Phantom Canyon Road is one of the most scenic and historic drives in Colorado.
A great experience steeped in western history, offers its ghost towns and an experience with a ghost of a different, more literal kind.
In fact Ghost towns such as Wilbur, Adelaide and Glenbrook that washed away in flashfloods or dissipated as a result of the slowing economy after 1912 are eerily present throughout.
And I’ll let you decide the significance of the word “phantom” in Phantom Canyon Road (especially if you’re camping here overnight…).
Whatever its true story may be, one thing that’s not up for debate is the road connecting the former mining districts of Cripple Creek, Cañon City and Florence is a scenic detour that increases in elevation from 1500 to almost 3000 meters to reveal some of Colorado’s most secluded natural views, as well as a wide range of plants and wildlife in their natural setting.
The road full of twists and turns began as the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, a narrow-gauge railroad that was built in 1894.
With narrower-than-standard track widths, these types of railways were designed to handle a mountain’s sharp curves.
When the mining boom first hit the region, the only way to these mining districts was with horse-drawn wagons over rough roads.
Some 1,200 workers were hired to construct the railway, in what was a difficult work that often meant blasting through rock but, in any case, over just six months, the crew built over 40 miles of track including two tunnels and several bridges (only Adelaide Bridge, which spans Eightmile Creek, remains today).
However, the railway suffered accidents almost immediately, as just one day after opening a train derailed, resulting in a death.
Moreover, weather woes plagued the line, and washouts were a regular occurrence.
When mining operations grew in nearby Colorado Springs, which had a larger, standard-gauge line that allowed for a shorter trip, the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad’s business declined, and Its final hours came on July 21, 1912, when a flood washed out 12 bridges, five miles of track, and several towns in the area.
The tracks were eventually removed, and in 1918, the former railway was converted to a public road.
Still today, drivers can experience the hairpin turns and steep drop-offs on the 30-mile road that the train once ran along.
Between Cripple Creek and Victor are the remnants of hundreds of historic mines and an operating modern gold mine, and over 500 mines once operated in the district, each with its own history.
For example, at the Cresson Mine on November 24, 1914, miners uncovered a large chamber with walls completely covered in gold crystals as large as thumbnails. The owners even installed vault doors, and armed guards escorted the ore to the mills!
Of course, the towns, and the spaces they left behind, may have been the source of the Phantom Canyon name, but the other possibility comes from an urban legend from the 1890s, as it seems that train passengers reported seeing a man walking along the tracks.
The only problem?
That man had been executed at the state prison a few days earlier.
Legends, phantoms and ghost stories apart, still today, the unique bridges and tunnels offer a visual link to the area’s historic past. The road condition and narrow bridges encourage people to slow down and view the scenery.
As you drive the route, interpretive displays and signs designate the historic sites along the Gold Belt Line.
Whether or not the road is haunted will be a mystery for the ages, but for now, slow down and enjoy the ride!
Even though it’s only 30 miles long (about 48km), it’s intricate enough to take roughly an hour and a half to complete….
Images from web – Google Research