GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Since moving to Colorado from Southern California three years ago, I've come to hate winter.
Scalding baths, wool blankets, the dog snoozing on my feet — nothing takes the edge off the bitter cold. It lingers in the air, in the bones and, most of all, in the soul.
Then a friend told me about a place three hours from Denver guaranteed to rocket my moribund core temperature through the roof.
- The Yampah Hot Springs Vapor Caves of Glenwood Springs, Colo.
- Visiting Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
I set off on a dark January morning in a raging blizzard. Somewhere near the 10,000-foot Vail summit, my car began sliding almost sideways downhill.
The road mercifully flattened as it followed the Colorado River to the outskirts of Glenwood Springs, where I spied a small building, pulled off the highway and went inside.
That's where I met Patsy Steele.
"Welcome to the Yampah Hot Springs Vapor Caves," she said warmly. "These caves are a natural steam bath that will detoxify and purify your body. They will open your pores and make you feel happier."
The Yampah or Big Medicine caves have been used for more than 800 years by the Ute tribe for healing and spiritual purposes. In 1881, settler Jonas Lundigren began filling a wooden bathtub with the spring water and charging miners 10 cents a soak. Not long after, a small house was built over the caves, and they opened for business. The hot water in the vault-like caves generates steam that is trapped, condenses on the limestone ceiling and drips to the floor, turning to vapor and starting the cycle all over again.
"These are the only natural vapor caves I know of outside of Tuscany," said Steele, who has owned the place with her husband, Bruce Kendall, for 24 years.
"How hot are they?" I asked.
"They average ...112 degrees," she replied. "You should only stay down there 10 to 12 minutes at a time or you risk overheating."
Risk overheating? I was counting on it.
I grabbed a towel and headed to the locker room, where I met Patrick Alexander, a fellow California transplant currently freezing in Colorado.
"I'm originally from Twentynine Palms, so I guess I'm still seeking that heat," he said. "I come twice a year on my way to and from California. I just love the setting, and it makes my body feel better."
Shivering in my shorts, I descended a narrow stairwell to a doorway covered with a plastic tarp. A strong smell of sulfur filled the air.
I stepped inside and was engulfed by a heat so intense, so smothering, that it took my breath away. Scattered light bulbs cast meager illumination throughout the misty caverns. There were three large caves and several alcoves with benches.
I discerned the outlines of two women lying on marble slabs. In another cave, a couple reclined against a rock wall, cloths draped across their sopping foreheads.
It all felt like something out of Dante's "Inferno."
Still, that smothering heat was morphing into something fantastic. I was defrosting on a profound cellular level. Hot thermal waves blasted through a labyrinth of chilled nerves, blood vessels and bone.
As I lay on a rock like a basking iguana, my fevered mind flitted between karmic nothingness and flashbacks of a hot, overcrowded bus in the Sahara.