Looking for phantoms along Colorado's Gold Belt
It's been more than a decade since I've seen the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Range, which tower over the Wet Mountain Valley, forming one of the most dramatic skylines in the state (there are a lot of those, however). Last weekend, after spending a few days in Salida, I took the scenic route back to Fort Collins, looping through the Wet Mountains, driving the 30-some odd miles of the Gold Belt BLM Backcountry Byway north of Cañon City and briefly experiencing the spectacle of Cripple Creek, one of the last towns of more than 1,000 people I had not yet visited.
Westcliffe, in the middle of the Wet Mountain Valley between the Wets and the Sangres, feels like a cheap tourist town without the tourists (do many tourists come to Colorado in September?), sort of what I imagine Estes Park might be like if the national park weren't next door and the Stanley hadn't been built. But Westcliffe, the seat of Custer County, has a hell of a view, one that stretches from the Crestone peaks all the way to the Sawatch Range. To the east are the very Black Hills-like Wet Mountains, which are as lush as the name implies and as rolling as the Blue Ridge.
The Wet Mountains are the last sub-range of the Rockies within Colorado that I had left to visit, and apparently very few people spend much time here. They barely top out above 12,000 feet, and aren't typical of the rugged, rocky summits you'll find in nearly every other mountain range in Colorado. In other words, the Wet Mountains and the Greenhorn Mountain Wilderness at their southern tip are well worthy of exploration one day soon.
The highlight of the trip on Sunday was the drive up Phantom Canyon from Cañon City to Victor. The road follows the grade of an old gold mine railroad threading through a rugged and surprisingly arid canyon at the edge of the Front Range south of Pike's Peak. The road, mostly in Fremont County, passes through Bureau of Land Management land, which is a rarity on the Front Range. The BLM owns a large swath of public land along the U.S. 50 corridor along the Arkansas River and into the canyons and hills around Cañon City, but, except for scattered parcels here and there, there is little other BLM land in Colorado east of crest of the Front Range. Most BLM backcountry byways are in incredibly remote areas in southwest New Mexico, southern Utah, rural Oregon and in other distant places.
The Gold Belt is the exception. Known for its narrow path through the canyon that simply doesn't allow opposing traffic to pass each other in the most precipitous places, it's a fun drive if you don't mind creeping around blind corners on the side of a cliff, hoping some yahoo doesn't fishtail around the curve without regard for the oncoming traffic neither he nor you can see. It's a great ride in any case, and how often do you get to drive over wooden bridges in Colorado?
The Gold Belt byway deposits you in Victor, more than 3,000 feet higher than where you started along the Arkansas River. Victor is an old mining town similar to Cripple Creek, only without the casinos.
Until Sunday, I'd never visited Cripple Creek, where — and this is no exaggeration — the oxygen tank-carrying elderly far outnumbered those younger than, say, 50. What strikes me about the city, which is perched at 9,500 feet on the side of a hill with a million dollar view of the Sangres and points south, is that people seem to visit to feed slot machines while paying only passing attention to the landscape. Why anesthetize yourself with the hypnotizing slot machine jangle and false promises when the landscape and the history of the Cripple Creek beg exploration?