge stone ledge!
I marveled at the view while the sounds of the hikers were drawing even with me. I turned and could barely see snatches of color through the thick bushes and yet they didn’t detect me. Within minutes they were gone and on the way up to the hanging lake with snippets of laughter and bantering trailing behind them. But where was I?
I took stock of my location. I was on a ledge that was big enough for maybe 5 people. I saw the remains of a camp fire. I could imagine that someone had pitched a tent here. What a great place of solitude! I then took several steps to the edge directly in front of me and looked down.
It was incredible! There was at least a 400 foot sheer rock face and straight drop to tall pines, evergreens and rocks below. I was in awe! But then I stepped over to my right spotting something intriguing. Another ledge?
I peered over and found that this ledge was just big enough for one person to sit. Was it strong enough? I decided to step down onto it and test it.
Gingerly, I first sat down. Then carefully let myself down one foot at a time. Once my feet were both firmly planted I stood up. The view was awesome! The ledge felt solid and firm. Being on this ledge was tantamount to being suspended over open air! With nothing between you and certain death but this one rocky ledge. I was astounded! Then I heard another group of hikers. From where I was I could easily and clearly hear them but looking through the brush I couldn’t detect snatches of color, clothing or anything! What an incredible place!
From that day on I would visit my personal little hideaway and step down onto that ledge and meditate on my suspended perch! I never found it occupied.
Nothing ever really disturbed me. Except for this one time…
One particularly beautiful day I was on the ledge and meditating. The bluest of skies and a few puffy white clouds was pure joy to behold. Hardly any wind but once in a while a nice one came through. Then I heard it. The strange cry of a bird! It was so startling and so unexpected I opened my eyes to a most incredible sight. An eagle was flying below me! Floating a bit on the updrafts from the rocky floor of the valley below it flapped it wings only once in a while. Then when it caught a draft it would float higher up with huge wings extended catching the wind! It was a sight I never thought I’d see! An unforgettable moment when I realized I was meditating above where eagles fly.