While most of you have discovered my blog because of cooking, I was a travel writer long before anyone called me “chef.” Because I have an insatiable thirst for adventure.
One of my favorite places in all the world is a little town in Colorado called Glenwood Springs, perched at the west end of a deep canyon carved by the thundering Colorado River. It is named for the many hot springs that burst from the rocks along the river, which have been used for millenia by native peoples for healing and ceremonial purposes. Today, most folks know it only as a pit-stop on the drive from Denver to Aspen, but savvy travelers know that its dining scene puts most ski towns to shame, and its impossibly charming historic town center and landmark Hotel Colorado make it a glorious place to escape life for awhile. (And it’s WAY cheaper and infinitely more laid back than its glitzy neighbors Aspen and Vail.)
I’ve been coming to Glenwood since I was 19 years old, exploring the back roads of Colorado for hot springs and caves. And Glenwood has an abundance of both, so I find myself spending a lot of time here. As I always do when I travel, I’ve read volumes and volumes about the history of the town. And Glenwood has its fair share of history, from its Native American days when the Utes would lower their sick into mysterious vapor caves and seal them inside to await the fate of the spirits; to the mining era, which resulted in an underground coal fire that is STILL burning a century later; to the modern era of tourism, this town has played host to a colorful and endless parade of characters…perhaps most notably, the infamous dentist-turned-gunslinger Doc Holliday, who spent the last year of his life in Glenwood and is buried here.
Doc’s life is as big and bold as any legend. He began his adulthood as a reputable dentist in Pennsylvania and Georgia, but after being diagnosed with tuberculosis, he headed west in search of drier climes. He discovered that gambling was easier and more profitable than dentistry, and this new career became a tightrope that he walked between the law and crime for the rest of his life. In Texas he met Wyatt Earp, the legendary lawman, who became a dear friend and with whom he shared official badges in various towns across the west. As U.S. Marshals, they fought together against renegade cowboys at the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ. But when the court system didn’t allow them to quickly pursue the criminals in the aftermath of the most famous 30-second gunfight in history, Doc Holliday decided to take justice into his own hands and ignore the law, exacting revenge on the renegades. He became branded a criminal, and spent the remaining years of his life on the run, gambling and fighting in Denver and Leadville, until his tuberculosis got so bad he couldn’t shoot straight any longer. Local doctors told him about Glenwood Springs, where there were natural hot springs inside of caves, and the vapors of these springs were said to cure tuberculosis.
I had read voraciously about the history of Glenwood’s hot springs and vapor caves. Natural vapor caves are exceedingly rare. While you can find hot springs inside man-made caves and mines across the country, Glenwood is the location of one of only a handful of natural hot spring caves in the world. These days, it’s called the Yampah Spa, and I’d been there a dozen times:
But through more recent research, I discovered that the Yampah cave is only one of THREE hot spring caves that were utilized in Glenwood Springs in the late 1800s. I found this snippet in a history book about the town:
“1883 – Defiance Town & Land Company develops a vapor cave (Cave #2) west of the original Ute Indian cave (Cave #1). Bathers crawl through a narrow tunnel into a room of standing height. Men bathe in the morning, women in the afternoon.”
Neither of these 2 caves refers to the current Yampah vapor cave, which was historically referred to as Cave #3. So that means there must be 2 other vapor caves out there, waiting for me to discover them!
Of course, there’s a link between Doc Holliday and the lost vapor caves. Doc came to Glenwood Springs in 1887, four years after Cave #2 had been developed for commercial use. He had specifically been told that Cave #2 had the proper balance of minerals in its vapors to cure his tuberculosis, so he spent hours in this cave each day. But, as therapeutic as hot springs may be, they DON’T cure tuberculosis. At the age of 36, Doc Holliday died in his bed at the Hotel Colorado on November 8, 1887. His last words were, “This is funny.” It’s speculated that he always imagined he’d be shot dead in a gunfight, rather than dying in a bed in a hotel without his boots on. Peniless, Doc was buried in an unmarked grave in the “Potter’s Field” section of Linwood Cemetery, perched high on a mountain above Glenwood. A modern marker in the cemetery commemorates him today:
His old friend Wyatt Earp had this to say in his remembrance:
My research into the existence of the 2 historic hot spring caves came to an abrubt halt when I discovered a passage in a recently published book about Colorado hot springs that stated: “The original vapor caves on the south side of the river were used until 1887, when they were sealed over by the railroad.” And then Cave #3 on the north side of the Colorado River was developed into the Yampah Spa, which still exists today. But a snippet in a another more-recently published book indicated that there might still be access to one of the caves…Cave #2, the same one that Holliday used…but its location was a fiercely guarded secret.
Images of secret hot spring caves and gun-slinging Doc Holliday were swirling in my head, and I carved out a few days from my insane schedule to head to Colorado for a bit of investigating. There are a few surviving historic images of Cave #1, which was supposedly located close to Cave #2:
Knowing that the railroad sealed off Cave #1, and comparing the appearance of the cliffs from the old images of Cave #1, I was able to get myself to the appropriate part of the canyon near Glenwood were the caves must have been in the past. Sure enough, at the base of the railroad grade near the mouth of the canyon, I found hot springs surging out into the muddy waters of the Colorado:
The water was hot! Easily over 120 degrees. A scramble up the railroad grade brought me to the base of a familiar-looking cliff, and poking around in the many nooks and crannies of the bluff, I eventually found this hole leading downwards into darkness:
It was at least an 8-foot vertical drop to the floor of the chamber inside, and the faint smell of sulfur wafted out of the hole. I stuck my head inside and could hear water rushing. Or was it just my heartbeat? Thrilled, but wary, I evaluated the drop into the cave. I had rope back in the car, but the walls were close enough together that I could probably safely “chimney” down…chimneying is a technique that cavers use to describe ascending or descending a canyon-type passage inside a cave, and basically involves placing friction points against both walls, like your butt and one foot on one wall, and your opposite foot and a hand against the other wall, and moving up or down a few inches at a time. As long as the walls don’t open farther than your legs or arms can reach, you can ascend or descend in a more-or-less stable way.
But I was by myself. And it’s not smart to enter ANY cave alone…ever. So I reluctantly returned to our rental house where my partner Christian and our pup Oliver were relaxing and chatting with the house’s owner, Jennifer.
“I think I found it! The steam cave where Doc Holliday came to get rid of his tuberculosis!”
Jennifer chuckled. “Some boy convinced me to go into that cave when I was just a little girl,” she mused. “I got down in there and it was so hot, and there was rushing hot water everywhere, that I panicked. I can’t even remember how I got out, I was so scared. He must have pushed me from below.”
“How did HE get out?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” she said, “I started running back to town as soon as I got to the surface!”
“Do you remember where it is?” I asked.
“Down by the railroad in the canyon’s mouth?” she replied.
“Yes, that’s the one. Okay, if I’m not back in an hour, that’s where I am.”
And I headed back, excited to know that I hadn’t been dreaming. There WAS a cave. And it DID have a hot spring inside of it. Could it really be Doc Holliday’s cave?
Back at the entrance, the smell of sulfur and the faint sound of rushing water from within made me even more desperate to get inside. I carefully wedged myself into the entrance and began descending, inch by inch, until I could safely drop to the floor of the entrance chamber. It was just shy of 9 feet to the bottom, and looking back up through the entrance was only a little bit scary:
I’m not accustomed to caving by myself, but I was confident I could chimney out, and other people knew exactly where I was, so if I got stuck or hurt, they would be by shortly to check on me. From the entrance chamber, a round hole dropped about 4 feet into what appeared to be the main cave room where the rushing hot water was:
It was an easy drop into the main chamber, but the temperature in there was blazing hot. I pulled out my trusty meat thermometer and dunked it into the stream…122 degrees! Hot enough to scald. Thank goodness for sturdy, waterproof boots! Old timbers and rocks were scattered on the floor, and I delicately made my way to the high end of the main chamber, where the hot stream entered the cave:
The crystalline but dark-gray water rushed over a small waterfall and spread out over the rocks of the main chamber. The cave was stuffy and hot, and I stifled an initial response of panic. I had been in the other sauna cave across the river, and it was about the same temperature. I just needed to stay calm, breathe deeply and slowly, and relax. For centuries, the Ute Indians had used this cave, and the others in the canyon, to heal sickness and meditate.
I picked my way across the cave chamber to what appeared to be stonework, and sure enough, I saw carved stone blocks shoring up the walls of the chamber:
This tunnel ended in dirt fill from what I surmised was the railroad grade outside. I remembered the quote: “Bathers crawl through a narrow tunnel into a room of standing height.” Knowing the other lost cave, Ute Cave or Cave #1, was much larger, this absolutely must have been Cave #2…the cave where Doc Holliday came to cure his tuberculosis!
The hot water surged down another passageway deep into the ground, and to continue down it, I’d have to belly crawl in 122F water:
So I made my way back to the main chamber, leaned against the wall, and looked around. One section of the wall was covered in sparkling crystals:
I imagined the generations of Utes that crawled into this cave, centuries before the white man even arrived on this continent. I imagined poor Doc Holliday, only a year younger than me, spending hours a day inside this cave, desperate to cure his consumption. And to think that history says this cave was destroyed by the railroad! I felt a little like Indiana Jones, even though the “lost vapor cave” is no secret to the folks who live in Glenwood Springs.
After sweating it out for half an hour, it was time to climb out of the cave, so a search party didn’t come looking for me. The climb was uneventful, but I emerged from the crack covered in mud, sweaty, a little scraped and bruised…just like I am when climbing out of any cave. I sat there in the chilly breeze, looking down the mighty Colorado River at Glenwood Springs…this beautiful little town that has lured visitors for centuries. I glanced back down into the cave, imagining the ghost of Doc Holliday paying it an occasional visit. This was no ordinary cave. People came from all over the country to sit inside it and inhale its vapors, spawned from waters heated deep beneath the earth’s crust. And I felt very, very privileged to have sat inside it, as well.
…Glenwood Springs Guide…
Glenwood Springs is truly a vacation-worthy destination. My favorite restaurant in all the world is there, The Pullman, a farm-to-table restaurant with inventive cuisine and amazing cocktails at impressively low prices. (Get the warm gnocchi salad, the duck confit salad, their pierogis…Glenwood has a strong Polish history…their house burger, and any of their ever-changing mains are spectacular.) Also check out gourmet taco spot Slope and Hatch (get the chorizo croquetas and the curried lamb taco), modern barbeque fusion at Smoke (their mac and cheeses are exceptional, my favorites are the pulled pork and Hatch green chile, the burnt brisket ends and pieces with tomato and scallion, and the shrimp and sausage mac), newly-opened Southwestern farm-to-table at CO Ranch House (get the elk quesadillas and the Colorado poutine), and for breakfast, head over to Sweet Coloradough for gourmet donuts, 12-hour fritters, and inventive breakfast sandwiches like the fried chicken and fried egg open faced on housemade bacon bread.
In nearby Carbondale, the owners of The Pullman have two exceptional restaurants, Phat Thai with a creative interpretation of Thai classics bent toward Colorado cuisine and some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had, and Town, with a New American menu similar to The Pullman.
And a hop, skip, and jump up the Roaring Fork Valley toward Aspen is charming Basalt, nestled between red rock cliffs on the Frying Pan River, and its historic center hosts many exceptional restaurants, my favorite of which is Heather’s Savory Pies, home of the only chicken pot pie to ever make me weep. Seriously. It’s that good.
To lay your sleepy head, you can always get a reasonably priced room at the grande dame Hotel Colorado, where Doc Holliday died, where Teddy Roosevelt coined the term “Teddy Bear,” and where the Unsinkable Molly Brown spent her summers. Nowadays I prefer renting Jennifer’s gorgeous house, perched on the mountain overlooking town and within walking distance of all the great restaurants. For the same price as a hotel room, you get so much more, and Jennifer has lived here most of her life, so you’ll get the inside scoop. And to get away from the madding crowd, check out Avalanche Ranch, in the stunning Crystal River Valley less than 30 minutes from Glenwood, a working sheep farm with rustic cabins and hot springs right on site! As with all my recommendations, I’ve never received free stays or perks (I never announce that I’m a writer), these are places I love because they are truly exceptional, and I return to them time and again!