Blue with Envy: Ice caves at Rifle Mountain Park a winter jewel for many
RIFLE MOUNTAIN PARK
Address: 13885 County Road 217, Rifle, CO 81650
Discovery: On June 7, 1910, a Special Act passed by the 61st Congress of the United States granted a number of municipalities the chance to claim land to make them into parks. In Colorado, Denver, Glenwood Springs and Rifle took this opportunity. Denver’s became Winter Park Resort and Red Rocks. Glenwood’s became the South Canyon Landfill. And on October 21, 1921, a US Patent signed by Warren G. Harding made Rifle Mountain Park.
Cost: $5 per day, per car. Annual passes are $10 for Rifle residents, $20 for Garfield County residents and $40 for out-of-area residents.
Source: Rifle Parks and Recreation
Walls of limestone tower above Rifle Creek as it runs through Rifle Mountain Park. Water flows down from the top of these cliffs on its way to the creek, which eventually runs into the Colorado River.
But not all of it reaches Rifle Creek right away, especially at this time of year. It’s from December until the end of February, typically, that walls of ice form outside of the caves thanks to the daily cycles of warmth and bitter cold.
“It’s all as a result of the freeze-and-thaw cycles in the park,” said Wayne Edgeton, the assistant director of Rifle Parks and Recreation. “And plenty of people make their way to see them.”
Rifle Mountain Park has become well-known not only for its rock-climbing terrain during the summertime but for the ice caves that form during the winter. It’s a sure bet that climbers will be out on the ice every weekend until the middle of March, which is when warmer temperatures make ascending the walls of ice a safety issue.
Still, plenty of people make their way to the ice caves to simply go inside them and not necessarily to climb their walls. It makes for an entertaining day trip for people who have never seen, or experienced, something like that.
“It was really cool,” said 20-year-old Lauren Langley of Grand Junction, who saw the ice caves for the first time Jan. 1 after moving into the area from Georgia two years ago. “There is nothing like this where I grew up, and being able to see and be inside something like that was just awesome.”
Four ice caves — the Ice Palace, Soul On Ice, Stone Tree and The Final Curtain — are inside of the park. The Ice Palace and The Final Curtain — more commonly known as the upper and lower ice caves — are the most visible and accessible from the main dirt road leading up to Coulter Lake Guest Ranch on the north end of the park.
To reach the caves, stop by the self-pay station near the park entrance and pay the minimal $5-per-car fee before heading up to the beginning of Kopers Trail. It’s an easy, three-quarters of a mile hike that first stops by the Ice Palace. The cave itself extends just more than 30 yards in length, which, in January, is not easy to navigate because of the continued wet water runoff coming over the thick ice of the cave floor.
Still, it’s something that, as Edgeton puts it, “changes day to day” and never looks exactly the same from one day to the next. Icicles hang from the top of the cave — some much larger than others — while sunlight from the outside makes the ice and water glisten. What’s more, the ice turns a soft blue color because it absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum except blue, which it transmits. The transmission of this blue wavelength gives the walls of ice its blue appearance in spots.
That blue hue is on the south side of the Ice Palace, but it appears on the northernmost side of the Final Curtain on the northern section of Kopers Trail. The ceiling of the cave is much lower at the cave’s entrance, and it becomes even narrower due to the thick buildup of ice.
Here are a few tips for those who plan on making the trip to one of Colorado’s spectacles, regardless of where you live:
• Bring warm clothing and a change of clothes. Not everyone is a graceful athlete, and with Rifle Creek sitting next to a snow-covered Kopers Trail, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some backup threads on hand in case you or a hiking buddy inadvertently take the plunge.
• Tell someone you’re going. For those of you who are attached to your cell phone, leave it behind. There’s no cell reception from Rifle Gap dam north, so it’s always good to let someone know that you’ll be there or to have someone to tag along with you on the trail in the unlikely case something bad could happen.
• Have fun. This is a cool way to be active (literally), and it’s just a short drive away. Plus, despite the fact many people in Rifle have known about these since Rifle Mountain Park was reserved for park space in 1910, it’s still an unknown entity to many people. Take advantage of something unique that’s practically in your own back yard.
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More trails will open for the season on Sunday for mountain bikers in Aspen, Snowmass Village and Glenwood Springs.