How places get their names is often subject to debate, their actual origins lost over time. But when it comes to Phantom Canyon Road, the difference can mean an experience that’s steeped in western history complete with its ghost towns, or an experience with a ghost of a different, more literal kind. Whatever the “true” story may be, one thing that’s not up for debate is the road connecting the former mining districts of Cripple Creek, Cañon City and Florence is a scenic detour that climbs 9,500 feet to reveal some of the state’s most secluded natural views.
The road full of twists and turns began as the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, a narrow-gauge railroad that was built in 1894. WIth narrower-than-standard track widths, these types of railways were designed to handle a mountain’s sharp curves. When the mining boom first hit the region, the only way to these mining districts was with horse-drawn wagons over rough roads. Some 1,200 workers were hired to construct the railway, difficult work that often meant blasting through rock. Over just six months, the crew built over 40 miles of track including two tunnels and several bridges. (Only Adelaide Bridge, which spans Eightmile Creek, remains today.)
The railway suffered accidents almost immediately. Just one day after opening a train derailed, resulting in a death. Weather woes plagued the line, and washouts were a regular occurrence. As mining operations grew in nearby Colorado Springs, which had a larger, standard-gauge line that allowed for a shorter trip, the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad’s business declined. Its final hours came on July 21, 1912, when a flood washed out 12 bridges, five miles of track, and several towns in the area.
The tracks were eventually removed, and in 1918, the former railway was converted to a public road. Today, drivers can experience the hairpin turns and steep drop-offs on the 30-mile road that the train once ran along.
The towns, and the spaces they left behind, may have been the source of the Phantom Canyon name. The other possibility comes from an urban legend from the 1890s. Train passengers reported seeing a man walking along the tracks. The only problem? That man had been executed at the state prison a few days earlier. Whether or not the road is haunted will be a mystery for the ages, but for now, slow down and enjoy the ride.
Know Before You Go
With its sharp turns and unguarded drop-offs, this unpaved road requires a slow pace to enjoy it safely. Only standard vehicles without trailers are allowed.