Length: About 220 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Each season offers fine scenery, but some secondary roads are closed in winter.
Nearby attraction: United States Air Force Academy, 15 miles north of downtown Colorado Springs, with a renowned chapel, scenic overlooks, and exhibits.
Words to the wise: As at all high elevations, thin air can cause health problems.
Further information: Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, 515 South Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, CO 80903; tel. 800-888-4748, www.coloradosprings-travel.com.
For thrill seekers willing to leave the ease of highway travel behind in order to explore the untamed Colorado countryside via an unpaved backcountry byway, Shelf Road is the route of choice. The challenging, white-knuckle drive leads from Cripple Creek to Canon City, passing numerous geological marvels, Window Rock among them, then comes to “the Shelf,” where the road is just a ledge sliced into the wall of Fourmile Canyon. At Red Canon Park 100-foot spires cast their lengthy shadows, and the site of fossil excavations awaits at the broad mountain valley that encircles Garden Park, a prime locale for spotting wild turkeys.
It was only a bit at a time that early adventurers began to chart this region, a landscape so rugged that none but the bravest dared to enter. Yet trappers, soldiers, geographers, and early settlers did in time explore the area, opening the way for others to follow. And come they did when gold was found, spurring an influx of miners. The inevitable bust brought an end to hopes for material wealth, but for modern visitors, the rivers, the peaks, and the lush valleys are reward enough, the singular ingredients of truly priceless panoramas.
1. Colorado Springs
Colorado Springs was established on dreams of health, wealth, and proper living. Founded in 1871 as a model community for “upright” people, the city counted among its assets its clean, crisp air and an average of more than 250 days of sunshine a year. Within decades the area was booming, complete with polo and cricket fields, palatial hotels, and sumptuous homes. Well-to-do travelers, often seeking cures for tuberculosis and other ailments, were flocking to the area. Before long the town had become so cosmopolitan that some began to call it Little London.
Today about 361,000 people live in Colorado Springs, where wide boulevards, spacious sidewalks, shady parks, and excellent museums complement the natural setting. The Rampart Range rises just to the west, offering superb unobstructed views of the city below. One of the best vistas can be seen from the tower at the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. Inside, memorabilia recall the renowned cowboy-philosopher, and murals depict events from Colorado’s history.
Heading out of town on Rte. 24, the drive, a lengthy loop, quickly ascends the first line of Rocky Mountain peaks. A not-to-be-missed stop along the way is Garden of the Gods, a 1,350-acre parkland filled with sandstone formations that have eroded into every imaginable shape and size—and quite a few unimaginable ones. To some eyes the sculpturelike spires and outlandish outcroppings resemble strange monsters, a roster that includes both giants and gargoyles.
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2. Pikes Peak Highway
Cresting at 14,110 feet, Pikes Peak was named for Zebulon Pike, who led an expedition sent out in 1806 by Thomas Jefferson to survey the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Pike, a lieutenant at the time, glimpsed the mountain as he was crossing the prairie, perhaps 100 miles away. After a failed attempt to scale the peak, he concluded that the summit could never be reached.
Despite the lieutenant’s dour prediction, present-day visitors can choose among three separate routes to the top: a hike along the Barr Trail, a chug aboard the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, or a drive on Pikes Peak Highway—one of the most spectacular mountain roads in the country.
The 19-mile highway, a toll road first opened in 1916, climbs through small canyons, traverses steep slopes, and winds around hairpin curves as it gains almost 7,000 feet in altitude. The uphill journey passes firs, pines, and aspens that are interspersed with flowery alpine meadows. Near the 12,000-foot mark, the trees begin to grow stunted, then farther on disappear, as craggy rocks—for the most part Pikes Peak granite—dominate the landscape all the way to the broad, level summit.
High in the sky, the crest remains chilly most of the year. Yet its alpine tundra manages to support an array of vibrant wildflowers that bloom in the summer. Although the growing season is brief, the views seem to go on forever. On clear days you can see the suburbs outside Denver, the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges rumpling toward New Mexico, and the immense sea of grass that comprises the Great Plains.
Such grandeur, it seems, is deserving of an equally sublime response, and Katharine Lee Bates, a college professor and poet, rose to the occasion. After visiting the summit in 1893, she recorded her impressions in a poem, including a lyrical passage that praised the “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.” Her verses, set to music in 1913, became America the Beautiful, the cherished unofficial national anthem.
3. Mueller State Park and Wildlife Area
Long before man built highways, nature provided a path of its own through the mountains: Ute Pass, where ancient earthquakes cleared a route between the peaks. By the time white men arrived, Indians had worn a trail along the boulder-strewn fault, which Rte. 24 skirts up ahead. At the town of Divide, Rte. 67 turns due south to Mueller State Park and Wildlife Area. Once a hunting ground of the Ute Indians, the park contains 12,100 acres of varied terrain—rounded outcrops, dense forests, and grassy meadows. Some 85 miles of hiking trails crisscross the preserve, where you might spot elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep. One trail, short but steep near the top, climbs to Grouse Mountain, the loftiest point in the park and one of the best places to glimpse hawks, golden eagles, and—looming as large as ever—Pikes Peak.
4. Cripple Creek
One of the best things about this mountain town is getting there—a drive on Rte. 67 running parallel to the mountains of Pike National Forest. The slopes support scattered stands of aspens and spruces, and above the timberline, rolling alpine tundra is dotted with forget-me-nots, dwarf columbines, lilies, and other summer wildflowers.
As precious to some as the views were the gold mines near Cripple Creek, where one of the richest claims in American history was filed in 1890. At the height of the boom, this was a small city—home to a population of about 16,000—and an important financial center, complete with three stock exchanges. Present-day visitors for a change of pace can ride an early narrow-gauge train, the Cripple Creek & Victor Railroad, which curls past dozens of old, abandoned mines.
Victor, a few miles to the southeast, can be reached via Rte. 67. Back in the area’s heyday, the two towns were rivals, and at one time Victor, not to be outdone by Cripple Creek, had streets that were literally paved with gold—ore that was deemed too low-grade to ship out. After a period of decline, the twin towns thrive once again as centers for tourism.