From the window wall of the new Pikes Peak Heritage Center overlooking Cripple Creek, watch the sun cast its golden glow over the town below and Sangre de Cristo mountain range beyond.
It’s the panoramic kind of view home builders would pay a fortune to secure. But this view belongs to a $3.7 million visitors’ center that serves as an introduction to the legendary mining camp.
The flood of sunshine reminds visitors that it was gold that brought settlers to this area. The discovery of gold in Cripple Creek in the late-1800s brought thousands of fortune-seekers to the ancient volcanic bowl, each miner determined to hit the Mother Lode.
And although millions in dollars of gold came out of local mines, no one ever found that coveted core of gold ore. Some speculate that it’s still here.
When the gold-mining industry faded in the mid-20th century, Cripple Creek’s population dwindled to almost nothing. Eventually, the town recovered its economy through tourism and low-stakes gaming. Even gold mining has made a comeback. Until now, there was no way for the first-time or casual visitor to put it all into perspective.
The 11,600-square-foot, three-story Pikes Peak Heritage Center, about a mile out of town, does just that. Situated on what some call the “back side” of Pikes Peak — America’s Mountain — you can’t miss it as you roll into town.
It’s not a museum, though many museums would envy its collection of artifacts and photos. It’s an interpretive center, designed to help visitors understand how the town came to be and how it evolved. Through state-of-the-art interactive displays, dioramas, old photographs, audio and video guides and more, visitors can explore the geologic and human history, as well as the distinctive wild-and-woolly character of Cripple Creek. Kids will be fascinated with the hands-on displays on the lower level.
Visitors will learn about other precious minerals found during the search for gold, including gem-quality turquoise, topaz and amazonite. They’ll also learn about area flora and fauna, and see two life-sized dioramas that feature a full-grown elk and a prehistoric cousin, a stegosaurus found just south of here, near Canon City.
Not only can you walk into the mock-up of a mine tunnel, you also can find out what’s going on in town that very day. A melodrama at the Butte Opera House? A town celebration, such as Donkey Derby Days? Maybe the fishing is good this week, or the leaves are turning to gold (what else?) on the aspens.
Take a tour of the Mollie Kathleen Mine (right across the road), ride the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, or visit the Cripple Creek District Museum, the Old Homestead House Museum or the other new attraction, the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum.
Located downtown, the old jail is being turned into a free museum. Inside, visitors can see how the rowdy portion of the population spent some of its time. Murals, displays and videos will show the history of local bawdy houses, saloons, gambling and other rambunctious activities. Don’t be surprised if, while you’re there, there’s a “lockdown” or a “jailbreak.” It should be fun; it opens in September.
Back at the new heritage center, visitors can find out information about all these attractions, as well as where to dine, stay, shop — and gamble, of course.
Slot machines aside, it’s a safe bet that visitors are going to love this place.
If You Go
Pikes Peak Heritage Center, on Colorado 67, a mile from downtown Cripple Creek
Hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily
Information: (877) 858-4653
Linda DuVal is a freelance writer who lives in Colorado Springs.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.