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Add Glenwood Springs To Colorado's List Of Must-See Places

The Yampah Vapor Caves offer much more than revitalizing vapors. The 116-year-old on-site spa offers massages, facials, herbal body mud treatments, private hot tubs — even a full-service Aveda beauty salon.

The historic Hot Springs Pool and Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, 1893

The historic Hot Springs Pool and Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, 1893

Courtesy Frontier Historical Society, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Schutte Collection

Before the 1880s, the area that is now known as Glenwood Springs was home to Ute Indians.

They knew a good spot when they found it. Here, about 40 miles northwest of Aspen and 60 miles west of Vail, the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers meet.

Then, as now, the rivers were rich in fish, and their confluence was perfect for bathing and soaking in the area's many naturally occurring hot mineral-water springs and underground steam vapor caves.

The springs were well-known to Indian tribes for their healing qualities and mystical powers.

The tribe in possession of the Yampah hot springs possessed the "big" medicine (yampah is reputed to mean "big medicine" in Ute). The Ute considered the waters to be a sacred gift from their god, and they fiercely defended the site from all intruders until the land was forcibly taken from them by white settlers.

The first recorded white man to use the hot springs was Capt. Richard Sopris in 1860. It didn't take long for their commercial potential to be recognized: James Landis became the first person to settle in Glenwood Springs in 1879, and he was also the first to snap himself up some hot-springs property.

Courtesy Frontier Historical Society, Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Schutte Collection
Back when the caves were known as the Fairy Caves (photo circa 1900)

Landis was followed in turn by Isaac Cooper, who came to the area a few years later by way of Aspen, bringing with him visions of a local resort.

At the time, the town's original name of Defiance was a good fit: Not much more than a frontier hodgepodge of tents, saloons, and brothels, its inhabitants were about as rough as the winter weather in the Rockies.

But a railway stop brought commerce, and civilization began to tame the place. The town was rechristened at the behest of Cooper's homesick wife, who hailed from Glenwood, Iowa.

Soon people were coming specifically for the rejuvenating, healing waters — a long tradition that continues today.

A consumptive Doc Holliday arrived at the Glenwood Hotel in 1887 seeking the curative waters, but the sulfurous fumes from the springs might have actually caused his health to deteriorate. He died in Glenwood Springs and is buried in the town's original cemetery, Linwood.

Today, Doc Holliday wouldn't know the place. The Yampah Vapor Caves — comprising three adjacent underground chambers — offer much more than revitalizing vapors.

The 116-year-old on-site spa offers massages, facials, herbal body mud treatments, private hot tubs — even a full-service Aveda beauty salon.

John Van Hasselt/Corbis Sygma
Dentist, gambler, and gunman Doc Holliday is buried in Glenwood Springs

The historic main building houses a stairway that descends to a hewn-rock corridor and down to the chambers beyond.

Below, marble benches invite you to sit amid hot springs that meander through narrow channels while being surrounded by mystical ambient lighting.

After 10 or 15 minutes of steaming in relaxation, you can take a break in a nearby cooling room or upstairs in the solarium.

Glenwood Hot Springs was established even earlier, in 1888, near the banks of the Colorado River at the base of Glenwood Canyon.

The world's largest outdoor mineral hot springs pool, it derives its water from Yampah Springs.

This is not a quiet soak in mountain solitude. This is Yellowstone meets municipal pool. There are, in fact, two: The larger pool is more than 400 feet long and has a temperature range of 90–93 degrees; the smaller therapy pool is 100 feet long and has a temperature of 104 degrees.

Courtesy Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association
The Yampah Vapor Caves, now a tourist haunt and spa spot, take their name from an American Indian word meaning "big medicine."

More than 3.5 million gallons of water per day flow through the facility, which dilutes the springs' natural temperature of 122 degrees for more comfortable swimming.

For the maniacally inclined, there are two sets of water slides: The 336-foot-long body slide boasts a 47-foot drop through a 32-inch diameter tube; the 369-foot-long slide has a 54-inch diameter.

There are diving boards, locker-room facilities, lounge chairs, towel service, bathing-suit rentals, a sport shop, an athletic club, a new spa, mini golf, a grill, and a snack bar.

But the real draws here, as they've been for centuries, are the warm water and the spectacular outdoor mountain setting — a combo that makes the Glenwood Hot Springs a favorite of Roaring Fork Valley locals and visitors alike, whether the weather is clear, or not.

Ever soaked in a hot tub when it's cold and snowing outside? Here you can do it in the world's largest.

If you want to enjoy Glenwood Springs the way Teddy Roosevelt did, head for the Hotel Colorado at the west end of Glenwood Canyon.

Sitting above the western shore of the Colorado River, it was built in 1893 to entertain the wealthy, heal the ailing, and prove that European elegance was possible in this land of new prosperity.

Though the frontier was still rough-hewn, the refined hotel spared no expense and earned the accolade "marvel of the Age."

Now a national historic landmark, the Hotel Colorado remains every bit as impressive, its grand lobby extending the breadth of the property, welcoming guests with exquisite details as it did back in the day. Ladies were entertained in their own main-floor billiard room, while the basement held a separate gentleman's bar and billiard room.

Courtesy Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association
The Hotel Colorado, built in 1853, hosted Teddy Roosevelt.

What stories these walls were destined to hear, what journeys they would host, what explorers they would welcome!

One of the most famous to hole up here was Teddy himself. The hotel served as the "Little White House of the United States" in April of 1905, when Roosevelt came west for a three-week hunting trip. His visit gave rise to a claim on the origin of the teddy bear.

Though most historical accounts say otherwise, a beloved bit of hotel lore says that maids, attempting to cheer up Roosevelt, who had returned empty-handed from his hunt, fashioned a stuffed bear from scrap fabric as a gift.

The hotel looks much the way it did in Roosevelt's day. Many of the 130 rooms have been recently restored and furnished with authentic antiques, the piazza has been replaced, and the courtyard was leveled and authentically replanted as shown in archival photographs.

What you can avail yourself of that he couldn't are high-country cuisine at Baron's and 30 specialty suites featuring balconies, Jacuzzis, refrigerators, and other amenities.

Truer to the Roosevelt experience are the adjacent hot-springs pool and vapor caves, dramatic hiking (and biking) trails through Glenwood Canyon, gold-medal fishing, rafting, and horseback riding, along with skiing at Sunlight, Aspen, Snowmass, and Buttermilk resorts.

And did we mention that if you stay, or just tour the hotel property, your pets will be as welcome as you? Witness your correspondent's three spirited terriers.

Glenwood Springs

If you find yourself on Colorado's Western Slope...

Glenwood Hot Springs Pool

YAMPAH SPA AND VAPOR CAVES (open daily 9 a.m.–9 p.m.) 709 E. 6th St., 970-945-0667, www.yampahspa.com.
GLENWOOD HOT SPRINGS 401 N. River Road, 800-537-7946, www.hotspringspool.com.
HOTEL COLORADO ($149-$799 a night) 526 Pine St., 800-544-3998, www.hotelcolorado.com.
• And if you make it to the top of Iron Mountain, you'll find the family-friendly GLENWOOD CAVERNS ADVENTURE PARK & HISTORIC FAIRY CAVES, named One of the Top 10 Places to Go Underground by USA Today. Cave tours (walking, adventure, and "wild"), bungee trampolines, a giant swing, scenic tram rides, an alpine coaster, a climbing wall, a mechanical bull, a Wild West wagon, and more. www.glenwoodcaverns.com.


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