GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. - Keep an eye on the rushing Colorado River as you ride through Glenwood Canyon for a hint of what's in store. In cold weather, puffs of steam rise randomly from the water, a telltale sign of hot springs.
If you don't catch a glimpse, just wait. At the end of the snaking canyon, you can't miss the vapors hovering over Glenwood Hot Springs, the largest mineral hot springs pool in the world. Bigger than a football field, the pool has been Glenwood Springs' claim to fame since the late 1800s, when the town was dubbed "the spa of the Rockies."
That was well before "spa" implied facials, pedicures, and body wraps. Now there's a spiffy new spa adjacent to the pool, Spa of the Rockies, and others scattered throughout town.
These days, a good soak is only one reason a million or so visitors yearly descend on this town of 9,000 three hours west of Denver and less than an hour from Vail and Aspen. In winter, they come to ski at Sunlight Mountain Resort. In summer they raft, kayak, fly fish, and bicycle. There are caves to explore up at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, reached by a bus or gondola ride 4,300 feet to Iron Mountain, and down in town, where "vapor caves" produce a natural steam bath.
We arrived late morning from Denver and made a quick tour of the oddly shaped city, which has grown up around the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers and an interstate. Two arteries jut from the core, one filled with newer big-box stores and an upscale outdoor mall and the other with older businesses and fast-food stops. In between is the historic downtown. Streets are lined with Victorian buildings, from fantastic to fixer-uppers. With a mix of upscale and basic shops, cafes, and restaurants, downtown is inviting to tourists and locals. Overall, Glenwood Springs' down-to-earth, working-class atmosphere is a welcome antidote to the frou-frou feel of Aspen and Vail.
My aching shoulders got a nice workout during an hourlong massage at Spa of the Rockies, housed in the historic bathhouse. The tony spa, which opened in October after a $6 million overhaul, offers massage, bodywork, hydrotherapy, and beauty treatments. Included are plant and herbal treatments used by the Ute Indians, who first settled the area and discovered the hot springs.
While the spa attracts well-heeled adults in a fragrant, hush-hush setting, the pool is a noisy, slightly sulfurous-smelling melting pot of young, old, white collar and blue, singles, families, and couples. We loved it.
We spent the good part of two hours, until stars came out, in the warmer and smaller (104 degrees and 100-by-40-foot) "therapy pool." There, William Gilkey, a visitor, was enthusiastically offering up quarters for folks wanting to try one of the personal whirlpools, a contraption similar to a massage chair in an airport.
"You just put the quarter in the slot up there," he said, pointing to a poolside row of eight coin slots corresponding to eight jet-stream hoses. "People kept asking me about it, and I had so many quarters that I just loaded them up for everyone."
Gilkey, a professional mover from Florida who a day earlier had made a delivery in Aspen, was spending his entire free time at the pool. Years earlier he had come through Glenwood Springs and was eager to return to the warm water.
"My whole life, my work, depends on my health," Gilkey said. "And this, well, this is the ultimate setting."
Laura Moore, who was reading a book while she soaked, has been coming here for 17 years.
"I come every season except summer, mostly to avoid the crowds," said Moore, who lives near Vail. "Pretty soon, everyone will be wearing hats. You should see when it snows big fat wet flakes. It's really steamy, and you can't even see people right next to you. I love to come after skiing when my body is cold, and my muscles are stiff."
Does Moore believe, as I had read, that the water - which contains calcium sulfate, sodium chloride, calcium bicarbonate, and potassium sulfate - has curative powers? "A lot of people come after surgery," she said. "If you have pimples on your face or cuts on your hand, they heal quickly."
"I hope you're right," I said, showing her a painful cut on my finger, a cold-weather crack that had opened a few days earlier.
My husband and I moved to the giant pool (405 feet long by 100 feet wide), which at one end is deep enough for diving. But at 92 degrees it seemed cool by comparison, so we scurried back to the hotter one.
The source for all this water is the 122-degree Yampah Spring, unceremoniously fenced off next to a parking lot, which flows at a whopping 3.5 million gallons a day.
When we took a bicycle ride the next day, I tried to channel the pool's heat through my frozen fingers and toes, to no avail. Still, we couldn't resist checking out Glenwood Springs' two paved cycling trails. The most scenic route follows the river through the canyon for 16 miles, though traffic from Interstate 70 overhead mars the serenity. The other, the 44-mile Rio Grande Trail completed last summer, uses an old rail bed to connect Glenwood Springs with Carbondale and Aspen.
We heated up after hiking the steep hill in town to Linwood Cemetery, where it's believed gambler and gunslinger Doc Holliday (1851-87) is buried. He came to Glenwood Springs hoping the mineral pool would treat his tuberculosis, and six months later died here. Visitors by the thousands make the trek to the worn and eroded cemetery to see a monument to Holliday, even though the location of his remains is a mystery.
We had one final hot stop: the Yampah Spa Vapor Caves, which also draws from the Yampah Spring.
The caves, discovered by the Ute and said to be the only natural vapor caves in North America, are a series of small rooms with stone benches where mineral waters flow at 125 degrees. (There's a B-grade full-service spa above them.) Within a minute my dry skin was dripping with sweat and my heart was thumping. The subterranean setup, with rooms divided by white plastic shower curtains, felt a bit creepy.
As we drove back out of the canyon the next day, I pointed out hot springs along the river, and admired the closed cut in my finger.
Diane Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.