Cave tour grows into cornucopia of thrills
GLENWOOD SPRINGS—Standing at the edge of a 70-foot-high platform at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park’s bungee jump—the only one in Colorado — there comes a point where persuading yourself to step into thin air all comes down to trust.
“Yes,” you think to yourself, “that elastic cord really will do its job, and I’ll walk away from this unscathed.”
Metaphorically speaking, that might be how Steve Beckley and his wife Jeanne felt when they took a chance on opening a commercial cave-tour operation that has expanded into one of the biggest attractions in the tourist mecca of Glenwood Springs. A whole lot of trust in themselves and their vision must have been involved in the journey they’ve taken since the 1990s.
Beckley went to high school in Cortez and then became a petroleum engineer after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines. He and his wife, who worked in sales, also were avid cavers.
When the two of them got the chance to reopen Glenwood’s historic Fairy Caves to the public and also display some more recently discovered sections, all they originally had in mind was to run a couple of vans to the caves up Iron Mountain and give tours.
Those tours began in 1999. Much of what has followed, including the construction of a tramway and mountaintop restaurant and the offering of numerous rides and attractions, “has actually been more out of necessity than anything,” Beckley said.
Offerings such as the park’s Alpine Coaster and Giant Canyon Swing have been introduced to continue boosting attendance and make the business pay for itself. These days, visitors can enjoy a maze, a “4-D” theater featuring seats that move and offer other surprises, laser tag, a zip ride, a bungee trampoline, a mechanical bull ride, a climbing wall and more. That’s all in addition to getting to go on the largest show-cave tour in Colorado, as well as the opportunity for the adventurous soul to take a guided “wild” tour that involves gearing up and crawling into more remote parts of the cave.
Altogether, Beckley said, the investments into the business have totaled probably about $10 million since the tramway opened in 2003 and the park came into its own. It now employs about 150 workers during its summer high season, and 30 or so year-round.
The bungee jump and zip ride opened this year, and the giant swing last year, replacing a smaller version. Beckley continues to look at ways to expand the park, through further offerings such as mini-golf and a ropes course. He also hopes to expand the family cave tour by opening up other beautiful passages beyond King’s Row, the most highly decorated cave room in Colorado in terms of stalagmites, stalactites and other formations.
That would entail tunneling out to a second exit so visitors could travel in just one direction rather than backtracking, allowing tours to be offered twice as often. Currently, the tour capacity is 84 people per hour, spread out over three groups.
Beckley’s penchant for increasing the park’s offerings helped the park’s business grow 8 percent last year, despite the slow economy.
“And we’re looking to have even a better year this year,” he said.
Annual visitor numbers are up to about 131,000, making the park second only to the Glenwood Hot Springs as a local tourist attraction. But Beckley doesn’t see his park as competing with the pool, Sunlight Mountain Resort, rafting outfitters or other local attractions. Rather, they all complement each other, bringing about overall growth.
Marianne Virgili, president of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, said the city is fortunate that a businessman with Beckley’s vision is running the caverns.
“I think what Glenwood Springs appreciates is it brings people to the community that spend money in a lot of other businesses,” she said.
She remembers when Beckley first visited the chamber with “a scrapbook and a dream that he was going to reopen the Fairy Caves.”
“I don’t think anybody envisioned what a fantastic attraction it would be,” Virgili said.
She likes how the park combines excitement with natural beauty, something park visitor Terry Sanchez also talked about after a ride on the park’s giant swing Wednesday.
“I think they did a very good job of not taking away from the natural setting. Some parks are so commercialized,” she said.
The park’s offerings are spread out over 140 acres on a mountainside studded with pinyon and juniper trees, and offering million-dollar views into Glenwood Canyon, up the Roaring Fork Valley to towering Mount Sopris and beyond, and west down the Colorado River Valley.
The 90-foot swing takes full advantage of that 1,300-foot-drop into Glenwood Canyon, hydraulically lifting riders beyond 90 degrees and letting them peer down into the abyss before they drop back down at more than 50 mph. Sanchez said she didn’t watch the swing operate before she and her daughter tried it out.
“I thought that would keep me from doing it,” she said.
Her husband and son were happy to just watch. Sanchez said she liked the fact the park offers a variety of rides and activities that appeal to everyone in the family.
For a while, it appeared Nathan Hancher, 12, of Chicago, would do nothing else but enjoy the swing all day. Visiting early Wednesday, before any line had formed, he was able to ride it about 10 straight times. By the end, he was happily swinging no-handed, unlike a certain reporter who was holding on to his seat for dear life.
“Friends from Chicago said if we came out here, we had to try this,” said Hancher’s mother, Julie.
The ride and park have been benefiting from national attention since the Travel Channel’s thrill-seeking Bert the Conqueror, aka Bert Kreischer, taped a segment on the ride in May. It’s not scheduled to air until July 10, but “Good Morning America” meteorologist Sam Champion also rode the swing with Kreischer for a “Reality Week” feature that aired on that program.
Kreischer’s visit marked a first for Beckley, who had never ridden the swing until joining Kreischer to be filmed doing so. He has no desire to ride it again. It seems he’s much more comfortable squeezing through tight cave passages than flying high through the air.
“I guess heights just don’t do it for me anymore,” he said.
To each his own. As for Zach Schissler, 10, of Sterling, Kan., he favored the maze, and was still sweaty after completing it in just five minutes, fast enough to win a prize.
“I ran through the whole maze,” said Schissler, who said he planned to do the maze and bungee trampoline some more and had no interest in taking a cave tour with his mom, Jennifer.
Michaela Toyne, 17, who lives near Billings, Mont., visited the park’s attractions with her family and seemed particularly enchanted by the cave tour, with its colorful “cave bacon,” delicate soda-straw-like formations and other features.
“I’m a rock freak, so it’s absolutely amazing,” she said as she emerged back into the bright sunlight after busily taking pictures on a tour.
The caverns continue to be the park’s top tourist attraction. Meanwhile, serious cavers, including Beckley himself when time allows, continue to discover more passages miles into the caverns, and scientists continue to look for new life forms underground. Already, more than 50 new species have been discovered in the caverns, from bacteria to a recently named, half-inch pseudoscorpion.
Back at the bungee jump, Beckley seemed content to watch with a smile as a journalist sought to summon up the courage to take a dive for the sake of a story. While so much of the park’s development has required a leap of faith for Beckley, he has yet to see the need to step off that bungee jump platform himself.
At least, not unless there’s the pressure of a television camera involved.
“I’m waiting for, like, Oprah,” he said.