Weary of battling traffic and crowded trails to do the high-country aspen-viewing thing?
There is a great alternative right in our backyard.
Phantom Canyon Road, less than an hour from Colorado Springs, is a well-maintained but narrow dirt road that winds like a dusty snake through a stunning and varied landscape.
The road drops from 9,500 feet near Victor to 5,500 feet at the canyon’s southern mouth.
Its 30-odd-mile length is a study in the compression of space, as the road is hemmed in by soaring canyon walls, and in the strata of ecosystems, from subalpine meadows to ponderosa pine forests, to pinyon juniper to cholla cactus and, finally, high-desert grassland.
It should also be a riot of color by mid to late September, said Charlotte Bumgarner, a native of Cañon City whose family used to take regular Sunday picnic drives in the canyon.
She is now executive director of the Gold Belt Tour Scenic and Historical Byway Association.
Phantom Canyon Road, nearby Shelf Road and, farther west, High Park Road compose the Gold Belt Tour, and are both state and national scenic byways.
For the first few miles south of Victor, Phantom Canyon Road runs mostly straight through the gentle meadows that fill the southern shoulder of Pikes Peak.
The views are expansive, and stands of aspen dot the landscape like splatters of golden paint. As the road drops in elevation, it clings to the twisty course of Eightmile Creek. Suddenly, rock walls rise just feet from the road, and soar higher and higher, until they tower over motorists in a menacing mass.
Two tunnels hewn out of the rock by hard-eyed, 19th-century men compress the sense of space even further on the canyon floor.
The road was carved out of the wild country in 1892 and dubbed the Florence Free Road, an alternative to the nearby toll Shelf Road.
Two years later, a Denver industrialist and Florence businesspeople built the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad through the canyon to take supplies to the Cripple Creek mining district and haul gold ore to mills in Florence.
In 1912, as mining began to decline in the high country, a 30-foot-high wall of water ripped through the canyon, damaging tracks.
Three years later, the railroad tracks were dismantled.
In 1918, the road was opened to the first crude cars and trucks.
The origins of the canyon’s name remain something of a mystery. Cass Cairns, of the Bureau of Land Management’s Royal Gorge field office, found a reference to the origins of “Phantom Canyon” in the book “The Florence and Cripple Creek and Golden Circle Railroads” by Tivis Wilkins. The author quotes a 1905 news story recording the description of the canyon by artist John Sanford:
“The walls are not so high and imposing as those of the Grand Cañon but are more picturesque and fantastic and well deserve the name ‘Phantom.’
“Any person blessed with a lively imagination can people its fantastic rocks, piled high in serried columns with all sorts of phantoms, goblins and spooks.”
Bumgarner, however, thinks the canyon’s name may have a more prosaic origin.
In the early years of the 20th century, the railroad, by then dubbed the “Gold Belt Line,” became increasingly popular with tourists interested in the mining camps near Cripple Creek, and the route may have been called Phantom Canyon simply as part of an early advertising campaign.
In either case, the trip through the canyon does, indeed, reveal a strange, almost Lilliput landscape, painted in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Just a few words of advice from Bumgarner: Have a full tank of gas, be prepared to stop for cars coming in the other direction and …
“I would avoid it at night,” she said. “Some of those rocks can give weird shadows.”
LISTEN AS YOU DRIVE
An audio driving tour of Phantom Canyon Road is available on two CDs that take motorists either from Florence to Victor or from Victor to Florence. The oral history is available for $5, and a guidebook is sold for $9.95. Visit: www.goldbeltbyway.com/souvenirs.htm.
From Victor: Drive through town heading east to the intersection of Teller County Road 81 and Phantom Canyon Road. Bear south to Phantom Canyon Road.
From the south: Take Colorado Highway 115 from Colorado Springs south to U.S. Highway 50, head west. Six miles east of Cañon City, turn right (north) onto Colorado 67, which turns into County Road 67 and then Phantom Canyon Road.