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.
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.
5. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
The rumblings of ancient volcanoes—massive mountains that erupted repeatedly—are responsible for the fossils here. Mudflows dammed a stream, and the backed-up waters partially inundated the surrounding forest. Then thick rains of ash and pumice buried the region, thereby preserving the area’s plants and animals as fossils.
The climate was much different then, a time when sequoia, cedar, hickory, beech, and even avocado trees thrived in a warm, humid realm. Conditions were perfect for insects, and they are among the most frequently found fossils—from butterflies to the tsetse fly, a species that today occurs naturally only in Africa. Mammals, too, were captured in stone and now form a prehistoric menagerie that includes a large rhinolike creature about 14 feet in length. Two short trails, A Walk Through Time and the Petrified Forest Loop, guide sightseers through the scattered forests and summer wildflower meadows that cover the numerous fossil-bearing shales.
6. Eleven Mile State Park
Large lakes are few and far between in this rugged, steep landscape, so humans have stepped in and, at Eleven Mile State Park, created a reservoir. Although visitors are not allowed to swim in the cold, cobalt water, they can cast a line and try for trophy-size trout. To enjoy the area’s impressive views—panoramas that take in several mountain ranges—explore the hiking trails that crisscross the surrounding wilds.
Back on Rte. 24, the drive leads to Wilkerson Pass, ascending to 9,507 feet. On the way back down, the view opens to reveal South Park, one of Colorado’s largest upland basins. The valley, about 900 square miles in size, offers a haven for deer and elk, which descend from the high country to graze among the meadows. You might also glimpse patches of white—alkali salts left behind by the evaporation of prehistoric lakes.
7. Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook
The drive begins another demanding ascent as it climbs the western slope of South Park to Trout Creek Pass, which tops off at 9,346 feet. Tracing a 19th-century railroad’s course, the highway slices up barren hillsides, snakes through shadowy canyons, and passes abandoned, weatherworn cabins that were built along the way by early pioneers who settled the area in numbers in the 19th century.
One of the region’s finest vistas awaits at the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook, perched above the Arkansas River valley. The view looks west across a fertile basin—spotted with willows and cottonwoods—to the snowcapped crowns of the Collegiate Peaks. Part of the Sawatch Range, the mountains were named in 1869 for the prestigious universities of the East—Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. Rising more than 14,000 feet, each qualifies as a Fourteener, and together their sturdy backbone marks the Continental Divide’s route through these precipitous parts.
8. Arkansas River
When the snow begins to melt, many of the local outdoor enthusiasts put their skis away and dust off their kayaks. They are bound for the roiling rapids of the Arkansas River, which originates among these mountains at the start of what will be a 1,450-mile course to the Mississippi.
As the drive veers to the south, it crosses the river, then follows near its course via Rte. 285. Much of the river is encompassed by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a protected corridor that was established in 1989. The river’s rapids range from the fairly tame to frothy stretches that are rated among the state’s most difficult. (A number of outfitters offer tours and supplies.) Ruby Mountain Recreation Site, a put-in point with camping and fishing, lies just upriver from Browns Canyon, where the Arkansas swirls between the towering pink walls of 6,600-acre Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area. The river, however, does not have a monopoly on recreational activities here; inviting trails lace the region, and hikers can hope to catch glimpses of mule deer, elk, eagles, and peregrine falcons.
9. St. Elmo
A side trip, Rte. 162, turns away from the river and heads west for a nearly 2,000-foot climb. Mts. Princeton and Antero, both Fourteeners, stand sentinel on opposite sides of the road, which meanders next to Chalk Creek and its canyon, a prime foraging ground for bighorn sheep. Agnes Vaille Falls, one of the largest in these parts, can be reached along a short trail that begins just beyond Chalk Cliffs. The tumbling water creates a steady, soothing music, and the abundant spray keeps the ledges green with ferns and mosses.
Aspen groves, especially brilliant in the fall, dot the area’s steep slopes for most of the ascent; then at higher elevations thick forests of Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir appear on the mountainsides. St. Elmo flourished during the region’s gold rush but is now a ghost town, where visitors can view old buildings and follow a railroad line to Alpine Tunnel, which burrows beneath the Continental Divide.
As the drive continues, it never strays far from the Arkansas River, which has widened and become tamer after its escape from Browns Canyon. Farther along, switch onto Rte. 291 and follow the river to Salida, a small town backed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Sightseers can tour its historic district, soak in hot springs, or stroll through Riverside Park.
Thanks to the surrounding mountains, which drain the passing clouds of most of their moisture, portions of this area are said to be high desert. The riverbanks remain lush with grasses, cottonwoods, and willows, but as you depart Salida on Rte. 50, the region becomes decidedly more arid. Rabbitbrush, piñons, and junipers are scattered across dry valleys. Two additional plant species also show up on the scene: oak brush and cholla cactus, whose pink flowers appear in spring.
11. Five Points Recreation Site
Just east of Cotopaxi the roadway dips into Bighorn Sheep Canyon, an aptly named locale where visitors can spot bighorn sheep. An interpretive facility at Five Points Recreation Site explains the habits of these creatures, which prove their mountain-climbing skills as they roam the jagged canyon walls. Although the animals can be difficult to make out—their brownish coats blend into the surroundings—distinctive white patches on their rumps give them away.
12. Royal Gorge
This gorge, carved over eons by the Arkansas River, has walls—regally colored in an array of reds—that plummet more than 1,000 feet to the riverbank. An aerial tramway and the world’s highest suspension bridge both span the abyss, offering vertigo-inducing views deep into the chasm. For yet another perspective, ride the incline railway to the gorge’s faraway floor. In a thrilling descent the cars inch down a 45-degree slope to the swirling rapids of the Arkansas River. As you look up from the bottom, the towering walls obscure all but a sliver of sky.
13. Canon City
Farther east the drive snakes over the crest of the Dakota Hogback via the Skyline Drive, then descends to Canon City. One of its first mayors, a poet named Joaquin Miller, wanted to dub the rowdy mining camp Oreodelphia, a highfalutin’ name that the miners insisted they could neither spell nor pronounce. “The place is a canyon,” they said, “and it’s goin’ to be called Canon City.”
The town is host to one of Colorado’s major penitentiaries, besides other attractions better worth stopping for. A hint of its past still exists in the town’s historic district, complete with museums, and visitors can also drive by the ornate mansions built by early mining magnates.
Take time to ride the scenic railroad through Royal Gorge. Its trestles span clefts, and its tracks cling to ledges with a view of the Arkansas River far below.
14. Fort Carson Military Reservation
Rte. 115 follows the river southeast to Florence, where the downtown district has become a mecca for antique lovers, then branches northeast through rolling hills studded with junipers, piñons, and sagebrush. At Fort Carson, an army installation off limits to the public, some 130,000 acres provide diverse habitat for wildlife. Elk, pronghorns, and mule deer roam the grasslands; songbirds fill the cottonwood groves; and grebes, mallards, and other waterbirds nest in the wetlands. Raptors—golden eagles, prairie falcons, and hawks—can also be spotted from the road.
The drive nears its completion with a dramatic flair as the roller-coaster loop twists on its self to make a winding descent from the foothills. The views take in Colorado Springs and the sun-soaked plains stretching east.
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