The Grottos, Independace Ice Caves and Punchbowl, Aspen

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August 14th 2012
Published: August 14th 2012
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As teenagers in Aspen, the kids always had something they could do outside. In the winter there was almost always skiing, snowmobiles, playing hockey and even camping, yes camping. Summers were filled with 4×4 trips up Aspen Mountain or into the back country. Many of us also had “mini-bike” motorcycles. Hiking the 14ers was a staple activity for us as well as more camping. One of our favorite group activities was spending the day up Independence Pass at the areas known as “The Grottos” and “The Devil’s Punchbowl.”

Anyone who has lived in the Aspen area or visited often knows of “The Grottos.” Back in the 1970’s access to the Grottos was limited to a small parking lot or along Highway 82 up by the narrows. To get to the Grottos required a trek up the river’s edge. This is before the bridge was installed and the Forest Service trail system established, or climbing over and between large boulders down to the river from the highway above. Not many “outsiders” visited the area back then which left us to our own devices. We would climb down into the Ice Cave which started out very difficult in the spring, and by summer’s end was a simple climb down a rock wall to the bottom of the cave. We enjoyed going into the cave each time as the ice was constantly melting making each visit a different experience and adding a new element of danger each time.

With the exception of local teenagers and our guests, the Grottos only other occasional visitors were adults seeking quiet and serenity next to a roaring cascade of water. They usually chose to spend their time sans clothing which always made for interesting voyeurism and conversations on our part. We used to slide down the rocks which had water cascading down them into the pools below. The thrill of this was not only the slide itself but the fact that the water was barely above freezing all summer long; and why not, most of the water was still snow just hours before.

Another favorite hangout was about a mile West back towards town and it was known as “The Devil’s Punchbowl.” The punchbowl consisted of a waterfall that dropped about 40 or 50 feet into a pool below that drained out the bottom which made getting out of the water as interesting as the dive itself. Although going over the waterfall was really not an option, there were a number of places on the cliff walls you could climb to in order to jump if you were so inclined. Unfortunately, hiding just under the surface of the pool were a number of larger rocks that were hard to see but easy to hit if your dive was even slightly off. Over the years many hit those rocks but I do not remember any of my friends or classmates ever perishing; but, I am sure some may have over the years. As with the Grottos, as summer went buy and the water flow diminished the risk of diving into the Punchbowl also lessened. By summer’s end, even the timid considered making the dive.

I remember us chiding each other to jump into the calm waters just above the grottos each spring. It was safer there but it was also a time of the year when there was as much ice floating by as water. By the end of each spring visit all of us had taken the plunge but for some it was only after being humiliated or called names that the eventual “dip” was executed.

The place is not the same anymore and new visitors would never understand what it was like back then. Both The Grottos and The Devil’s Punchbowl have parking areas to accommodate more visitors and due to water projects above, less water flows over the rocks now. The Forest Service added trails, picnic areas and even a route to the Ice Cave making it easy to access for all ages.

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