Cars creep along a ledge chiseled from a steep cliff. A creek tumbles through a granite gorge 200 feet below. While drivers rivet their eyes on the narrow road, passengers crane their necks to marvel at the view. For many travelers, this white-knuckle, eye-popping drive on The Shelf is the highlight of the Gold Belt Scenic Byway Tour.
This Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway encompasses three north-south roads that connect the historic mountain mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor with the Arkansas Valley communities of Cañon City and Florence.
The Gold Belt Tour’s network of roads resembles a short-handled pitchfork with three prongs. Starting in the town of Florissant, about 50 miles west of Colorado Springs, the byway heads south on Teller 1 — the pitchfork handle.
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The route courses through Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, where volcanic mudflows preserved an abundance of plant and insect fossils more than 35 million years ago. Specimens in the Visitor Center display remarkable detail of ancient leaves, beetles and dragonflies. Outside, a nature trail winds past huge fossilized tree stumps. About 12 miles south, the byway splits into prongs — High Park, Phantom Canyon and Shelf Roads.
High Park Road veers southwest across mountain meadows flanked with stands of ponderosa pines. In the distance, the snow-crested Sangre de Cristo Range rises from the plains. Ranchers homesteaded this area long before prospectors plied the trail during the 1890s gold boom.
The two-lane paved highway offers a fast and relaxing means to traverse the distance between Cripple Creek and Cañon City. In comparison, the byway’s two other segments boast adventurous drives through craggy chasms.
Built atop the rail bed of the former Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad, Phantom Canyon Road branches southeast, paralleling Eightmile Creek. Steam-powered trains hauled gold, valued today at $6 billion from 19th-century mining camps to Florence’s ore reduction mills.
On Sundays, excursion trains transported shoppers to opulent Cripple Creek and picnickers to the fragrant orchards of the Arkansas Valley. A curved steel bridge and two tunnels through solid granite attest to the extraordinary construction feats necessary to build the railway.
As the unpaved route descends 5,000 feet, it hugs sheer pink walls of Pikes Peak granite. Stands of Englemann spruce and subalpine fir give way to lower-elevation forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Cottonwoods and willows fringe the creek. After 25 miles of curves, the road opens onto a broad valley dotted with piñon pine and juniper woodlands before entering Florence.
From there, travelers can access Shelf Road — the center prong —by driving northwest to Cañon City. Heading due north to Cripple Creek, this segment passes through the Garden Park Fossil Area, where in 1876 a school teacher stumbled upon several huge dinosaur fragments, including a 5-foot-long femur.
Paleontologists later uncovered an amazing number of massive, nearly complete skeletons of stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus and other dinosaurs in a band of shale measuring only 3 feet thick. Specimens exhumed from this area are displayed in museums around the world, including the Smithsonian and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
The asphalt byway then courses through expansive ranchlands. Brilliant white and red strata streak the slopes of the mountains rising to each side. Towering up to 100 feet high, rock spires mark Red Canyon Park. A rough road winds to picnic sites nestled among striking sandstone formations.
From this point on, the surface is gravel. After passing the Shelf Rock Climbing Area, the route enters a gorge with limestone-capped granite walls and reaches the lofty section after which it is named — The Shelf. A historic toll collector’s cabin still stands on the valley floor. When stage coaches rumbled through here more than a century ago, the uphill ride took six hours and required three teams of horses.
Although traffic is two-way, this 5-mile stretch is only one-lane wide, with occasional turnouts. Four-wheel-drive may be required when the surface is wet. Of necessity, drivers miss out on the view. For passengers who keep their eyes open, a dramatic vista of soaring rock walls, sheer drop-offs and a cascading creek unfolds.
The road then corkscrews up a steep canyon sculpted by the waters of Cripple Creek. Eroded by wind and water, Window Rock frames a patch of sky. Piles of talus stud surrounding slopes, marking old entrances to some of the 500 mines that catacomb the area. Using modern strip mining and heap-leaching technology, today’s mining activity focuses on removing and concentrating gold from the waste rock of abandoned mines. To the northeast, majestic Mount Pisgah and Pikes Peak scrape the sky.
At Cripple Creek, the Shelf Road’s northern terminus, travelers can continue on the Gold Belt Tour or explore this former boomtown. Strolling its quaint streets calms one’s nerves after teetering on top of the world.
If You Go
The byway originates one hour from Colorado Springs via U.S. 24 and one hour from Pueblo via U.S. 50. The total length is 131 miles. Allow six hours to drive all segments: a half-hour for Teller 1, 1½ hours for High Park Road (31 miles) and at least two hours each for Phantom Canyon (38 miles) and Shelf (24 miles) Roads. The route is great for adventure, canyon and mountain scenery, geology and mining history. The best time to explore is spring/early summer when the meadows and canyon floors have turned green and the roads are less traveled.
Cañon City Chamber of Commerce, 800-876-7922
City of Cripple Creek, 877-858-4653
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, 719-748-3253
Florence Chamber of Commerce, 719-784-3544