Gold Belt Byway

Golden treasure awaits on the autumn road from Cañon City to Cripple Creek. The mountains are rich with historic gold mines, golden aspen leaves and glittering coins at casinos.

The Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad’s steam engine puffs past fall scenery.

Joshua Hardin

There are many ways to hit the jackpot on the Gold Belt Byway. This road to riches carried miners afflicted with gold fever and “Pikes Peak or Bust” ambitions along the western shoulder of the mighty mountain in the late 19th century, but modern fortune seekers now tour for the pleasure of viewing natural treasures like aspen trees gilded with fall foliage and for the thrill of dueling with the one-armed bandits of a Colorado casino town.

Starting from the Royal Gorge country of Cañon City and Florence, there are three ways to loop around the Gold Belt to Cripple Creek. The longest but tamest is the 60-mile High Park Road, traversing a grassy rangeland where Texas longhorns graze along the paved roadside. The shortest but roughest is the unpaved, 27-mile Shelf Road, a precipitous former stagecoach route edged by 100-foot cliffs that entice expert climbers and demand four-wheel-drive when the trail is wet. Like Goldilocks, we were looking for a route that was “just right.” The 35-mile Phantom Canyon Road, a winding, gravel backcountry byway, provided plenty of adventure with less chance of getting stuck in the mud.

Phantom Canyon Road follows the route of the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, where narrow-gauge trains carried travelers and ore downhill to smelters in the Arkansas Valley from 1894 to 1912. The railroad is no more, but its roadbed remains, leading through tight tunnels drilled through solid rock, around dusty hairpin bends and over the steel Adelaide Bridge.

The source of the canyon’s spooky name is a popular topic of campfire speculation. Many believe the label was coined when train passengers spotted the specter a man wearing a prison uniform walking along the tracks. They claimed this was the ghost of a convict who was executed at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City a few days prior.

This ghoulish tale didn’t deter us from mapping our course. From the moment we exited the rolling high prairies along U.S. Highway 50 onto Colorado Highway 67, our choice seemed promising. A golden eagle lifted from its perch on a piñon pine and flew in front of our vehicle as if to act as a personal tour guide through the abyss of Phantom Canyon’s immense straits. We followed the raptor’s flapping wings through the sheer walls of the canyon mouth, so narrow they barely allowed a ray of sun to penetrate. When the rushing waters of Eightmile Creek became visible along the roadside, our eagle guide soared on to glide among the granite spires rising to astounding heights above.

Now led by the creek, we marveled at the riparian corridor along its banks that provides a refreshing place to partake in a picnic for both people and wildlife. As the road rose from its 5,500-foot base to an elevation of 9,500 feet, it occasionally paused its ascent in several alluvial parks.

These sun-kissed plateaus sheltered brave prairie dogs standing at the edge of the road, not frightened by the dust clouds of passing traffic. There was an unlikely abundance of late-season wildflowers seeded by the wind and growing in crevices in the surrounding rock. The beauty of these wide, cottonwood-lined glades appealed to homesteaders and railroad engineers of yore. They were unaware that water from summer cloudbursts tends to gather upstream in the canyon’s narrows until exploding in raging torrents into the valleys. Frequent flash floods washed out sections of the railroad mainline and caused death and destruction at settlements such as McCourt, Glenbrook and Wilbur. Now only the outlines of a few buildings’ foundations remain in these ghost towns, but roadside signs mark where they once stood.

We passed through one such ghost settlement, Oro Junta, Spanish for “Gold Junction,” where railroaders used to connect additional engines onto trains to assist their ascent over steep grades. We imagined what it must have been like for a train engineer to navigate the same sharp curves and treacherous drop-offs that threatened to turn us and our automobile into apparitions with one wrong turn. Driving carefully and enjoying the scenery around us, we ascended over a long switchback until leveling on the verdant meadow of Grey Wolf Ranch and a high point called Alta Vista. The Phantom Canyon Route’s crescendo offers a panoramic view of the glistening, white summits of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the distant southwest framed with foothills covered in yellow aspen leaves shimmering in the breeze.

After cresting Alta Vista we coasted into Victor. A skyline of weathered, wooden head frames, the first sign of civilization for miles, appeared before us, quickly divulging what business the town is engaged in. Victor is surrounded by famously lucrative gold mines like the Independence mine, once owned by the “Midas of the Rockies,” W.S. Stratton; the American Eagles mine, roosting at an elevation of 10,750 feet; and the Portland II mine, which tunnels a staggering 3,200 feet deep.﷯

Though Victor’s avenues have geological names like Diamond and Granite, many of them were literally paved with gold. Early mine owners didn't bother keeping their low grade ore, and it was used to gravel the streets. The town made $5,000 in a 1936 fundraiser simply by processing ore on the street in front of the post office.

As we arrived in town, a boldly painted advertisement on the wall of a brick building boasted, “We handle the best brands of whiskeys, wines and cordials for family and medicinal use,” among other scrambled flaunts. Our interest piqued, we walked in the Fortune Club, a former Victorian brothel that’s now the site of a 10-room hotel and diner.

We were just in time for a late lunch before owner Sue Kochevar and her staff locked up to go on their own leaf-peeping scenic drive. Kochevar graciously offered a seat on a stool at the old, stone soda fountain. We ordered “slopper” cheeseburgers smothered in homemade green chili, expertly grilled by cook Staci Wywias. The green chili was delightfully spicy, but the diner’s real stars were its malts prepared with a classic 1950s mixer. 

With full stomachs we crossed the street to find employees of the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum adorning its windows with rubber vampire bats for Halloween. Inside, we learned about journalist and famous Victor resident Lowell Thomas, who reported for newspapers from Denver to Chicago and produced travelogues for the railroad industry.

Thomas’ big break came when he was asked to film the events of World War I. In Jerusalem, he met British Army officer T.E. Lawrence, who was persuading Arab forces to join a revolt against the Ottoman Turks. The resulting footage spawned a traveling lecture series that enthralled audiences with movies of camel trains and robed Bedouin cavalry. Thomas’ book With Lawrence in Arabia soon followed, inspiring the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Thomas later enjoyed a successful, nearly 50-year career in radio.

Back in our vehicle, we continued our tour of Victor, passing brick and stone architecture built months after a devastating 1899 fire, still standing as a testament to the town’s resilience. These buildings include City Hall, where boxer Jack Dempsey is said to have once trained, and the four-story Victor Hotel, originally built as a bank on the site of the Gold Coin Mine. Mining history remains conspicuous on the outskirts of town. Among the rusted mine cars, a gigantic tire stands upright along Highway 67. This unusual, 12-foot roadside attraction was taken from a monster mining truck capable of hauling 311 tons of ore.

Across the Arequa Gulch Bridge, the highest bridge on the state highway system (the nearby Royal Gorge Bridge is higher but is not on a state highway), are mountain parklands where cattle ranchers settled. The ranchers cursed the name of a rocky stream that frequently caused injury to their livestock; a frontier town formed along Cripple Creek. Its streets were quiet until the silence was broken in 1890 by a cowboy named Bob Womack shouting “Gold! I've found gold!” At first, no one listened. “Crazy Bob” was well known as a drunkard, but also for his obsession with digging prospect holes on a homestead his family purchased on Mount Pisgah after their claims didn’t pan out during the Pikes Peak rush three decades earlier. An earlier hoax where prospectors planted gold on worthless rock at a location misidentified as Mount Pisgah contributed to the townspeople’s skepticism.

With a grubstake from his Colorado Springs dentist for 50 percent of the profits, Womack continued to explore the narrow shaft on his property with a pick and shovel and found more gold ore. This discovery later became the Gold King Mine and eventually produced $5 million, yet Womack’s inept business sense kept him from becoming a millionaire. Theories abound about why he collected a small fraction of profits from his claim. Some say he sold his shares back to the dentist for only a few hundred dollars (and possibly a bottle of liquor), lost all of his stakes in a poker game or had to sell them to cover a steep hospital bill. According to local legend, one Christmas he celebrated the sale of one of his claims by giving away dollar bills to children on the street.

When it became obvious the gold was no hoax, other interested investors crossed over the Front Range to stake a six-square-mile area around Womack’s discovery, naming it the Cripple Creek Mining District. Known as the "World's Greatest Gold Camp," the mines that developed in the area eventually eclipsed all other districts in the nation. At its peak around a decade after Womack’s discovery, nearly 500 mines tapped gold ore and more than a dozen thriving communities dotted the hillsides. The district has produced more than 25 million ounces of gold, worth about $32.5 billion in today's market. From 1962 to 1995, the mines lay dormant, but today gold is flowing again. Virtually all of the mining properties have been consolidated by the Cripple Creek & Victor Mining Co.

“The first thing people ask is: ‘Are there any gold mines around here?’ ” said David Martinek, community relations representative at the company’s information center on Bennett Avenue. “The second thing they ask is: ‘Are you giving away free samples?’ ” Martinek tells visitors how outdated underground tunneling processes have given way to modern surface operations. The company extracts gold from low-grade ore, about a third of an ounce per ton, through a process called heap leach mining, which uses a sodium cyanide solution to separate precious metal from surrounding minerals.

A few doors down, Cripple Creek Candy and Variety Store owners Lou and Pat Goldman were busy making treats for a steady stream of customers. While handing a complimentary Tootsie Roll to every child who entered the store, Lou told the story of one customer who happened to work for Hershey’s. He wagered with the visitor that if his peanut butter cup was better than the one made by her employer, she’d have to announce it to everyone in the store. The doubting customer sampled his cup, biting through the firm chocolate coating into the creamy peanut butter filling. After devouring the rest of the confection, she humbly admitted Lou’s cup was superior to the revered Hershey’s recipe. As good as the peanut butter cups are, the shop’s specialties are fudge and truffles, with flavors like Irish cream, key lime, blueberry and the root beer-flavored Cripple Creek Gold, to name a few.

On a Sunday afternoon the quiet, crisp autumn air in town is only interrupted by the occasional rumble of a motorcycle caravan and the whistle of an engine from the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. We also heard the noise of riotous roots for the Denver Broncos and the dinging of pinball games where children played at Ralf’s Break Room. The first thing we noticed when we stepped up to the bar, decorated with antique guns, pickaxes and bumper stickers reminding visitors “do not drink cyanide solution,” was the shining smile of owner Chris Hazlett. The town’s former police chief still serves his community on the city council when not dishing out delicious slices of pizza at the restaurant. Hazlett said he saw just about everything in his years on the Denver police force earlier in his career, and that the rowdy football crowd was docile in comparison.

After cheering for a Broncos victory at Ralf’s, we went window shopping among the feral donkeys and burros, descendants of the beasts of burden that supplied the mines, which clop along the streets in front of The Brass Ass and Wild Horse Casinos. Cripple Creek is one of three mountain towns enjoying a boom in legal, high-stakes gaming. It was difficult to resist the rows of gleaming slot machines, which evoked dreams of gold coins showering upon us with an opportune roll of cherries or triple 7s. Hoping our encounter with a golden eagle at the beginning of the drive was a harbinger of good luck, we went gaming under the opulent skylight of the Double Eagle Casino. However, like Bob Womack, we failed to collect enough winnings to become millionaires.

With our pockets empty of cash but our spirits enriched by the experience of driving one of Colorado’s most prosperous byways, it was time to go home.

Before departing we pulled over on a hill called Vista Grande, the edge of an ancient volcano with more profitable veins of gold underfoot, for one last look toward Poverty Gulch, where prospecting started so long ago. Now bathed in the setting sun’s golden glow and bustling with the excitement of other travelers in Cripple Creek, Victor and Phantom Canyon beyond, the valley below looked anything but poor. ﷯﷯

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