Call of the Weird: From handmade castles to wolves, you can’t go wrong
We’re all reasonably familiar with Colorado’s wilderness, but what about Colorado’s weirdness? The Pikes Peak Region has its share of the weird, wild and wonderful. Here are a dozen moderately strange destinations.
Decades ago Jim Bishop, a self-taught architect, stonecutter, quarryman and builder decided to erect a stone structure on some land alongside Highway 165 southwest of Pueblo that he’d bought for $450. What was originally intended to be a modest, slightly fanciful stone cottage turned into a lifetime’s project. The hand-built castle is an architectural marvel, an epic poem in stone and mortar. It’s scarcely believable that one man built it by hand with rocks scavenged from the surrounding San Isabel National Forest. Imagine LA’s Watts Towers crossed with the Leaning Tower of Pisa with plans drawn by Antonio Gaudi – don’t miss it! (www.bishopcastle.org)
The federal maximum security prison near Florence doesn’t exactly welcome visitors, even though its famous residents would no doubt be happy to conduct guided tours. It’s best seen from a distance — if you’re allowed in, you probably won’t be allowed out. Rather than imagine life in the Big House, check out the Museum of Colorado Prisons in Cañon City. Located in the 1935 Women’s Correctional Facility, it’s a fascinating window into the past – not scary, not macabre but deeply moving and informative. (201 1st St., Cañon City; 719-269-3015; www.prisonmuseum.org)
Most visitors to Cripple Creek don’t bother to take the seven-mile trip to Victor, a tough, beautiful and amazing 19th century mining town. Like Aspen and Telluride, it contains beautiful historic buildings in a spectacular mountain setting. Unlike either, you can buy an unrestored miner’s cottage for less than $50,000. That may be because Victor is still a mining town, home to one of the largest open-pit mines in North America. The Cresson Mine, owned by the Cripple Creek & Victor Mining Company, virtually surrounds the historic town. Its vast workings are best seen from the air, but there are a number of views available from the mine’s perimeter. Surprisingly, none of it is visible from the town of Victor, which retains the rundown beauty that once characterized its haughty peers. It’s fun, unpretentious and affordable – but don’t expect to see any movie stars in its friendly bars.
The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center
Do you want to howl with the wolves? You can do just that at the CWWC, located on Twin Rocks Road west of Divide. It’s a sanctuary for wolves and other wild canids, one of few certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It’s an opportunity to see wolves in a more natural setting, and to learn about these often misunderstood predators. (4729 Twin Rocks Rd., Divide; 719-687-9742; www.wolfeducation.org)
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Obscure national monuments are one of the delights of the American road, and this one is no exception. Located just a few miles south of Florissant, it features enormous fossilized redwood stumps as well as informative displays featuring beautifully preserved fossil leaves, insects and flowers. There’s also a restored 19th century homesteader’s cabin, and gentle trails for family hiking. You’ll like it, the kids will like it, and you’ll be glad the giant petrified tree stumps were too big to be hauled away by souvenir hunters before the monument was created in 1969. (Florrisant; 719-748-3253; www.nps.gov/flfo)
Manitou Cliff Dwellings
C’mon, these can’t be real — Mesa Verde is way down in southwest Colorado, not here in the Pikes Peak Region. Actually, they’re both real and fake. In the early 1900s, preservationist Virginia McClurg had struggled for years to get federal protection for Mesa Verde and other cliff dwellings. Hoping to preserve some fragment of this history, she partnered with a businessman to dismantle some dwellings in McElmo Canyon, transport them by rail to Manitou and reassemble them as best they could. They may not be completely authentic, but they’re accessible, entertaining and historically significant in their own right — an interesting marriage between commerce and idealism, still going strong after 109 years. And unlike the real thing, they’re sturdy enough to enter and explore. (10 Cliff Rd., Manitou; 719-685-5242; www.cliffdwellingsmuseum.com)
The Manitou Incline
Constructed early in the 20th century to haul construction materials for the municipal water system up Mt. Manitou, the incline railway was repurposed as a tourist attraction in 1913. It had a nice 77-year run until closing in 1990. The rails were removed, access was forbidden, but a few exercise junkies used it as a free mega-stairclimber. It became so popular that sluggish local governments realized that it could be a recreational asset. It’s now open, legal and rebuilt — an amazing workout that gains 2,000 feet in altitude in less than a mile. To get there, park in one of the Manitou Springs public parking lots and take the year-round free shuttle to its base.
Phantom Canyon Shelf Road
This twisty, scary and amazingly scenic highway follows the route of the 19th century Florence and Cripple Creek narrow gauge railroad between Victor and Florence. (Trailers not allowed, and don’t try to get through in your giant RV.) Along the way, you’ll pass through a couple of tunnels hacked through solid granite and over the Adelaide Bridge, which spans Eightmile Creek. It’s listed on the national register of historic places, and is the only remaining original bridge from the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad. Drive slowly, enjoy the views and remember that uphill traffic has the right-of-way.
The May Natural History Museum
Locally known as the Bug Museum, the May doesn’t disappoint. More than 8,000 are on permanent display, including spiders, beetles, butterflies and giant cockroaches. It’s reputedly one of the world’s largest and finest private bug collections, thanks to museum founder James May, who traveled the world over in search of his elusive prey. Even if you find this dazzling memorial to a man who spent his life collecting more than 100,000 specimens of “insects and other things that crawl on the ground” somewhat puzzling, you’ll have fun. The museum, located south of Colorado Springs, is open May-Sept. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. (710 Rock Creek Canyon Rd.; 719-576-0450; coloradospringsbugmuseum.com)
That’s just a smattering of the regional inventory of the weird and wonderful. We would have loved to write about the largest and deepest granite cave in North America, but area cavers won’t reveal its location – too dangerous for the inexperienced. We do know that it’s somewhere on the slopes of Pikes Peak.
Similarly, we’d be happy to give you directions to the oldest tree in Colorado — a 2,450 year old bristlecone pine, but the scientists who located it in the 1990s didn’t include directions. We do know it’s somewhere on the southeast slopes of Mt. Almagre, just south of Pikes Peak.
Finally, local legend has it that an entire 19th century train was swept away by a flood in the 1880s a few miles north of Colorado Springs, but no one has ever found a trace of it. Maybe you will…