Settlers of the area that now encompasses Colorado's Gold Belt Tour byway had written “Pikes Peak or Bust” on the side of their wagons — a sign of their optimism for gold and the desperation they felt after crossing America’s frontier.
Start your tour of the Gold Belt in Florissant, and head south on County Road 1 into the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Preserved in this wild landscape are fossils from an ancient ecosystem dating back 34 million years. Some of the largest petrified redwood tree stumps in the world and detailed insect and leaf fossils etched in stone enthrall nearly 75,000 visitors a year.
Beyond the national monument, County Road 1 leads you to Cripple Creek — one of Colorado’s gaming destinations — and Victor. Both towns lie in a belt of heavy mining activity. At one time, it was regarded as the most productive gold-mining area in the world. Today, you can enjoy tours of old mines, as well as view active operations. The Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad takes visitors on a scenic 4-mile trip through the historic gold-mining district. Or, tempt Lady Luck and try for your own fortune in Cripple Creek’s casinos.
Other colorful Cripple Creek activities include the autumn Mount Pisgah Speaks Cemetery Tour and a visit to Cripple Creek District Museum. Worthy stops in Victor include its Downtown Historic District and Official Colorado Main Street Community, winter ice skating at Brian’s Park Ice Rink, Gold Coin Mine and a hike along its trail network connecting historic sites.
South of Victor, you'll encounter the first rough roads as they descend Phantom Canyon. Look carefully on the rocky outcroppings of the canyon for camouflaged bighorn sheep, the state animal, along the way. Continue toward Florence’s 20-block downtown, and make a stop there to see the historic Rialto Theater and for its numerous antique shops. Then it's back to the byway, where you can cruise until you hit U.S. Highway 50 and Cañon City.
In Cañon City, use the self-guided Fremont County Heritage Tours to navigate the charming downtown historic district or take a stroll down Tunnel Drive, an old railroad bed that boasts a spectacular view of the Arkansas River and surrounding canyons. From here, the Gold Belt Tour heads back up into the hills via the rugged and more desert-like Shelf Road. Be sure your vehicle offers 4WD as it's suggested on the Shelf Road when the pavement is wet.
Back in Cripple Creek, be sure to explore the Cripple Creek National Historic District, which showcases many mining-era buildings. Then you can head back toward Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument for an extension of the drive that loops back to Cañon City.
The High Park section of the Gold Belt Tour includes a drive along High Park Road to Royal Gorge Bridge and Park near Cañon City. Plan a stop to enjoy views from America’s highest suspension bridge and zipline. For a thrill, try the via ferrata, which enables visitors to traverse the Royal Gorge’s granite walls along a climbing route of steel cables. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad, another novel activity, offers scenic views, wine and gourmet meals.
While you’re in the area, check out Garden Park Dinosaur Fossil Area, a picturesque site boasting the discovery of many large dinosaur fossils over the last 120 years. Then expand your historical knowledge with a visit to Cañon City’s Museum of Colorado Prisons.
Head outside of Florence for this clothing-optional hot-springs experience in the Royal Gorge Region.
Visit Olympic City USA in Colorado Springs for stunning scenery, outdoor adventures and delicious dining.