Stopping for autumn color along Phantom Canyon Road, a few miles south of Victor near Grey Wolf Ranch. © Debi Boucher
Originally published: September/October 2017
Jeep tours take you places the family sedan cannot or probably shouldn’t go, with someone else doing the driving while you fix your undistracted gaze, and focus your camera (phone), on Colorado’s autumn gold.
By Tom Hess
Editor’s note: EnCompass invites amateur photographers who are also AAA Colorado members to submit their best Colorado autumn images—whether from this year’s color season or from past years’—for a chance to win up to $500 and appear on the cover of the September-October 2018 edition. Deadline for photo submission: April 9, 2018. For contest rules, visit AAA.com/encompass.
It’s cold enough for a parka as I, along with a photographer and others, board a Colorado Jeep Tours vehicle in Cañon City on a bluebird-sky September morning. The owner, Will Colon, is also the driver, and history enthusiast. Being a fourth-generation Arkansas River Valley resident helps inform his story-telling. He steers us toward Shelf Road, about five miles north of U.S. 50. Once we’re off pavement, the gravel road is rough—another reason for riding someone else’s tires and suspension on this trip—but Colon is unfazed. This is familiar ground.
As we gain 4,000 feet in elevation on our way to Cripple Creek, we stop briefly several times. We aren’t holding up traffic, because no one is in front of or behind us. Among our stops—a petroglyph, visible on a roadside boulder. It’s too faint, in the shadows of the canyon, to show up in my iPhone photo.
The most memorable pause of our climb is at the foot of Window Rock, also known as Keyhole Rock, an aptly named landmark of 1.7-billion-year-old rock eroded by wind and water. “Old timers used to call this the Devil’s Gateway,” Colon said. Here big horn sheep will graze along the waters of Cripple Creek, but we don’t see any, and move on.
Once in town, we do see the animals most visitors never forget—burros walking freely on the streets, trained by thousands of tourists to expect food offered by hand from car windows. Some of the burros are said to be descendants of those that worked alongside 19th century miners but who were abandoned and left unattended. They thrived. They’re celebrated every summer during Donkey Derby Days.
Burros in Cripple Creek often approach slow-moving vehicles, expecting and often receiving treats from motorists. © Debi Boucher
The brightest, thickest stand of golden aspen of the entire trip is within the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery, overlooking Cripple Creek. Here we get both the aspen and a sweeping view toward the east, capped by the less-familiar west face of Pikes Peak.
The Gold Belt Tour via jeep takes about six hours, so we stop for sandwiches prepared by Gertrud Wuellner, a German chef at Gold Camp Bakery in Victor (ordered ahead of time and included in the price of the tour). I also ordered a piece of Bee Sting (Bienenstich), a cream-filled dessert topped with honey and caramelized almonds.
Next door is a store of improbable acclaim, a place where a couple now in their 60s manufacture and display broomcorn brooms, tin cookie cutters, and historically accurate tin cans that have appeared in movies, magazines, and Disney parks. The Victor Trading Co. & Manufacturing Works opened 27 years ago at 114 S. 3rd St., a building the couple bought for $35,000 and have worked and lived in ever since. The brooms sell so quickly that the couple can barely keep up with phone and website orders.
Back in time
Knowing some of the history of Cripple Creek makes the drive up, and the time in town, richer.
Money Mountain is the name that the late author Marshall Sprague gave to a 1953 account of Cripple Creek history—a still-in-print book that extracts from the dross of dubious frontier sources a rich narrative about the treasure that very nearly didn’t get unearthed. Fake news, in the form of the so-called Hoax of Mount Pisgah of 1884, tainted Cripple Creek’s prospects for years. Someone had attached the Pisgah name to a gold-salting fraud executed by three con men at a site 13 miles to the west.
Cripple Creek, on the east slope of Mount Pisgah, languished as word of the mislabeled hoax spread and took hold. “It was a good story,” Sprague wrote. “It made people laugh wryly. This ridicule was bound to injure Cripple.” Even if faithful prospectors there “struck a million tons of pure gold at Cripple now, [they] would have the devil’s own time persuading anybody to take stock in it.”
Loyal customers across the world request handmade brooms from Karen and Sam Morrison, co-owners of Victor Trading Co., one of several must-see shops along the route of Colorado Jeep Tours’ Gold Belt Scenic Byway tour. © AAA Colorado/Tom Hess
Sprague is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs, the same resting place as Winfield Scott Stratton, a three-dollar-a-day Colorado Springs carpenter who struck gold in 1891—seven years after the hoax—and became Cripple Creek’s first of several rags-to-riches gold millionaires.
Sprague’s book is essential reading, and so is Cripple Creek Days (Lee, Mabel Barbee. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1958; reprint edition, Bison Books, 1984). The author recounts her childhood journey up the road to Money Mountain, in a horse-drawn carriage with other passengers, grasping the silver coin she received from her prospecting father. She remembered the carriage stopping at a halfway house, where the driver changed horses—the steep grade exhausting the animals. Afterward, having fallen asleep, she awoke to a “nightmare”—gun-wielding bandits, two of them, yelling at the passengers to step out, get in line, and forfeit their valuables.
In a panic, Lee put the coin in her mouth.
One of the bandits “squinted as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. … ‘Don’t it bear all how she was atryin’ to cheat on us?’
“‘Guess we oughta learn her a lesson as a warnin’’ the other said, pursing his lips seriously and nodding.
“One of the fellows reached over and patted my head. Then, without saying a word, he pulled another dollar out the heavy satchel and slipped it on top of the one in my wide-open mouth.
“‘Next time, pug-nose,’ he said, chuckling and fastening the satchel again, ‘you moughtn’t fare so well with a fella who ain’t been brung up so gentleman like!’”
Phantoms of the Canyon
The return trip to Cañon City, down Phantom Canyon Road, is an opportunity to hear Colon share his favorite, most fanciful tales.
The road began as a toll-free competitor to Shelf. Demand for rail service to Cripple Creek led to construction of a rail line in 1894. The fact that the train tracks washed out in 1912 is a reminder of how a rare flood in this high-altitude desert canyon can devastate everything in its path.
The rail line was never rebuilt, and as mining traffic subsided, ghostly lore grew around the bygone train, and the name associated with the canyon it traveled.
“My favorite tale is about a train coming out of the canyon at night, and a moth inside the light cast a shadow on the canyon wall that could not be explained at the time,” Colon said. “The engineers convinced themselves that it was a phantom or spirit moving in front of the train.”
Another story Colon tells his guests while approaching the second tunnel is both tragic and heroic.
“Chinese workers were killed in a blast while building the line,” Colon said. “Their coworkers did not want to disturb their remains, and the white foreman, who respected them, chose to build tunnel #2, at great expense, rather than lay track over the remains.”
Yet another yarn involves local promoters giving the toll-free road a name, and a ghost legend, that would draw visitors. The legend of a man in prison uniform, appearing to a railroad crew several days after his execution in Cañon City, lives on by word of mouth and in the digital realm.
Back in Cañon City, the tour over, I said my goodbyes to Colon, and the photographer. Before heading home on the Front Range, I visited Main Street downtown and dined at Pizza Madness, a repurposed old retail space with colorful, original art, and pies loaded up with meat and cheese. The energy of the place, which draws crowds from across southern Colorado, reminded me that things of the distant past, like the Gold Belt Scenic Byway, come alive when you take the time to engage them.
Tom Hess is Editor of EnCompass.
Elsewhere in Colorado
See stunning vistas near Ouray, in southwestern Colorado, on two autumn rides available through Switzerland of America Jeeps (970-325-4484):
Yankee Boy Basin (3 hours, $57.50 per person). Highlights: The route is lined with trickling waterfalls, colorful aspen, and historic mining sites, such as Camp Bird. The richest mine owned by an individual, Camp Bird yielded gold second only to Cripple Creek. The owner, Thomas Walsh, used his riches to buy the Hope Diamond for his daughter, and he built a mansion in Washington, D.C., that remains a landmark on Embassy Row.
Brown Mountain Gulch (4 hours, $63 per person). Highlights: Up Million Dollar Highway, over Bear Creek Falls, is Crystal Lake and a little-known 4×4 trail that winds through a trellis of thick aspen foliage, ferns, and other Rocky Mountain flora. The trail continues through the well-preserved Saratoga and Brooklyn mining camps, nestled in pockets of ferns and fall asters. Both itineraries depart twice a day: 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; capacity, 12 people per departure.
See your photo on our cover
Your photo of Colorado autumn gold could appear on the cover of the September-October 2018 edition of EnCompass. Submit your photograph to the Gold Rush Photo Contest online at AAA.com/encompass, or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Deadline for photo submission: April 9, 2018.