New rooms opened in Glenwood cavern
GLENWOOD SPRINGS—Steve Beckley leads visitors past the Reflection Room inside Glenwood Caverns when a drop of water falls from a formation onto one of their heads.
“You’re getting cave-kissed,” said Beckley, who with his wife, Jeanne, owns Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.
For most anyone lucky enough to experience the same, it will be a first kiss, at least in this part of Glenwood Caverns.
“This room — you couldn’t get to this room,” he said as he peered at formations reflecting in puddle-sized ponds that give the room its name.
What was once off-limits to all but diehard cavers is now an easy stroll for the general public thanks to the new cave section being opened to the public May 11.
It’s all part of Beckley’s continuing efforts to increase the appeal of the caverns and above-the-surface amusement park attractions. Last year, he added a roller coaster that overlooks Glenwood Canyon, and at 7,160 feet in elevation is the highest adult roller coaster in the world.
And last week, Beckley added six new gondola cabin cars to the Iron Mountain Tramway. That will boost the car count to 18 and increase the tramway’s per-hour passenger capacity to 350, reducing wait times to get from Glenwood Springs to the caverns. The cars, from Switzerland, were installed with the help of Grand Junction’s Leitner-Poma of America.
Meanwhile, Beckley already is looking to further improve transportation up the mountain through installation of an incline elevator as part of a project that also would include a hotel of perhaps 80 rooms built into the old Pitkin Iron limestone quarry across U.S. Highway 6 from the tramway base.
Beckley said the ground-level, rail funicular would boost capacity by 400 people an hour and wouldn’t be affected by high winds that can slow or sometimes suspend tramway operations. The uniquely located and designed hotel would help make the rest of the project financially feasible. Beckley said the project could cost about $15 million. It’s now going through the planning review process by the city and probably wouldn’t be built for four or five years if it proceeds.
For now, Beckley is happy to complete a cave-tour addition that also has been years in the making. Areas now accessible to all once required crawling and scrambling by Beckley and others who’ve continued to explore the byzantine, honeycombed interior of Iron Mountain, pushing its known passageways to a total of 3.5 miles. To create the new tour, they first had to connect the dots between various passages, with a key link being made by Beckley’s son, Shane, at the time 12 and now 14, who was poking around with his dad.
“This was all solid rock here, so he climbed up there and said there’s a hole down there,” his dad said as he stopped at the point of the discovery to recall the moment with fatherly pride.
It took Beckley about 40 minutes to go back around and confirm Shane was looking down into the room to which they were trying to connect. Now the passageway is opened up and the two points can be reached in seconds.
It took some careful blasting, and lots hauling of rock in wheelbarrows, but the result now is a loop that guides will lead visitors through in about 50 minutes, with only a few stairs along the whole route.
By contrast, the one walkable tour offered in Glenwood Caverns up to now has required descending and climbing 127 stairs and has taken about 70 minutes. That climb will still be part of the tour that includes King’s Row, one of the most highly decorated cave rooms in the state in terms of formations, but that tour, too, will be 50 minutes, a more comfortable length for most visitors, Beckley said.
Offering two walkable tours instead of one, with the new one being a loop rather than out-and-back, will substantially reduce tour waiting times as well, boosting the hourly capacity from 84 to about 250 to 290, Beckley said.
He hopes it also will mean more return business for those looking to see new parts of the cave. Who knows—perhaps some of them will suggest names that stick for some of the formations, the way other visitors, especially kids, have in the case of the existing tour. (That’s how a golden stalagmite called the “Cheeto” got its name.) The new section features lots of limonite, a pumice-light, porous, rust-colored iron rock that was created by bacteria in hot springs in the caves 3 million years ago. Back then, Glenwood Springs’ hot springs sat at the level of the cave, before the Colorado River was able to erode away more than a thousand more feet to reach the current elevation where the springs are now found as well.
Sulfur from those same springs also helped color rock in the newly opened section. It also is marked by beautiful flowstone containing crystals from mineralized water flowing over rock faces. Cave bacon and popcorn are among some seemingly edible other formations to be seen.
Beckley is touting this upper section as Glenwood Caverns’ historic tour. It partly consists of the original Fairy Caves opened to tourists in the late 1800s. At one spot on the tour, visitors will be ushered to a side room where they will get to experience total darkness for a few moments, but also a demonstration of a candle lantern like those once used by explorers.
A small part of the tour also will make use of light bulbs and wiring designed to replicate how the Fairy Caves had been illuminated, when they were one of the world’s first caves to be lit by electricity, thanks to a hydroelectric plant in a building now home to the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts.
Glenwood Caverns, however, now is lit almost exclusively with LED lights, making it the first cave system in the country to complete that switch, Beckley said. He said he was comfortable converting once LED bulbs with a warmer color to them became available. Cool-feeling lighting is undesirable in an already cool environment, he said.
The conversion cost about $15,000, but will save about $15,000 a year in terms of reduced costs. The bulbs last a lot longer, which is important given the difficulty of replacing them in hard-to-reach, delicate locations.
Installing lighting and hiding bulbs and wires is something of an art form, and 280 bulbs were placed to showcase the new section.
Near the end of the new tour section is the Bedroom, so-named because cavers used to sleep there decades ago. Beckley is turning it into an underground classroom for the 4,000 to 5,000 school children who visit Glenwood Caverns each year.
Beckley estimates that 1.5 million people have been to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park since its 1999 opening. The park drew 165,000 visitors last year, with nearly half taking cave tours, and it saw 10 to 11 percent annual growth throughout the economic slowdown.
“It’s the rides, frankly,” that are the biggest attraction, Beckley said. A dozen rides, including an alpine coaster, a zip line, a giant swing and other adrenaline rushes, keep people coming back who might not return multiple times to see the caves themselves, he said. But Beckley and others who have helped develop the new tour, including employee Lorie Sheader of Glenwood Springs, are looking forward to bringing visitors to a new section of the natural attraction that remains at the heart of this tourist spot.
“We’ve worked so hard on it,” said Sheader, as she labored to finish cleaning the new section before its opening. “I want to show it off.”