A Two-River Town

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Glenwood Springs is a city at the confluence of two classic mountain rivers, the Roaring Fork and the Colorado, each boasting seasonal, mild-to-wild, year-round runs. Easy to access, travelers can find their way into Glenwood via I-70, coming up from the east and Denver, or from the red rocks of Utah and Moab to the west. Highway 82 shoots down to the ever trendy Aspen scene and then over stunning Independence Pass for another kind of adventure. Cultures mesh in Glenwood, as a growing outdoor recreation crowd, seeking rivers, trails and rocks, meets a strong, proudly represented Old West ranching and mining history. And tourists from all over the world come to soak in the natural hot springs from which the town originally took its name and fame. Raft, SUP, climb, hike, camp, fish, mountain bike, steep in the hot springs or soak in the local history—in G-wood, you can only be bored by choice.

The diversity of paddling offered throughout the year is what makes the rivers near Glenwood unique. Although be warned that the high water season can get things really roaring with the Colorado river averaging 20,000 cfs during runoff and the tranquil Roaring Fork river ripping icy, cold and fast around 8,000.

A few minutes east of town, deep in the beautiful Glenwood Canyon, with towering walls of limestone layers and granite bedrock on either side, the Colorado river crashes over the Shoshone Dam into some gnarly Class V rapids known collectively as Death Falls, with Upper and Lower Death, and the slightly less terrifying, Life after Death. Runnable only by highly skilled kayakers or very stupid Kreature Krafters, these rapids are short and intense. Below them, the quarter-mile-long Barrell Springs rapid pummels along at high water, rating expert-only until mid or late summer when the water diverts through the old Shoshone Power Plant and it becomes a creek through boulders.  

But below the heavy hitters is a juicy little section of III and IV’s called Shoshone Rapids. The main attraction for most boaters, this mile-and-a-half section is a splashy, technical garden of surf-waves, rock-dodging, and standing wave trains dotted with a few holes. At high water, the flow is fast and dangerous, and at any time of the year, an unsuspecting boater can get hung on a rock or swamped by an eddy line, so run it with a local first or scout it thoroughly from the paved bike trail that runs the length of the canyon. All Day Wave is on river left for the kayakers about half-way down.

Although the proximity to the highway and bike trail do hinder that sense of remoteness on Shoshone and below, the shuttle—and general access—is a breeze. Lap this section from the highway for some afternoon delight, or float down to the mellower class II section from Grizzly Creek to Two Rivers for a views-and-booze cruise. Both Grizzly Creek and Shoshone put-ins have their own highway exits, although Shoshone is Eastbound only.

This stretch of the Colorado is definitely one of the most popular in the state. In the summer, the ramp can get pretty crazy on the weekends, with party-boaters and family floaters alike. As rivers statewide tend to drop pretty low by August, the Colorado maintains a flow of around 1,200 (very occasionally dropping to 800) no matter the season to meet downstream calls.  

Continue floating out the west side of town, past a takeout at Two Rivers Park, to experience the G-Wave (Glenwood Whitewater Park) and a few good haystacks at South Canyon. Beyond that, for most of the year, the water is slower, with lots of fishing and a few fun riffles available, and people can float to take outs in the town of New Castle, Silt and Rifle. Again though, at high water there are a few features which must be avoided: the nearly river-wide hole known as Dinosaur has been known to ruin a few afternoons right after Canyon Creek, and after that, a set of three boulders—the Sisters—although easily avoided, need to be respected for their potential recirc at certain levels river left.

To get your kayak/rafting equipment in town, check out the cool boating gear shop Alpine Quest. If you need raft, ducky, wetsuit or pfd rentals, Blue Sky Adventure is the way to go. Blue Sky is also a long-time local’s favorite for guided whitewater raft trips on the Colorado or Roaring Fork, or if you want an insider’s take on levels before you get out there by yourself.

For those interested in the surf scene, the Glenwood Springs Whitewater park has features built for every water level. With a boat-chute on river right providing safe passage for the many rafts and dories that pass through daily, surfers, SUPers and kayakers can entertain themselves throughout the year. The center-right pylons form the high water feature hole with hour-long surf potential for all your spins, cartwheels and McNasty/windowshade combos. As the water drops, the river left hole plays well, while the river right boat chute develops some prime surf sauce with easy eddy access. And of course, to play is to perform, as the town has developed rock and bench stadium seating to accommodate the peanut gallery. This feature is very popular, especially later in the summer when it becomes the only surfable park in the state.

For a different current, joining the Colorado in the middle of town is the pristine Roaring Fork River. Smaller, colder and with a completely different personality, it’s best known for gold medal fly-fishing waters. However, through midsummer, it has fun all on its own. Put in at the town of Carbondale to float down through wildlife sanctuaries, golf courses and stunning views of Mt. Sopris. On this stretch, Cemetery Rapids provide II or III fun with some mighty holes at high water. The Roaring Fork is more tranquil, wildlife friendly, and removed from the bustle of the canyon. It’s a great day float for families and fisherfolk.

After a day on the water, Glenwood offers a number of excellent post-float food opportunities. And fear not, mountain casual is the name of the game wherever you dine. The Grind has the best variety of burgers and ‘beer snacks’ along with award-winning craft brews. The crazy fries are killer with kimchi and cheddar weirdly coming together. Check out Glenwood Brewpub for family-friendly dining with excellent original beers, crafted on site in view of the bar. Several classics include the Hanging Lake Honey Ale and the Vapor Cave IPA. 

Slope and Hatch, just around the corner on seventh street is another hole-in-the-wall local favorite which is always packed for it’s unique creations within the ‘tapas, tacos and dogs’ division. Plan to get it to go and head outside to do some train spotting as the California Zephyr winds its way through the Colorado Canyons on the way from San Francisco to Colorado. Just don’t expect it to be on time.

 For sit-down evenings, fancy date nights, and other respectable dining options, seventh street once again comes through with the best options all within walking distance. Juicy Lucy’s is an incredible upscale American Cuisine restaurant with fresh seafood specials nightly and a killer wine list. The Pullman is another fine dining option with a modern approach to simple but exquisite food and wine pairings in a casual environment.

Sun-baked and satiated, for those ready to stay out a little later and meet some of the locals, Springs and Doc Holiday’s stand open with a dive experience to satisfy your need for pool, trash talk and cocktails. Whether you wear cowboy boots or Chacos, you will find your crowd.

Besides food and brews, activities abound for off-river entertainment. The hot springs, either The Glenwood Hot Springs, or the new and trendy Iron Mountain Hot Springs, are a must-visit. Open late into the evening, the pools are a great place to watch the sunset in a whole new light, and then enjoy the steam and the stars.

Glenwood Canyon Adventure Park is also an option, especially if the whole boating family came along and needs some entertainment while mom or dad surf the wave for a few hours. Perched on Iron Mountain and accessible by a gondola, the Adventure Park boasts thrill rides like the canyon swing and alpine coaster as well as tours of the ‘Fairy Caves’ and stunning vistas of the town, the rivers and Mount Sopris to the south. It can be very hot in mid-summer, so early morning or evening visits are encouraged.

Mountain biking is a growing obsession in the valley as well, and the new Grandstaff Trail is a draw to bikers from all over the state with a downhill flow section that gets shade early. Check out Whulfson Trail near the Recreation Center for some low-grade winding turns to get started. To experience a little history and stretch your legs, take the short hike up to the Pioneer Cemetery and visit legendary Doc Holiday’s gravesite. Although, ask any local and they’ll tell you the good dentist isn’t actually buried there but rather was hidden away in someone’s cellar to avoid being disturbed.

Plan your trip around the various summer festivals—my personal favorites include Strawberry Days and Fourth of July. Grab fresh produce and crafts from the Tuesday evening Farmer’s Market (June-September) and local musicians play live music every Wednesday in the Two Rivers Park (end of June-first of August).

Lodging isn’t hard to come by for hotels, although holiday weekends can leave the entire town booked up, so definitely make reservations in advance. Glenwood does have one downside—hold your gasps—camping is a little hard to come by within close proximity. Your options are to drive up Four Mile (behind Sunlight Ski area), or north of the town of New Castle up Main or East Elk Creek for some good dispersed sites. Redstone and Marble, although about forty-five minutes away, offer established campsites with a per-night fee.

 In the last ten years, Glenwood Springs has really come into its own as a summer adventure destination. The boating is always good, and the town itself is quirky and welcoming. Come visit!