Recommended Routes: Phantom Canyon, Colorado
The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Words by Michelle Beaudin | Photos by Matthew Beaudin
“You know you’re on private property?”
Ah, the chorus of the American West. Rusted signs and barbed wire fencing, huge valleys and the Colorado blue sky. I was at the lower gates of Phantom Canyon, looking up at two huge rock towers hugging the dirt road.
“No, not really,” I said. “I’m on the side of the road?”
The old man looked at me from under a sun-bleached hat. His work truck had a death rattle as it limped to a stop. “Well, up the road about 75 feet, it’s back to public lands. And the owner, well, he’s a little persnickety.”
I contemplated what that could mean, exactly. We never met the owner of the shoulder of the road. I am still unconvinced anyone owned the side of the road.
Recently, I’ve been turning on broadcasts of the Tour de France from years past. It’s had me thinking of those cols in the Alps, those classically European days on the bike. Narrow paved climbs, a small beer and a sandwich at the summit, a smooth descent down the other side to a small town specializing in a fine cheese or a tree-based alpine liqueur.
And then I headed up Phantom Canyon, on the empty southwestern flanks of the immense mass of Pikes Peak. The emptiness of the American West rose above me, in sharp contrast to the riding I’d been imagining while watching the Tour.
This ride, a rugged 67-mile (107 km), mostly unpaved loop climbing 5,500 feet (1,675 m) through Colorado mining country, was just what I needed to re-embrace the riding we call our own. It’s big, it’s empty, and it’s an exploration of boom-and-bust towns along an empty dirt road.
The Phantom Canyon-Shelf Road route is remote, dusty, and challenging. There are no local liqueurs or cortados to be had at the top of the climb in the old mining town of Cripple Creek. There’s cheeseburgers and Budweiser. And that’s good with me. You can keep your little sandwiches and espressos. The descent is not smooth, and you’ll likely encounter more diesel trucks than fellow cyclists.
What this ride does have to offer is liberty. It exemplifies the American spirit of adventure. It is lonely, huge, and sweeping. It’s some of the best fun I’ve had in a long time.
The base of Phantom Canyon Road, where our ride begins, is near Cañon City, about an hour southwest of Colorado Springs via Highway 115. If you’re not local, drive to Main Street and visit The Bean Pedaler, a coffee shop that shares a space with Red Canyon Cycles, and The Handlebar Bar & Eatery. It’s a welcoming place for a pre-ride coffee, and a great spot to begin your ride.
You’ll have some unavoidable miles on the busy Highway 50 getting out of town to the base of Phantom Canyon Road, but it’s a short stretch and there’s a wide shoulder.
We got off the main highway as soon as possible, taking a gentle left onto County Road 123. A few quiet miles later and you’ll reach a four-way intersection where you’ll see a small corral, horses kicking up dust and flicking their tails. Take a left here onto Phantom Canyon Road, which turns from a small two-lane paved road to dirt three or four miles later. And that’s where the real fun begins.
The gravel road starts climbing and doesn’t stop for a good 20 miles (32 km) up the canyon, rising from around 5,300 to 9,700 feet (1,615 – 2,960 m). The grade is very mild, however, never getting over about 2-4%, winding through the rocky canyon flanked by Eightmile Creek. The road follows the route of the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad (F&CC), which was built in the late 1800s as a connection from the town of Florence to the lucrative goldfields of Cripple Creek and Victor.
As you climb, you’ll pass through two narrow tunnels originally carved into the mountainside by railroad crews well over 100 years ago. At that time, 12 stations were also built along the F&CC Railroad line to service the trains on their trips up and down the canyon. Look out for signs designating some of these ghost towns, like Adelaide, that were washed away in flash floods. Adelaide Bridge, however, still stands and is the only remaining bridge from the original railway.
On weekends you’ll encounter car traffic up Phantom Canyon, but between the road surface and narrow tunnels and bridges, drivers are usually moving at a friendly pace.
At the top of the canyon the landscape opens up to grassy rolling hills. Private property signs and barbed wire line the road, and the Cresson Open Pit Gold Mine appears on the mountainside ahead. It’s a breathtaking scar on the landscape and it signals our arrival in the picturesque old mining town of Victor.
Stop into Phantom Canyon Coffee Limited if you’re still in need of caffeine or Gold Camp Bakery Cafe & Deli if it’s a slice of German chocolate cake you’re after. We opted for the latter, then headed along CO-67 for about 5 miles (8 km) to the town of Cripple Creek.
Just as you arrive on the outskirts of Cripple Creek you’ll come upon a dirt road on your left, simply marked CR-88. This is the historic Shelf Road, and unless you need to stop for water or a Snickers bar, take the sharp left. From here you’ll essentially be descending all the way back to Cañon City.
The washboard is more pronounced and the grade is steeper than Phantom Canyon, so stay alert and enjoy the views on this winding dirt road before it turns to pavement for the remainder of the descent. Note that there’s a fun detour option to get just a bit more gravel in before the day is through if you take a right at the turnoff to Red Canyon Park, which will add about 10 miles (16 km) to your day.
Whichever direction you choose, it won’t be long before you’re rolling back onto Main Street in Cañon City. If you’re heading back north to Colorado Springs or Denver at this point, I’d suggest stopping for dinner at Juniper Valley Ranch. About a 25-minute drive from Cañon City, it’s a family-run operation that’s open only during the summer and serves a menu of skillet fried chicken, baked ham, and “all the fixins.”
After that climb and descent it feels great to get all the fixins.
What you need to know
Cañon City enjoys a sunny, mild climate, while Cripple Creek sees cooler temperatures and more precipitation, so make sure to check the weather in both places before setting out. There are often afternoon thunderstorms to contend with in the summer months, and certainly the possibility of snow in the higher elevations in late fall, winter, and early spring.
Layers are key in the Colorado mountains. You’ll be out for most of the day, gaining over 5,000 feet (1,525 m) of elevation, so plan accordingly. And no matter what the time of year, pack a good jacket. Storms can roll in strong and fast especially at higher elevations.
Red Canyon Cycles is a full-service bike shop right on Main Street in Cañon City. It shares a space with a coffee shop (The Bean Pedaler) and bar (The Handlebar). Check their website before stopping in, however, as they have somewhat limited opening hours.
I’ve seen road bikes with slicks, gravel bikes with knobby tires, and hardtail mountain bikes on Phantom Canyon Road. Any of these will do, but to get the most out of the day both climbing and descending, opt for a stout gravel or cyclocross bike with fast-rolling gravel tires with good puncture resistance like the Continental Terra Speed 700 x 40c.
As always, be sure to have all the tools, plugs, etc. you’ll need to take care of any mechanical issues yourself. You will likely not have cell service in the canyon and, depending on the time of year, may not encounter many other people. You are very much on your own.
The Trailforks app will be your friend, especially if you find you don’t have cell service for portions of the route. Make sure you’ve downloaded Colorado Trails in the app and you’ll always have the answer when your ride buddies ask along the way, “Hey where does that trail go?”
On a cool autumn day you might get away with two bottles for the climb, and a refill in Victor or Cripple Creek. It would be better, however, to start with two or more bottles, and pack a small water purifier, like the SteriPEN Ultralight UV Purifier. You can refill and purify bottles at several points along Eightmile Creek on the climb.
Food and drink
If you opt out of the skillet fried chicken dinner at the Juniper Valley Ranch, there are other options nearby. The Owl Cigar Store is the place for a good ol’ fashioned cheeseburger and fries. A pool hall with booths and bar seating, plus milkshakes and malts for dessert, it’s as American as it gets.
Penrose Pizzeria and Pub is another option with a decidedly different feel. A family-run spot with vegetarian and gluten-free options and a long list of beer, wines and cocktails, it’s worth the 15-minute drive from Cañon City.
And if you’re just looking for a good beer, there’s the Florence Brewing Company with hand-crafted local brews on tap and reliably great service.
A short drive from Cañon City is the recently expanded and renovated Desert Reef Hot Spring. In their words, Desert Reef is a “safe, welcoming refuge for curious and creative folks who are looking to relax, recharge, and find some inspiration and joy.” And soon they’ll have renovated vintage Airstream trailers available for lodging. Check their website for hours and info.
For an even more adventurous take on this route, consider a bikepacking trip that includes Phantom Canyon Road. There are a number of undeveloped campsites along the road, some with beautiful views and water access most of the year at Eightmile Creek. You could easily link up Gold Camp, another of the routes in this series, for a big, quiet tour of the more unknown Pikes Peak area drainages. Check in with the local BLM (Bureau of Land Management) office before planning to camp.