Driving through the Old West on Colorado's Byways
Location : Southwest of Colorado Springs, northeast of Canon City, between Victor & U.S. 50/Florence. Fremont, Teller counties.
Highlights : This old toll road, which Canon City built in 1892, is the rough middle leg of the Gold Belt Tour, a Colorado Scenic & Historic Byway and a National Back Country Byway.
The third leg is mostly paved High Park Road, to the west. It was the first wagon and stage route to link the Cripple Creek and Victor gold fields with the Arkansas River Valley and cities of the Front Range.
Points of interest include Window Rock, a hole eroded into 1.7 billion-year-old rock; The Shelf, a rough one-lane section above Fourmile Creek; the site of the toll collector's cabin (private land); the limestone cliffs of the Shelf Road Recreation Area, popular among rock climbers; Red Canyon Park's sandstone figures; Garden Park Fossil Area, an important dinosaur graveyard discovered in 1876; the site of the West's first oil well; possibly Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
The road through the canyons of Fourmile and Cripple creeks involves an elevation change from 5,330 ft. at Canon City to 9,395 ft. at Cripple Creek, and passes through differing life zones. Add Phantom Canyon for a loop.
Difficulty : Easy when dry, but it is a more rudimentary and remote backcountry road than Phantom Canyon Road.
Time and distance : 2 hours & 26 miles; longer with the scenic spurs through Red Canyon Park and Shelf Road Recreation Area.
Maps : TI No. 137 (Pikes Peak, Canon City). Bring The Gold Belt Tour, a widely available brochure.
Information : BLM's Royal Gorge Field Office.
Getting there : From Cripple Creek, take Second Street south *for 0.3 mile. Angle right onto Teller County Road 88. From the north side of Canon City, follow Fields (a.k.a. Field) Avenue north. it becomes the Shelf Road (Fremont County Road 9).
Rest stops : There are toilets, tables, and interpretive signs at Garden Park. Red Canyon Park also has toilets and tables. The Bank Campground (fee; no water) is at the Shelf Road Recreation Area.
The Drive : In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when this gold mining district on Pikes Peak's western flank was out-producing the combined output of the California and Alaska gold rushes, a trip along the Shelf Road took six hours northbound, four hours southbound.
Tolls ranged from 30 cents for a horse and rider to $1.75 for a six-horse stagecoach. Since this little dirt road gets less than half the traffic of well-maintained Phantom Canyon Road, you'll have the solitude to imagine those days. From the town of Cripple Creek the road descends through a narrow canyon. 5.5 miles from town, look high up the cliff for a small arch, Window Rock. (Also watch for bighorn sheep.) 9.6 miles from town the road crosses Fourmile Creek, then climbs up the canyon wall on The Shelf, a crude one-lane segment with a long drop-off on one side.
From The Shelf you can look down at a small log outbuilding in the meadow where the toll collector once lived. At Garden Park, near the rest area, are several famous quarries where paleontologists found the fossilized bones of Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Allosaurus, and other large dinosaurs. About a mile farther south is the site of the first oil well (1862) west of the Mississippi River.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication