Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Scenic overlook near Victor had huge bump in visitors in June

5 photos photo - A hole cut in the fence at the American Eagles Overlook offers tourists an unobstructed view of the Cresson Mine, operated by Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company, and the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains Monday, June 30, 2014. Cresson Mine is currently Colorado's biggest gold producer. Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette + caption
A hole cut in the fence at the American Eagles Overlook offers tourists an unobstructed view of the Cresson Mine, operated by Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company, and the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains Monday, June 30, 2014. Cresson Mine is currently Colorado's biggest gold producer. Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette
By Debbie Kelley Updated: July 6, 2014 at 7:26 am

A tourist attraction a few miles outside Victor provides what many visitors believe is an unparalleled view worth its weight in gold. Others say it's a tarnished sight.

Whatever the opinion, traffic more than doubled in June over last year at American Eagles Scenic Overlook.

"It's extremely popular and gets visitors from all over the world," said Ruth Zalewski, president of the Southern Teller County Focus Group and president of the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum board.

Teller County Road 831, a winding dirt path off County Road 81, gives way to breathtaking vistas of the Continental Divide, Mount Pisgah, the Sangre de Cristo and Collegiate Peaks mountain ranges, and a horizon that seems to merge with the heavens.

"It's an incredible view, and being able to see from the highest point in the mining district is amazing," Zalewski said.

Nature's glory is not all there is to see.

At 10,750 feet in elevation, the site offers a rare juxtaposition of historic underground mining and contemporary surface mining that people can study, photograph and discuss.

It's one of the few places in the United States that the public can freely access active mining, said Jane Mannon, manager of community affairs for the AngloGold Ashanti Corp. in Colorado.

The Johannesburg-based gold mining and exploration giant owns the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Co., which owns the land where the American Eagles Scenic Overlook lies.

A 17-year-old agreement between Teller County and the mining company enables free public entry. In exchange for the county vacating a road that ran through the area, the mining company agreed to maintain an overlook and lease the land to the county.

So it's essentially a county park unlike any other county park.

Along with remnants of 1890s mining structures, interpretive signs and picnic tables and benches, the spot gives a bird's-eye look at work happening in the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Co.'s largest pit, the Cresson Mine.

En route to the overlook, visitors can see a reclamation area with information on how land is reclaimed, evidence of other old mines and hiking trails.

With an increased focus on national security, the overlook's uniqueness also includes a touch of Homeland Security.

Two years ago, a guard station went up about a mile from the top of the site. Subcontracted security workers record license plate numbers and first names of people visiting the tourist attraction.

The monitoring procedure is a Department of Homeland Security requirement, Mannon said.

"Because we have explosives, they want us to control access to the site," she said. "All of our gates have guards."

Security staff also makes sure cars safely navigate a haul road, which visitors must cross to reach the overlook, Mannon said.

Heavy equipment from the mine, including massive trucks, regularly use the road, and Mannon said that before the guards on duty, some cars would veer off the path and venture into mining territory.

Safety and security concerns also led to changes atop the hairpin-curved mountain road that leads to the summit. Several years ago, a tall chain-link fence replaced a short wooden split-rail fence in the primary viewing area.

"People didn't have any problem climbing over the split-rail fence, and little kids were scooting under it," Mannon said. "As the mine got closer to the edge, we needed to have more of a barrier."

After people started climbing the 6-foot-plus fence, the Southern Teller County Focus Group suggested that peepholes be cut in the chain link to allow for photographs and unobstructed views, Zalewski said.

"It may not be the prettiest thing in the world, but at least it gives safe access to historical and modern mining, without people falling in or getting hit by a truck," she said.

The mine had 1,042 visitors in June, compared with 550 in June 2013, Zalewski said. The site averages about 6,000 visitors a year.

One reason for the increased interest could be that fires or floods have not been a problem this year, Mannon said. Another, Zalewski said, may have to do with the fact that the overlook closed in November for repairs and didn't reopen until this spring.

Jim Gamble, a retired copper miner from Tucson, Ariz., stopped by the overlook one day last week for his fourth visit. He said he has heard some other visitors grumble about the huge hole of the Cresson Mine.

The pit and the fence don't bother him, though.

"Everything in life is a compromise. If you drive around Victor, you'll see new sidewalks and signs up. It's all about the tax base," he said. "I believe in mining. Without these holes in the ground, we wouldn't have computers and fancy cars. There are two sides to everything."

The Cripple Creek and Victor Mining Co. sells gold ore it extracts to a refinery, which sells the refined product on the open market, Mannon said. From there, it's available globally for jewelry, investment purposes, electronics and other manufacturing uses.

Not everyone is happy with the overlook, though. Joseph Cree, a military veteran from Manitou Springs, married his wife, Cherie, in 1986 at Observation Point, a different overlook that used to be where the Cresson Mine pit is now.

For their anniversary a few years ago, the couple went to what they thought was the same place but was the American Eagles Scenic Overlook. They said they were shocked to find the land where they made their wedding vows no longer existed.

"Our 25th anniversary was filled with tearful remorse. It was painful to see - it was like our hearts were broken," Cree said. "The mine is like a gaping wound in the earth."

The access road to the overlook has changed several times to accommodate mining operations, and Mannon said the company wants to reopen access off Diamond Avenue, a main street in Victor.

Maintaining the overlook as a venue for sightseers is important, Mannon said, for several reasons.

"If people are not able to go on mine tours, they can still observe the mining operations, and it brings more people to the Victor side of the district," she said. "We hope that as mining plans change and we do further permitting, we're able to keep that site open in one format or another."

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Scenic Overlook

Location: Take Colorado 67 to Teller County Road 81, which intersects near Gillette Flats. Turn right on County Road 831. Signs indicate American Eagles Scenic Overlook.

Hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m., summer; 7 a.m.-5 p.m. winter.

Free, open to the public and self-guided.

Guided gold mine tours

• The Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Co. offers two-hour gold mine tours for $7.50 per person, ages 5 and older, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily (except Thursdays) through Labor Day weekend.

• Proceeds benefit the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum.

• For reservations, call 689-4211, or go online at www.VictorColorado.com.

• Tours leave from the museum at Third Street and Victor Avenue in Victor.

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