Making Glenwood Springs Proud
* The large swings (Glenwood Canyon Flyer) photo is by Kelley Cox
Steve Beckley is a mild-mannered petroleum engineer who got swallowed up by a cave—and a dream.
Having grown up in Cortez, Beckley was a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines when he had his first cave adventure at the Fault Cave near Golden. He soon began spelunking, seeking out caves all around the state. He first read about Glenwood Springs’ Fairy Caves in 1972, in an out-of-print book called Caves of Colorado.
The book said that the cave was going to be commercially developed, but given the book’s publication date, clearly, that hadn’t happened. Beckley found the name of the owner and called him.
He kept calling for 16 years!
Charles W. Darrow, a Glenwood Springs attorney and cousin to Clarence Darrow, the attorney made famous by the Scopes Monkey Trial, first opened the Fairy Caves to the public in 1895. Charles Darrow brought visitors up the steep hill from the Hotel Colorado on burros. He strung electric lights up in the caves in 1897.
Darrow’s sons operated the caves until 1917, closing them on the eve of World War I.
Although the caves remained closed until 1961, they weren’t well-protected from visitors and damage. In 1952, members of the Colorado Grotto Club explored the caves and found passages into new areas named the Register and Pendant rooms. Although the Fairy Caves had been damaged both by vandalism and dry outside air that stopped their growth, these new areas were still living, dripping and growing.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, still more areas were discovered. A few hardy cavers crawled and wiggled through some dauntingly small openings to reach the caves’ largest rooms: The Barn and King’s Row.
I saw the caves around 1957 in the company of Glenwood cavers and the Colorado Mountain Club. I remember a sweaty scramble up to the caves on a sweltering day. The cave was cool and moist. Since I was seven, I had a size advantage when it came to squeezing through the cracks. The cave was filled with the stuff of daydreams—huge, fantastical dragon-shaped stalactites hung from the roof and tiny glow-in-the-dark snails among the stalagmites rising from the floor.
Steve Beckley first saw the caves in 1992, along with his then-girlfriend Jeanne. He regales me with the story of one of their first dates. Steve and Jeanne, guided by a local doctor who knew the caves, donned kneepads and headlamps, and began squeezing through the 8-inch cracks. “At one point, Jeanne was done,” Beckley recalls. “She was claustrophobic. Our guide told her, ‘You are past the worst part.’ But he was lying through his teeth.”
The struggle was worth it once Steve and Jeanne entered The Barn and Kings Row. There, Beckley opened up and laid out his dream to Jeanne.
By the time Beckley managed to buy the caves in 1998, he was working as an oil and gas engineer. Jeanne was by then his wife, and she was pregnant. Beckley moved to Glenwood solo in November of 1998. He lived in an unfurnished rental, crashing on the floor in a sleeping bag alongside the miners who were working on the cave. Jeanne continued her high-stress software sales job—they needed her health insurance—and commuted up to Glenwood on the weekends.
“We finished blasting at Christmas in 1998,” says Beckley. “The idea was to develop the caves and have a small operation: to ski in winter, to play, to kick back and enjoy life. That’s how I sold it to Jeanne. But the cave took off and took over our life!”
When the cave opened on Memorial Day weekend, 500 people came. The caverns logged 30,000 visitors the first year. To transport everyone up the hill, the Beckleys bought vans. Those soon gave way to buses, then, in 2003, to a tram. “That year, we had 100,000 visitors come to see the caves. But it was a three-hour hour wait get in. We started putting rides in to give people something to do while they were waiting for the caves.”
Last year, 205,000 visitors came to Glenwood Springs Adventure Park, which features the first alpine coaster in the U.S., Colorado’s first 4D Ride Theater (the highest-elevation roller coaster in America) and the Glenwood Canyon Flyer, a ride that swings visitors out into Glenwood Canyon, 1,300 feet above the Colorado River. There’s laser tag, a coal-fired blacksmith shop and a new “Haunted Mine Drop” ride in the works.
When guests enter the new ride, they’ll feel like they’re entering Steve Beckley’s old stomping grounds—a mine. “You’ll come in like it’s your first day on the job, working in an old mine that has been shut down for 100 years,” Beckley explains. “You buckle into your seat, and a ghost miner talks to you about long-ago mining tragedies. Suddenly, the floor disappears and we drop you down the shaft. It’s exciting and I probably won’t ride it,” he chuckles. I don’t like things that drop my stomach out. It’s straight down, 120 feet, so you just fall, fall, fall for about three seconds. Sounds awful doesn’t it?”
That’s a bigger drop than many roller-coasters. The kids will love it.
In the Haunted Mine Drop, holographic ghosts will hover in mid air. “They’re just like real, so you can see through them,” Beckley says. The ghosts’ stories are pretty real too, an amalgam of stories collected from real Colorado mines from Aspen to Idaho Springs.
Few engineers can match Beckley in the raconteur department. They’re often socially awkward and not over-supplied with people skills. Engineers tend to be a bit, well, nerdy.
When I share this observation with Steve, he agrees and says, “I know what my weaknesses are. I’m good at sharing my dream, but not at managing. So I hire really good people.” He quickly ticks off half a dozen names: Colorado Mountain College Professor Bob Koper, the Cavern’s original tour guide, now retired. Operations Manager Nancy Heard. His wife Jeanne. “The business, the day-to-day work of keeping employees motivated, I have a great team to do that. My dream was just opening the cave to show how beautiful it is. Then people starting sharing the dream.”
Beckley’s model has been Silver Dollar City, an 1880’s theme park in Missouri. “They started very small and have about 2.5 million visitors a year. It’s historically oriented. They make wagons and feature artisans engaged in 1800’s era crafts.” Glenwood Caverns opened a coal-fired blacksmith shop two years ago, and Beckley talks about adding artisans engaged in woodworking, soap-making, and other turn-of-the-century crafts. Perhaps a grist mill grinding flour for the Park’s mountaintop restaurant?
“At Glenwood Caverns, the sky’s the limit. It’s already amazing, but we’re looking ways to make it better. Jeannie and I don’t live lavishly. We have a regular house; we drive used cars. We pour all the profits back into the Park. It’s important to me to grow this into something that Glenwood is really proud of.”