We teetered on the edge of Shelf Road. Traces of gold started to appear all around us in the aspen groves. Our hearts were lodged halfway up our throats while we passed cars headed the opposite direction. We bounced down the narrow road etched into the canyon’s precipice, and we knew we were in the center of it all – the Gold Belt Byway.
The Gold Belt Tour National Scenic Byway stretches from Florissant on the north to Cañon City and Florence on the south. As it flows out of Florissant on Teller Road 1, it quickly breaks off into three unique branches as it passes by Mount Pisgah:
- High Park Road (paved road);
- Shelf Road (rugged dirt road); and
- Phantom Canyon Road (dirt road).
All together the Gold Belt Byway is 135 miles long and takes six to eight hours to drive the entire route (but I highly recommend taking a full 2-3 days to enjoy the byway). It is dominated by Pikes Peak on its eastern flank. Pikes Peak – the inspiration for America the Beautiful – imposes her will on the landscapes found within the region.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument: As we busted south of Florissant, we bisected the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. It’s there that you can find petrified redwood stumps up to 14 feet wide and thousands of detailed fossils of insects and plants that reveal the story of a more tropical, prehistoric Colorado. We appreciated that there were ample opportunities to learn about the early settlers in the area too.
Dome Rock: As we continued south along Teller Road 1, we hit our first major fork in the road. We stayed left on Teller Road 1 instead of hanging a right on Teller Road 11, which would have led us to High Park Road (the westernmost of the three forks in the byway).
Dome Rock nearly smacked me in the face as we rounded the first bend in the road. Many refer to the place as “Little Yosemite.” It’s a marvelous granite monolith that shoots out of middle earth. Four Mile Creek flows along its flank and meanders beneath Teller 1. And we would meet up with this fateful friend later in the trip.
Cripple Creek: Next along the way we visited the Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. The shear size of the mines and mining equipment nearly knocked the wind out me. The tires on the tractors hauling the gold ore easily towered 25 feet. Cripple Creek is one of just a few areas in the state you can gamble. You have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em…I decided to keep my cash in my wallet for at least a little while longer.
From here we had to choose whether we would journey down Shelf Road (the middle of the three forks) or Phantom Canyon Road (the east of the three forks). Shelf Road was originally a stage route that delivered people, goods, and ore to and from Cripple Creek and Cañon City. Phantom Canyon Road traces the route of the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad built in 1894 as a connection from Florence to the goldfields.
Shelf Road: Yee-haaww!!! We decided to go down Shelf Road on this particular day. It’s the most dramatic route of them all. We highly recommend you have a 4×4 vehicle. As you make your initial descent down to the Arkansas River Valley below, you pass through rugged and unpredictable terrain. You’ll encounter aspen forests at the top, make your way around an arch notched in a granite wall, and then eventually find your way back to Four Mile Creek. The creek, which you’ll hit near the county line between Teller and Fremont Counties, will enter in from the west.
It’s when you hit Fremont County on the Gold Belt Byway that things really get interesting. Shelf Road becomes suspended on the cliff’s edge. As I bombed down the road, I couldn’t help but think about some of the infamous scenes in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Four Mile Creek slices through the canyon hundreds of feet below. You can see occasional remnants of the old stage line. You really feel like you’re living on the edge at times.
Garden Park: And then you realize that your day, which has already been blessed with numerous magical moments, is about to get a whole lot better. You catch your first glimpses of Garden Park and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains far off in the background.
Garden Park is a fertile valley irrigated by the waters of Four Mile Creek. We first stopped at the Shelf Road Climbing Area (also a great spot to camp overnight if you bring a tent and sleeping bags). Shelf Climbing Area is one of the best sport climbing areas in Colorado. We next visited the historic Garden Park School (built in 1895). But we enjoyed seeing Ute petroglyphs and several famous dinosaur fossil sites the most.
Royal Gorge: From Garden Park we went down through Cañon City. Some of the United States’ most infamous lawbreakers reside in the prisons surrounding Cañon and Florence. (Ever heard of the Unabomber?) In short order, we were on the doorstep of the Royal Gorge.
We wrapped up our Gold Belt Byway adventure by stretching out our legs and walking across the colossal bridge that spans the Royal Gorge. The Royal Gorge is carved out by the Arkansas River. It’s one of the world’s highest suspension bridges, and it reaches 1,270-feet across the 1,200-foot deep canyon below. I only wish we had more time to spend in the area to do some rafting on the Arkansas River.
We encountered endless riches on our day’s journey. Spring, summer – and especially fall – are great seasons to travel the byway.
Resources & Features: