GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Scattered clouds wandered through the hazy-blue sky of an unseasonably warm December day as a moderate number of tourists lined up to take the Tram to the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.
The park is open Friday through Monday in the winter, although some rides are closed for various reasons, mostly having to do with the effect of cold temperatures on the machinery.
But the restaurant that morning was redolent with the smell of warm baked goods, as it is many mornings, and the rides, the tours and the movies were there for the sampling.
From all over the state and beyond, the visitors had come, some hoping to get in a little skiing, 'boarding or tubing at the slopes in Vail, others headed directly and solely to Glenwood Springs.
Among those disappointed by the lack of deep snow on the slopes, the more intrepid adventurers went surfing on the Internet for something to do. They hit pay-dirt with the realization that the Hot Springs Pool and the Adventure Park were only a couple of hours further west and open for business.
Luanne Medbury of Texas was one of those. She found the park at whattodo.com, along with coupons for discounts, and packed her group of five into the car.
"We kind of like the outdoors," she said with a grin, "and the caves."
It turned out that several in her group make a habit of visiting caves throughout Texas and in such far-flung locales as New Mexico, South Dakota, Kentucky and New Zealand.
"We went to the Glow-Worm Caves," explained one of the group, Tony Evers, about the New Zealand connection.
"It's the butt-end of these millions of glowworms," said Audrey Evers, describing the tiny points of light covering the walls at the Waitomo Caves on the North Island.
Audrey noted that they were worried it might be too cold to enjoy their time at Glenwood Caverns, but were pleasantly surprised when they arrived at the base station and were able to shed their heavier gear.
"We saw her, down in the parking lot, and she wasn't wearing anything real warm," she said, pointing at Rhonda Duckworth of Grand Junction, who was visiting the park with her husband, Antonio Pacheco and their young son, Antonio Duckworth.
"I actually brought a huge coat and a couple of sweaters," said Rhonda Duckworth. "But I didn't need them."
The list of attractions is a bit less robust in the winter, with the restaurant, gift shop, laser-tag arena, 4-D Cinema, Alpine Coaster and, of course, the caverns open for visitors.
The Alpine Coaster drew a steady stream of attention on Dec. 1, as youngsters and oldsters alike climbed aboard the speedy little cars and let gravity do all the work.
"The best ride ever," said Marisa Mora, 14, of Lakewood, although she quickly admitted that it was perhaps a draw between the Coaster and the Mind Eraser at Elitch Gardens in Denver.
"It's great, exhilarating," seconded her mom, Mandy Guerrero. "I thought it would be colder, but it wasn't too bad."
Operator Tommy Sweeney of Carbondale, a five-year veteran employee, said he had only 25 riders or so on a recent Friday.
But last summer, say, on the Fourth of July? There were more like 2,500 slide riders, Sweeney said.
Do some riders get scared?
"Sure, all the time. Little kids cry, and some of the adults even cry," he said with a proud, if somewhat mischievous smile. "But they all have fun."
The other big draw of the day was the caves, which were partially closed for cleaning. A rag-tag bunch of volunteers, from all over Colorado, were mucking out the remains of blasting that will soon make it possible to open up new rooms in the upper section.
The lower section, featuring The Barn and King's Row, was still stunning visitors.
Cave guide Dave Johnson gave a running account of the caverns' history starting in 1885, when Dr. Charles Darrow stumbled into a hole high up on the side of Iron Mountain. It turned out to be the entry to a vast system of caves.
While listening intently to Johnson, one of the visitors reached his hand up to his head and swatted at something absently.
"Oh, you got a cave kiss," remarked Johnson, referring to a drop of condensation water from the cave's roof. "That means good luck for 24 hours."
Once known as the Fairy Caves, the caverns got that name from old Doc Darrow's daughter, Johnson said. She was trying to describe the wavering play of light and shadow from candles peeking through holes punched in tin cans, which were the first lanterns used.
"She said, 'It looks just like fairies,' and the name stuck," Johnson said with a rakish grin. "At least that's what they tell me."
Another winter attraction is the 4-D Cinema, where viewers can watch one of three adventure films - "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," "Night at the Toy Store" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" - and feel the action through their seats, which rumble and move at appropriate moments in the story.
The Adventure Park is the second-most popular attraction in town, behind the Glenwood Hot Springs. The park is estimated to have drawn 165,000 tourists to town this year.
"We had a record November," said park owner Steve Beckley, seated in the lobby of the Hotel Glenwood Springs next to the base station of the tram.
He said about 4,000 people visited the park in November 2012, an increase of 33 percent over the 3,000 or so visitors he tallied in November 2011.
In summer, the caverns will tally that amount of visitation in two or three days, he said.
He noted that the park closed down for January and February only once, in 2007, but now is open with reduced admission fees all winter long.
"We really noticed the impact of that," he said of the 2007 closure.
When he reopened that March he had to win back the trust of customers. And he still gets questions, even from locals, about whether the park is open in the winter months.
Even more critical than the faith of his visitors, he said, is the loyalty of his employees, who are now accustomed to having their jobs year-round.
"Honestly, the reason we do it is to maintain good employees," Beckley said. "We lose money in the winter."
He said he keeps a staff of 30 on hand through the winter.
Not that Beckley has been sitting still during the slack time - far from it.
He is planning to add six new tram cars to the operation by next spring, in a bid to shorten the waiting lines in summer.
Crews have been giving a new coat of paint to the Cliffhanger Roller Coaster, the highest-elevation coaster in the country, which will reopen in the spring.
And, perhaps most importantly, Beckley has blasters and muckers hard at work on new rooms in the upper series of caves, which are closed for the winter while the work goes on.