This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports MagazineRead the full digital edition.

Red Rocks is one of those “Only in Colorado” phenomena that flabbergasted me when I first set eyes upon it shortly after immigrating to Denver 48 years ago. Who knew that the Wild West held such secrets of breathtaking beauty?

The deep waters of the Long Island Sound and the towering, sun-blocking Dogwoods, Sweet Gums, Red Maples and Red Oaks that formed an arch over the street leading to my childhood home were my early benchmarks for beauty. But I can still remember buzzing into Colorado in my white VW Beetle and being gobsmacked by the sheer magnitude of the sky that spilled out in every direction over the eastern plains. I think the first real mountain I had ever seen appeared as I traversed westbound I-70. I didn’t realize at the time that I was seeing Pikes Peak.

A few weeks after settling into Denver, a friend took me to the hot springs at Glenwood. That first ride into the mountains was mesmerizing, but when I saw the rising vapors of the hot springs I felt I was on another planet. And then there was a picnic in Red Rocks, maybe a blind date and a six-pack of Coors. I remember feeling like I was far away from civilization. We seemed to be the only people in the park. The girl was young and lithe, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the harsh, hard landscape, a beauty the likes of which I had never experienced.

My most recent visit to the crown jewel of the Denver Mountain Parks system on an early May morning left me no less breathless than it did back in 1968. Well, actually, I was a lot more breathless because I walked from the top of the amphitheater to the bottom and back up within the span of a half-hour. I did not “do the steps” (actually the seats) like the 30 or so serious exercise fanatics were doing at 7 a.m., but I did pass each of the 69 rows as I wimped along the gentler stairs on the south side of the concert venue.

I’m 69, ferchrissakes. And breath is a lot dearer and a lot shorter at 6,450 feet above sea level than it was at age 21.

There’s something about the majesty of the setting that makes you feel insignificant and makes you confront your increasing frailty and (hopefully) eventual mortality. And something that makes you wonder halfway up the 69 rows if perhaps your limited number of remaining breaths on this earth might be better spent in a less physically taxing environment. Like on a couch. Or in a bar. Or on a respirator.

I stood on the same stage where the Beatles played on August 26, 1964 (to a crowd of 7,000 who paid $6.60 a ticket in the Fab Four’s only non-sellout of 25-cities-in-30 days U.S.-Canada tour). Gazing out onto the 9,525 rock-hard, hard rock seats that in total resemble a military cemetery and then westward to the rust and cobalt pastel of sandstone and sky is something that should move even the hardened, seen-it-all traveler.

My editor, 26 years my junior, “did the steps” that morning but noted that he cheated, stutter-stepping rather than taking a full lunging step for each row, and stopping a few times, ostensibly to check on me but actually because he’s not a kid anymore either. He waited several minutes at the top for me and he had to carry the conversation while I recovered. But at least he did the steps vertically; most of the early-morning crowd (70 percent female) moved horizontally along the rows.

The 2011 Broncos knew how to really scale the amphitheater. In that “lockout” year (Tebow and the AFC West title), much of the team ran the steps as part of the conditioning program directed by Loren Landow, the training guru who runs Landow Performance LLC in Inverness. Mike Klis, who authored the 2012 book My Off-Season with the Denver Broncos – Building a Championship Team (While Nobody’s Watching), wrote about those voluntary workouts at Red Rocks:

This may sound odd, but Bronco players came to both dread and welcome Red Rocks Thursday. The players knew they were in for a gut-ripping, lung-bursting, body-collapsing workout.

Why? One word: COMPETITION! Competition and, yes, maybe some pride. These are elite athletes. Red Rocks was the most challenging of workouts.

Skip Red Rocks? Be prepared to get dogged the next time you show up. Red Rocks became a badge of honor for these Bronco players.

So this is the “Summer” issue, featuring countless destinations for physically demanding sporting adventure. And that’s why we chose Colorado’s most iconic – and (breathlessly) beautiful area, where people not only do the seats as well as yoga and other forms of torture in the famed amphitheater but also recreate their asses off in Red Rocks’ 868 acres. They hike and bike, picnic and hunt fossils but, oddly enough for a place named after tall, hard, ubiquitous objects, they do not – under penalty of law – climb rocks.

Despite my virile public image, I’m not really into physically demanding sporting adventure. Every year when I renew my MHSM subscription, I check the box that says: “Please do not include me in the mailing of the ‘Summer’ issue and please extend my subscription an additional month.” I know that puts me in a very small minority but I just don’t need the guilt of living here and not being an Eagle Scout.

When I finally recovered from my amphitheater ordeal, I suggested to my macho editor that we do a couple of my favorite activities. We hopped into my 1967 Porsche 911 and were immediately engaged in one of the best things you can do at Red Rocks – maneuvering a sports car around the twisty roads throughout the park. The old Porsche didn’t need to be pushed to its limits to show its pedigree; a steady diet of quick turns and switchbacks had the old rock-steady fräulein humming as if she were sailing down the Autobahn. But here the scenery was even more spectacular.

We drove south out of the park into Morrison where we engaged in my next favorite pastime, eating. We stopped at the TNT Country Kitchen where the steak and eggs (hash browns, toast and a smile included) breakfast provided an unexpected exercise opportunity – wrestling with the steak. Did I expect filet mignon for $7.99?

But we digress. All this talk of exercise and outdoor activity only delays the conversation about what Red Rocks really means to locals and tourists alike. Everyone knows Red Rocks is about the music and the otherworldly sound created by the natural acoustics. There is no place on earth that can match the natural beauty and natural resonance, along with the history of Red Rocks.

History? How about the 290-296 million-year-old rocks of the Fountain Formation (that also includes Roxborough State Park, Garden of the Gods and the Flatirons of Boulder)? Or the Southern Ute Tribe, which “According to tribal history handed down from generation to generation … lived here since the beginning of time.”

Documented musical performances at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, each listed on the wall at the Red Rocks Visitor Center’s Performer’s Hall of Fame, go back as far as 1906, 35 years before the amphitheater officially opened. That was the year new owner John Brisben Walker foreshadowed Barry Fey by producing the “Grand Opening of the Garden of the Titans” concert featuring Pietro Satriano and his 25-piece brass band. No t-shirts were sold, no dope was smoked and, by all accounts, those members of the audience who stayed awake were “politely attentive.”

Fast-forward to June 10, 1971 and we find an audience not quite so polite for the sold-out Jethro Tull concert. As reported by Derek Etsler in a May 2014 piece for, “Riots, rock bans and redemption: The lesser known history of Red Rocks,” 1,000 to 2,000 ticketless Tull fans were not happy with being corralled into the parking area behind the stage, where they could hear but not see their beloved Ian Anderson play his flute. When they charged the police line and began throwing rocks, the cops responded with tear gas, which the wind carried into the paying crowd. The concertgoers, on instructions from Anderson, covered their faces with their shirts, and the show went on. Needless to say, there was not a dry eye in the house.

When Boppin’ Bill McNichols, Denver’s notorious curmudgeon of a mayor, got wind of the Tull fiasco, he issued a ban on rock at Red Rocks, which resulted in five years of “politely attentive” audiences for acts like John Denver, Carole King and (“Where have you gone, Pietro Satriano?”) the Carpenters. Just goes to show that even killjoys can have sports arenas named after them.

Enter The Rockfather. Denver Rock promoter Barry Fey filed suit against McNichols’ ban and in 1975 a U.S. Circuit Judge said, “Who do you think you are, czars? You’re going to tell the people what they should listen to?” and lifted the prohibition against hard rockers. In 1976, Feyline Presents began its Summer of Stars concert series at Red Rocks.

And the rest – an endless procession of rock stars of every mettle (except Elvis) – is history.


Why Didn’t Elvis Ever Play Red Rocks?

Elvis Presley played three concerts in Denver but none at Red Rocks, and I can find no one who can tell me why The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll never played the king of rock ‘n’ roll venues.

Elvis performed at the Denver Coliseum in November of 1970 and then again on April 30, 1973, a concert prenatally attended by none other than MHSM editor-in-chief Doug Ottewill. Ed’s mother, Helen, was 8-months-plus-a-week pregnant with the future publishing wiz.

Elvis’ last appearance in Denver was on April 23, 1976 at McNichols Arena. The King was 41 and showing the effects of too many Quaalude, banana and peanut butter sandwiches but the 19,000 no-longer-hysterical fans still loved him tenderly.