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21 best stops along Colorado’s Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway

The Rockies are calling. There’s gold in those mountains, and you can find it—not just the yellow metal, but gold aspens in the fall and daily casino winnings. Sign up for a high-altitude adventure in Colorado’s former mining country. Parts of the historic drives are white-knuckle experiences through North America’s greatest gold camp. The famous roads are narrow and rugged in places; one stretch of the Shelf Road clings to a canyon wall 200 feet above the Four-Mile Creek. Don’t want to drive? Ride an excursion train instead. Whatever your transportation, prepare to be amazed on the Gold Belt Tour National Scenic Byway. 

Sun rays streaming through clouds on the west side of Skyline Drive
Sunset from Skyline Drive

Colorado’s Gold Belt Tour is on the west side of majestic Pikes Peak, an hour from Colorado Springs or Pueblo, and two hours from Denver. The 131-mile circuit tours Florissant through Cripple Creek, ending in Florence and Cañon City. This Arkansas River Valley trip through Southern Colorado will require at least three days. Remember, every season features beautiful scenery in the Rocky Mountains. Experience rich local heritage in the shadow of Pikes Peak. 

Related: Ascend Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Fill your gas tank and water bottles before you explore the Colorado scenic byway because no services are available between communities.

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Roxie biting the nails on both her hands in front of Florissant Fossil Beds Big Stump on the Gold Belt Tour
Petrified with fear next to the Big Stump at Florissant Fossil Beds.

1-2. Be petrified and crystallized in Florissant’s Gold Belt Tour

The Pikes Peak Historical Museum in Florissant features area history and geology exhibits. But the museum’s show-stopper is the pair of gigantic smoky quartz crystals. One weighs 345 pounds and the other weighs 439 pounds. 

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Learn about rural education and see miniature historic buildings at the Florissant Schoolhouse Museum, open by appointment only.

Survive being petrified at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Thirty-four million years ago, sequoia forests blanketed what would become Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. The tree trunks were 14 feet around. Volcanic mud buried the forest. Above the mud, the trees rotted away. Below the mud, silica preserved the trunks, making world-class fossil sites. Take time to appreciate the subtle shades in these remnants. The visitor center holds smaller, very detailed, fossils.

Roxie’s reliable report: If you’re adapting to altitude, the monument’s relatively easy trails are a good way to adjust to the Gold Belt Tour. The one-mile Geologic Trail explains the monument’s formation. In the summer, visit the Fossil Learning Lab.

Related: Escape to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

Continue on Teller County Road One to Cripple Creek. The winding paved road threads through the mountains. 

Rugged terrain above Cripple Creek on the Gold Belt Tour
Miners discovered unbelievably rich gold deposits in these mountains. (Kyle Sullivan/BLM Colorado)

3-8. Explore Cripple Creek, the Golden City on the Gold Belt Tour

Start the Cripple Creek Heritage and Information Center, explaining the goldfields of Cripple Creek. While you’re there, crawl through a mining tunnel and enjoy the detailed model train layout. Look at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through the center’s wall of windows.

Go underground with Mollie Kathleen

Experience hard rock mining at the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour. Mollie Kathleen Gortner was the first Cripple Creek woman to strike a claim. Descend 1,000 feet and ride an underground rail car. Above ground, examine historic mining equipment and enjoy whimsical paintings of hard rock miners. You even receive a piece of gold ore. 

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Underground temperatures are in the 50s. Bring a jacket and wear walking shoes. Every person who tours the mine receives a piece of gold ore. Maybe yours will hold riches.

Tour today’s mines and the world at the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum

At the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum, pan for gold and tour the working Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine. At the vast terraced mine pit, giant trucks, shovels, and drill rigs bring gold from the ground. Reserve mining tours ahead of time and wear close-toed shoes.

Lowell Thomas was a famous radio commentator, lecturer, author, and world traveler. He lived through the Victor mining district’s labor strikes and Victor’s boom times, when mines produced millions of dollars of gold a year. After leaving Victor, he hosted an evening radio broadcast from 1930 until 1976. The trailblazer became the first television newscaster in 1940 and later hosted a PBS series. President Gerald Ford presented Thomas with the Medal of Freedom in 1976. The museum’s Thomas Room holds memorabilia.

Find another gold source above the ground in the Gold Belt Tour’s casinos

To collect gaming gold, head to Cripple Creek’s nine casinos. They feature slot machines, off-track betting, and table games. Cripple Creek often enjoys Colorado’s highest payback percentage

Ride a train behind a real “Thomas the Tank Engine” 

The Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad’s locomotive at Stop 7 is reminiscent of Thomas the Tank Engine. Trains leave every 70 minutes and the ride lasts 45 minutes. On the four-mile ride, the train stops for points of interest and photo opportunities. 

Roxie’s reliable reportDownload a coupon.

Experience Cripple Creek’s dark sides

View the dark side of Cripple Creek at Stop 8, The Old Homestead House Museum, which used to be a brothel. Madam Pearl de Vere supposedly charged $250 a night — when miners were paid $3 daily. On the upstairs landing, look for the Reviewing Room window, where guests would choose their preferred companion.

The former Teller County Jail is now the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum. For 90 years, the 100-bed jail was often full. Robert Curry of the Wild Bunch was the most famous person held there. Try on the striped uniforms. Step behind the bars in one of the tiny 6.5-by-9-foot cells, and take a selfie.

Feed the donkeys; enjoy aspens and ice during Cripple Creek events

Watch a donkey herd roaming the streets of Cripple Creek from mid-May to mid-October. During Donkey Derby Days, enjoy donkey races, and more. During optimal fall aspen viewing season, join free shuttle tours. Enjoy the world’s finest ice sculptors perform at Cripple Creek Ice Festival. Purchase donkey food from Cripple Creek museums and shops.

Where to eat and stay in Cripple Creek

At the Boiler Room Tavern, you can eat delicious food while gazing at the Sangre de Christo Mountains. McGill’s Pint and Platter serves classic Irish pub fare. 

The Hotel St. Nicholas (ad) started life as an 1890s hospital. It’s now a 15-room bed and breakfast. At 10,000 feet, Cripple Creek KOA is the world’s highest KOA. 

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Sunlight rays behind a dead tree on the Gold Belt Tour's  mountainous terrain
Garden Park Fossil Area (Kyle Sullivan/BLM)

9-10. Drive mountain stagecoach routes south of Cripple Creek

During good weather, drive Phantom Canyon Road from Cripple Creek to Florence. The narrow, unpaved road follows the route of the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad. Its altitude rises from 5,500 feet to 9,500 feet. Interpretive signs explain historic sites. Watch for a wide range of plants and wildlife along the road.

On November 24, 1914, miners uncovered a large chamber in the Cresson Mine. Gold crystals as large as thumbnails completely covered the chamber’s walls. In response, the owners installed vault doors, and armed guards escorted the ore to the mills. The Cresson was one of more than 500 historic mines. Current mining techniques extract gold from low-grade ore. Please stay on public roads for your safety.

Roxie’s reliable report: Phantom Canyon Road is one lane wide but carries two lanes of traffic. As a consequence, the speed limit is 20 mph, and vehicles are limited to 25 feet or less. 

Antique photo of miners with their mine entrances and sluice boxes.
Hopeful Cripple Creek gold prospectors in 1893 (BLM Colorado)

Let the Gold Belt Tour put you on a shelf

For a more adventurous route, take the rugged, four-wheel-drive Shelf Road to Cañon City. The Florence to Cripple Creek Railroad was the West’s busiest narrow-gauge railway. Miners shipped gold ore to Florence, and Florence sent food and other supplies to the mines.

The five-mile stretch of road leads to many rock climbing routes. The lower tollkeeper climbed from the canyon’s bottom to collect tolls every time a wagon or stagecoach passed above. The upper tollkeeper had an easier life, but drivers had to pay both keepers.

Garden Park Fossil Area has produced numerous fossils that are now on display in museums like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It also shelters two rare plant species, the Brandegee wild buckwheat and inch milkweed.

Roxie’s reliable report: Look for the 1.7-billion-year-old Window Rock. Cripple Creek runs parallel to part of the Shelf Road. Watch for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

View of the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, on the Gold Belt Tour
Florence and Cañon City have many prisons, including ADX Florence, a Supermax prison. (The Enigmatic Traveler)

11. Find it in Florence: Colorado’s Antique Capital on the Gold Belt Tour

Numerous antique stores line Florence’s streets. If you enjoy architectural salvage, visit Salvage Antiques Vintage Etc. (S.A.V.E.). Support Colorado artists and buy heirloom-quality antiques at Blue Spruce Art & Antiques. Shop for antiques and women’s apparel while enjoying wine at Barn and Barrel.

Where to eat and stay in Florence

Try Thai and Japanese cuisine at Ito Steakhouse, or enjoy handcrafted brews at Florence Brewing Company

As the sun sets behind the Wet Mountains, relax at the seven-room Red Rosebud Bed & Breakfast‘s gazebo hot tub.

Looking into the Royal Gorge from the Royal Gorge Bridge
The view from the Royal Gorge Bridge

12-21. Enjoy Cañon City’s canyons, fossils, and recreation on the Gold Belt Tour 

In Canon City, life centers around the Arkansas River and its spectacular Royal Gorge Park, a deep gash in the earth. Experience high-flying adventure at Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Allow at least a day to explore all the park offers. Save on admission by buying online.

Embrace the Arkansas River from all angles

Start visiting one of Colorado’s oldest cities on the seven-mile Arkansas Riverwalk Trail. Enjoy biking, hiking, walking, and horseback riding. At the Canon City Whitewater Recreation Park on the trail adds interest for boaters and anglers. Enjoy championship whitewater competition at the annual Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival.

Canon City outfitters offer whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River for every experience level.

Stay dry on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Dine on board while watching some of Colorado’s greatest scenery roll by. Food is prepared on the train from local ingredients. For the best views, choose the Vista Domes passenger car.

Related: Explore the Colorado National Monument on the Colorado Plateau’s eastern edge.

Buff and blue velociraptor running with its tail extended
Flee for your lives into the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience.

Walk with the dinosaurs on the Gold Belt Tour

Kids of all ages will love the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience. On the Dinosaur Wild Walk, interact with 16 animatronic dinosaurs. Try the ropes courses and watch fossil preparation in the Paleo Lab.

Roxie’s reliable report:  Tickets often cost less online.

During the “Bone Wars,” Cañon City was the center of a dinosaur tug-of-war as collectors excavated several hundred fossils from the earth. The Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center tells the story.

The gas chamber shed and the walls of the Colorado Territorial Prison
The Museum of Colorado Prisons is on the Colorado Territorial Museum grounds.

Explore prison life at the Colorado Prison Museum

While fossils were imprisoned below the surface, the Colorado Prison Museum remembers a different kind of prisoner. The museum is housed in the former women’s prison, which shares a stone wall and towers with a current prison. Each of the 30 cells explains some aspect of prison life.

Green open gas chamber in a white walled enclosure
Colorado’s last gas chamber awaits you.

Colorado’s last gas chamber yawns open in an extra exhibit. No wonder the museum is one of the state’s most haunted places.

The lights of Cañon City below the moon on Skyline Drive
Cañon City is on one side of Skyline Drive and mountains are on the other.

End the day on Skyline Drive

The one-way Skyline Drive follows the top of a high razorback ridge overlooking Cañon City. Enter from Highway 50 on Cañon City’s west edge between steep drop-offs on both sides. Yes, it’s hair-raising!  

Lines of cars on the narrow Skyline Drive with people climbing to the top
Come well before sunset to obtain prime Skyline Drive views.

Stop in pullouts to enjoy the view, but ensure your vehicle clears the road. An interpretive display at the top guides guests to dinosaur tracks embedded in the cliff face. Skyline Drive is free.

Where to eat and stay in Cañon City

Whitewater Bar and Grill is not only a good place to eat, but it’s a daily party with games and live music. However, it’s only open during whitewater rafting season. Happy Endings Caboose is also a seasonal restaurant. The owners turned a caboose into a food truck serving breakfast, lunch, and happy hour.

Experience food Nirvana at the Nirvana Culinary Paradise. Try the chicken saag, boneless chicken chunks in a spinach and mustard green sauce spiced with ginger.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Don’t miss the delightful Winery at Holy Cross Abbey.

Stay at the Bighorn Mountaintop Lodge, high above the Arkansas River within Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, or camp at the Mountain View RV Resort, only three miles from the Royal Gorge.

You’re going to love your Gold Belt Tour!


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