The 1890s gold-rush boom town of Cripple Creek, on the back side of Pikes Peak, had nearly become a Colorado ghost town by the mid-20th century. Weekends, weak streams of visitors would meander up Ute Pass to the funky shops, odd little restaurants or, in summer, the melodrama.
Then came the advent of limited stakes gaming in the 1990s – a second “gold rush” that brought visitors swarming into the historic district to try their hand at slot machines and poker.
Those who loved its quirky, laid-back nature were put off by all those lights and bells. Many of those history buffs stopped coming.
Now, Cripple Creek is experiencing a renaissance as a tourist destination. With the opening of the Cripple Creek Heritage Center in 2007, and the even newer Jail Museum, there is a full day, or even weekend, of fun to be had without ever entering a casino.
The 11,600-square-foot heritage center should be your first stop. It affords a spectacular three-story-window view of the town below and mountains beyond. Then enjoy the clever and clearly presented exhibits. It’s kid-friendly and best of all, entrance is free! And if you don’t want to try parking in town, take the free shuttle and leave your car at the center. The helpful staff can tell you when the melodrama is playing, which restaurants cater to kids and where you can find overnight accommodations.
The shuttle will take you right downtown to the new Jail Museum, the converted Teller County Jail. The jail shows how prisoners in another era lived – in really cramped quarters. You’ll see tiny cells that once held up to eight men (hammocks slung from hooks for sleeping) and bright murals depicting some of the town’s more colorful moments.
If you’ve never been to a melodrama, well …Hiss! Boo! The Butte Opera House is just the place to cross that off the list of things to do before you die. Never been down in a real gold mine? Take the tour at the Mollie Kathleen Mine, right across the road from the heritage center.
The Cripple Creek & Victor Museum is like grandma’s attic, packed full of antiques and treasures collected from the area. And stop by the Homestead House Museum to see how the ladies of the evening contributed to the town’s general economy and welfare, if you get the drift.
In summer, ride the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad to see how early travelers fared. You’ll also get a look at current mining operations around the two towns.
Maybe plan your visit around one of the town’s special events, such as Donkey Derby Days, where the local wild burros are rounded up and ridden (sort of) by hearty and sometimes foolish folks who love to make spectacles of themselves. That happens the last weekend in June.
Cripple Creek is also a great place for aspen-viewing in the fall. Find out about other events at the Web site listed below.
There are plenty of dining options, from pizza and bar food to steaks and upscale cuisine. Lodging ranges from historic bed-and-breakfast inns and hotels to modern chains. Some of the older inns even offer a ghost or two.