Popular tourist sights, challenging outdoor adventures, and lonely ghost towns await on this scenic loop through central Colorado.
During the late 19th century, gold fever roared through Colorado like wildfire, sparking instant towns. Like the mines nearby, most of the towns played out—though some still stand as ghostly reminders of the salad days. Besides ghost towns, natural wonders abound on this road trip, from towering mountains to fossil beds, from prime white water to a gorge deserving the name Royal.
Start in Colorado Springs
Head west on U.S. 24 from Colorado Springs, stopping first at the Garden of the Gods park (exit Hwy. 24 onto N 30th St.; www.gardenofgods.com), whose towering sandstone fins and red, gravelly cliffs are spiritual places for Native Americans. Area stables offer horseback trips into the surrounding countryside. Just past the Garden of the Gods, in Manitou Springs (www.manitousprings.org), is the Cave of the Winds (www.caveofthewinds.com). Take in the cave's geological wonders on a 45-minute Discovery Tour.
At Cascade, turn off for the 19-mile (31-kilometer) toll road leading up to the 14,110-foot (4,301-meter) summit of Pikes Peak (www.pikespeakcolorado.com). Along the way, look for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep patrolling the alpine zone of stunted trees and shrubbery. Take a trip on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the village of Manitou Springs.
A left turn at Divide onto State Highway 67 leads you to Cripple Creek (www.visitcripplecreek), a former mining town where you can take a ride on the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. From 1890 to 1910, some 500 mines in this area produced 22,400,000 ounces of gold. A National Historic Landmark, Cripple Creek claims a raucous mining heritage, which is faintly, though less authentically, echoed in the local casinos.
Just past Cripple Creek lies the ghost town of Victor (www.victorcolorado.com), which, though still inhabited, has many period buildings. Go for a stroll past the trolley depot, the Masonic Hall, and the Victor Daily Record newspaper office. The Victor Hotel is still open for business, and the local Lowell Thomas museum tells about the famous adventurer and writer who grew up in these mountains.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Back on U.S. 24, a short drive west leads to the town of Florissant and the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (www.nps.gov/flfo), home to one of the world's richest deposits of fossils. Huge petrified redwood stumps and thousands of insect and plant fossils record the story of what this region was like in prehistoric times.
South Park City
Leaving the monument, climb to Wilkerson Pass at 9,127 feet (2,782 meters), where views of snowcapped peaks are visible from the visitors center. Continuing west from the pass, cross the grassy-banked South Platte River at Hartsel. About 18 miles (29 kilometers) north of the crossing, on Route 9, you'll find South Park City (www.southparkcity.org), a restored and re-created ghost town now operated as a museum, in Fairplay. Here you can visit the depot, filled with train memorabilia, and step inside the vintage drugstore and schoolhouse.
From Fairplay, head south on U.S. 285 to return to U.S. 24. At the town of Buena Vista (www.buenavistacolorado.org), follow Country Road 162 southwest for 19 miles (31 kilometers) to the ghost town of St. Elmo (www.ghosttowns.com/states/co/saintelmo.html). Explore the town's ghostly Main Street, peering into the windows of its frame buildings, which include the saloon, store, and several private homes. Back in Buena Vista, at the foot of the Collegiate Peaks, sign up for a whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River, which draws legions of rafters and kayakers in spring and summer.
From Buena Vista, head south on 285 to Highway 50 east. Five miles (eight kilometers) from the junction lies the town of Salida (salida.com), whose downtown historic district is crammed with attractive Victorian buildings.
Continuing east on 50 for 47 miles (76 kilometers), you'll come to the turnoff for Royal Gorge (www.royalgorgebridge.com), with its “World's Highest Suspension Bridge,” a span built in 1929. Here you can ride a cable car above the gorge, or board the Incline Railway for a trip down to the Arkansas River. Not far from Royal Gorge is the Museum of Colorado Prisons (www.prisonmuseum.org), housed in a former women's correctional facility built in 1935.
Ten miles (16 kilometers) beyond Cañon City, pick up Route 115 north at the town of Penrose. Get a final taste of wilderness before returning to Colorado Springs at the Aiken Canyon Preserve (parks.state.co.us/NaturalResources/CNAP/NaturalAreasInfo/AlphabeticalListing/Pages/AikenCanyon.aspx), which boasts the largest remaining intact foothills ecosystem of the Front Range. An area of shrublands and woodland, Aiken Canyon contains a rich diversity of wildlife, including black bears, mountain lions, elk, and golden eagles.
June through September is the best time to drive this route, a loop of around 225 miles (362 kilometers) with numerous side trips bringing the total distance to about 375 miles (604 kilometers). For background information on Colorado's ghost towns, see Ghost Towns of Colorado: Your Guide to Colorado's Historic Mining Camps and Ghost Towns, by Philip Varney, Voyageur Press, 1999. Also see these websites: www.coloradoghosttowns.com/index.htm, www.ghosttowns.com/states/co/co.html, and www.fourteenernet.com/central-colorado.asp. For local weather information, see www.weather.com.
—Text by Michael Ray Taylor, adapted from National Geographic Traveler