The Gold Belt Tour takes you 135 miles on old stagecoach and railroad routes (now mostly paved), through rural hamlets, alongside sheer cliffs, up to massive mines and down into desert canyon country.
Because of the types of sites involved, it’s a great weekend road trip to take with kids or older friends and family members. (There is a third Gold Belt Tour option for intellectually curious adults who are interested in sociology, prison reform and rock climbing–see in particular Shelf Road, Canon City and Cripple Creek.)
In no particular order, here are the 5 things that you must see on the Gold Belt Tour. And by the way–give yourself two days, unless you’re hardcore, leather-driving-gloves type of road tripper. You will want to wander and explore around this byway.
5. Royal Gorge
Colorado’s petite version of the Grand Canyon is also a fun-for-most-ages amusement park. Pay the friendly retirees at the toll both $15 and drive over the gorge, enjoying stunning views from the world’s highest suspension bridge. On the other side, park and enjoy the fiesta. You can eat old time ice cream and hamburgers while absorbing a view of the bridge. Up the hill are some lovely viewpoints and a zoo of sorts, where you will see a white buffalo, among other animals of the West (note: animals are rather mangy and sad). Other fun options include a zipline, one of the steepest incline railways in the world, a single-span aerial tram over the canyon, burro rides, Native American beading demonstrations and rafting down the Gorge (you don’t launch from the Gorge, though–plan your rafting trip beforehand).
4. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Take a long, rolling drive north, past a farm boasting the world’s cutest lamas, and eventually you’ll hit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Its claim to fame are the tiny, perfectly-preserved carbon fossils of insects, flowers and plants. You can’t touch these. They’re too delicate. But you can see the from the visitor center. They’re like nature’s photographs, a neat way to see ancient history preserved in perfect detail. The other point of interest here is petrified wood. Embarking on a flat hike of a mile or so, you’ll see the well-preserved, petrified stumps of ancient redwood trees. Kids love it here, because you can take a ranger-led tour, see an interesting orientation film and have lunch in a big amphitheatre-type area near some huge petrified stumps.
Cynical adult point of interest: Back in the 1800s, when they first discovered the fossil beds, rockhounds from far and wide would arrive in their stagecoaches and collect fossils. Formerly covered in fossils, the area was soon picked dry, save for the few remnants still on display today.
3. Shelf Road
It might be hard to believe today, but this sheer-walled, one-lane, loose dirt road used to be a toll road for stagecoaches. Off-roaders and drivers of ATVs love it for its curves, views and 4,000-foot elevation gain. Regular cars can do it too, but watch out for ruts and erosion.
You’ll see some signs to towns that no longer exist, Window Rock (above), gorgeous ravine views and bighorn sheep, if you’re lucky. Rock climbers love Shelf Road Recreation Area, a fully-bolted sport climbing paradise. Towards the Canon City end of the drive, you can look for dinosaur fossils at the deserts Garden Park Fossil Area. It’s a beautiful and sometimes challenging drive, the kind that takes your breath away at times.
2. Cañon City
Deemed “a clean version of Hell,” Cañon City is the only place in America with 13 prisons nestled in a single “Prison Valley.” Sixteen percent of the city’s 36,000 residents are incarcerated. In nearby Florence, the federal Supermax ADX mega-prison houses the Unabomber, shoe bomber Richard Reid, Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols, masterminds of the Tijuana and Gulf drug cartels, Mafia bosses, an FBI double spy and miscellaneous serial killers.
This web documentary and this Fast Company article explains more. In Cañon City itself, there’s a fantastic prison museum. It’s next to a real prison, and you walk by a guard tower with sniper-rifle armed guards to get inside.
Note: Besides darkly curious adults, Cañon City does hold some interest for families and kids. There’s a delicious French bakery, a winery just outside of town and several parks. You can also book rafting trips here. But really, it’s most interesting for adults.
1. Cripple Creek
Cripple Creek is home to one of the biggest gold strikes in the world, the $500 million Independence Iode, tapped in the 1890s. Where there were gold miners, there were saloons, brothels, gambling and nefarious activity; modern-day Cripple Creek, with its historically-intact buildings and ongoing Old West vibe, does not disappoint.
During the 1980s, Cripple Creek, its mining riches extracted, essentially was a ghost town. But in 1991, someone had the idea to legalize gambling, and you can guess what happened next. Today, the place is full of slot machines, card tables and the like, in an outskirt-of-Vegas kind of way. Interestingly, relics of the Old West live alongside the gambling resources, with the Butte Theater and Gold Bar Room showing quality shows of all eras. You can stay at some really nice, well-preserved buildings, including historical hotels, an old schoolhouse and even an old brothel. Cripple Creek also has a bit of a nightlife, thanks in part to the theaters and gambling.
For the family, check out the wide variety of sites listed here. You can spend a couple of days with Cripple Creek as your home base, branching out to Florissant Fossil Beds, touring mines and old gold camps, eating relatively well and perhaps finding some antiques to bring home.
You can find detailed, mile-by-mile information about this byway and 11 more in the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.