When the question of what to do for our February destination was raised, we both agreed to do some internet research and discuss it later after work. It took Cameron about ten minutes to excitedly text Corrie back and ask if we could go to the Colorado Wolf Sanctuary and Phantom Canyon. Both of these destinations had been previous topics of discussion, so it seemed like the perfect time to finally check them out. Corrie took the lead in planning and booking a room at the Midnight Rose Casino in Cripple Creek (central to both destinations) and Cameron set about reserving spots on the tour at the Wolf Sanctuary. We were all set! Even before leaving for our January trip to Glenwood Springs, we had February planned and could hardly wait.
Part of our strength as travel partners lies in how our different natures balance each other out. While we are both very laid back, especially on vacations, Cameron is a military man and finds himself arriving everywhere way too early. Corrie is much more relaxed about arriving on time, especially when it’s just the two of us and we’re not meeting up with anyone else. So Friday morning we slept in, enjoyed our morning coffee together and then went to the local gym for our daily workout. By the time we had done that, came home to cleanup and pack we were beginning to feel a bit rushed and were cutting it close (in Cameron’s mind). Corrie, by her very nature, relaxes Cameron and puts him at ease, so luckily tension was kept to a minimum and he managed not to wring Corrie’s neck for moving slow. We stopped to pick up some sandwiches that we would eat in the car to save some time and hit the open road (okay, we actually hit I-25 gridlock, but that’s not as romantic of a picture). Once we pushed through the Denver traffic, with Cameron behind the wheel, we managed to make perfect time.
Most of the drive to the Wolf Sanctuary consists of our least favorite part of Colorado to drive – Denver to Colorado Springs. It’s long, boring, traffic is usually bad and all you see is suburban neighborhoods and big box stores. Blech! But, as we started to approach Monument Hill we noticed the weather had started to change and clouds were sitting low over Colorado Springs. As Corrie sat staring out of the window with her eyes slightly glazed over she started to notice the formation that the clouds were making. With a large gasp she shouted loudly “Holy crap! Those are wave clouds!!” Having never seen them before, and having just read an article on them, you would have thought she just won the lottery. Meanwhile, Cameron was trying to recover from the near heart attack that she gave him with her sudden outburst. And while he had never seen wave clouds before either, he managed to keep his excitement at a more reasonable level.
Our beautiful sunny drive was soon heavily clouded over when we reached Colorado Springs, which was completely socked in. Corrie started fretting about how cold and windy it was going to be at the Wolf Sanctuary. But, as we were putting Colorado Springs in our rearview mirror and while driving west up Highway 24 we suddenly popped out of the clouds as we climbed above them shortly before reaching the sanctuary. We were both happy to see the temperature gauge on the car start rising to a more reasonable temperature than the 20 degrees it was showing earlier.
We arrived at The Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center 15 minutes early, as instructed, and checked in for the 4:00 pm “feeding tour.” It felt good to stretch our legs and drain our bladders, but arriving early seemed unnecessary and felt like we had seen everything in the visitor center at least twice before the tour got started. But the good news is that they were very prompt about starting on time, so any extra waiting was kept to a minimum. Which was a relief for Corrie because Cameron has no patience for waiting.
To start the tour we received a sad and depressing education on wolves as the guide recapped the history and current state of wolves in North America. While it wasn’t all that uplifting, we knew it was necessary since the sanctuary’s top priority is educating visitors so they’ll be compelled to donate to the cause. Once we set out on the tour though, we were mesmerized by the size and grace of these amazing creatures. We made our way along most of the wolf enclosures as the guide hand fed the wolves and told us of their stories and how they came to be housed at the sanctuary. Many of the wolves that live there are far older than they would ever get in the wild and they all looked happy and healthy.
Even though Corrie is not a big fan of the cold, we were glad we stopped in on a chillier day. The guide said that the wolves are much more jovial when it’s cold outside (naturally, since they tend to live in colder regions). We had fun watching them beg for chunks of raw deer and chicken. We got a good laugh at the ones that decided to picky and spit out their first bites in order to have other parts offered to them. We were fascinated that they didn’t go after each other’s food in an effort to get a little extra. And we fell in love with the fact that they generally only house two wolves together in each enclosure… a male and a female for companionship as they live out their days in a bonded relationship (wolves mate for life).
The feeding tour ends near dusk and is not complete without their traditional “group howl.” The guide stated before we started, if you don’t feel stupid doing it, you’re not doing it right. We felt stupid. Having read about this tradition online before our trip, we knew it was coming and we were determined to video our own participation. The guide kicked us off with an ice breaking howl of her own to simulate a lone wolf. And then a group of strangers all doing their best wolf impression chimed-in in unison. The response of the resident wolves was truly magical in the winter twilight. The whole sanctuary came alive with howls of these beautiful creatures. It still gives us goose bumps thinking about it. For one brief moment in time, we were accepted as a part of the wolf pack.
Our curiosity satisfied, and feeling just a bit frozen, we jumped in the jeep, cranked the heater up to high headed off toward Cripple Creek (with brief detour in the wrong direction due to a confused GoogleMap and Corrie’s lack of knowing how to read a map). Highway 67 between Divide, CO and Cripple Creek, CO is a really beautiful and off the beaten path drive. The stunning views of the Sangre De Cristo mountains capped with snow kept us oohing and awing even as the light was quickly dwindling. Some of Colorado nature’s finest work, if you ask us. And with all of bare aspen trees along the route we decided that we should make a trip back in the fall to enjoy the golden leaves (and possibly visit the hedgehog rescue in Divide).
The view as we pulled into Cripple Creek was no less impressive. As we started coming down off the pass the little mining town was settled in the valley, with its lights twinkling and the Sangre de Cristos in the background. Pausing to snap a few quick photos, we made our way down the hill into town to find our lodging for the night. As we entered the streets of town we were a little saddened that this beautiful old mining town has been defiled slightly by all the bright lights of the casinos. But, we knew what we were getting into and it still manages to retain some of its antique charm.
The Midnight Rose Casino was our lodging choice for the night. It is nothing special, but it was highly rated and the rooms looked nice and clean online. Plus, it offered free parking in a garage – we’ve never heard of such a thing! As we were checking-in Cameron made the mistake of asking for a dining recommendation for dinner that night. The lady at the front desk was quick to inform us that the prime rib and seafood buffet their own restaurant offers was the best option in town. BARF! We might come off as food snobs to some people, but generally we are pretty flexible. Casino seafood buffets just aren’t our thing.
Our room was neat and clean but the first thing we actually noticed was how hysterically cramped it was. We know what a fan Cameron is of cramped hotel accommodations (not!) and this one certainly wins the crown for the smallest we’ve been in yet. As we surveyed our surroundings (no need to walk to see it all) we noticed that there were large windows in the room, fully frosted, with large signs on them that read “Not a Fire Escape.” Cameron was curious and opened the window, revealing another permanent pane of frosted glass. We never figured out what was hidden on the other side of those windows, but we saw the shadows of people walking by them shortly before bed – even though our room was on the third floor. We will never understand the strange and confusing setup.
A quick Google search helped us find a reasonable looking restaurant for dinner. Maggie’s was less than a block away (but then nothing was very far in such a small town) and was touted as the best restaurant in town. We walked the one block and got to admire some beautiful ice sculptures, since we had lucked out and chosen to visit the weekend of their annual ice sculpture festival. Maggie’s was okay. If it’s best restaurant in town, then we felt very fortunate we didn’t go anywhere else. It was located on the lower level of another casino, but had a bit of a cozy feel to it. We both decided to order the New York strip steak. When it arrived Corrie thought they had made a mistake and brought them pork chops (she hates pork chops). The thin, grey meat was pretty generic and flavorless, but the veggies and salads that accompanied were tasty. We treated ourselves to a warm brownie and ice cream for desert. And both agreed that we could get a better brownie at Costco. But, we were thankful for all of the veggies and left without any hunger pains. After dinner we hit the casinos for some penny slot and people watching fun. Neither of us are big gamblers, but we are both fans of cheesy tourist stuff and as the axiom goes: when in Rome…
It must be said that Cripple Creek as a gambling destination is far inferior to Blackhawk. The clientele, including us, are not high-rollers. There are no table games, so you can imagine all the fun we had watching people spend big money on the penny slots. Neither one of us spent much or won anything. We can safely say that the free wine we drank cost more than the money we donated to the slot machines. We did however fall prey to the casino lifestyle in one respect… we didn’t go to bed at our typical early vacation bed time.
When it did come time for bed it didn’t take us long to notice how supremely uncomfortable the bed and pillows were. In a repeat of our November 2017 trip, Cameron managed to hurt his back on right after leaving the gym that morning, so trying to find a comfortable position proved difficult. Meanwhile, Corrie was faced with having such a hard pillow that her neck hurt to the point she couldn’t fall asleep. After a few hours of tossing and turning Cameron took some Excedrin and Corrie fashioned herself a camp pillow (stuffing a sweatshirt with other shirts). We soon both drifted to sleep for a handful of hours.
After a rough night of sleep we did our best to sleep in. But, with little sound proofing in the room we were soon awaken by the sound of the early breakfast buffet goers making their way to through the halls. At that point we decided it was best to get moving ourselves. So we showered, packed and headed out for breakfast. We decided to check out the Home Café, because it is the highest rated breakfast spot in town (the second being Maggie’s, which we wanted to avoid). But when we arrived we found out that the wait was going to be at least two hours. It must really be the best in town!
Not wanting to wait two hours because we were starving and eager to get our day started, we headed to Dynamite Dick’s instead. We had no trouble getting a table there, and for good reason. The service and the food were terrible! Some of the worst breakfast we’ve ever had and Cameron literally had to twirl his empty coffee cup in the air just to get a refill. At this point we were thinking we should have given Maggie’s another shot.
By this time we were more than ready to head out of Cripple Creek. While we had a fun night, it’s a town that offers us little in the way of activity that we’re interested in. So after (reluctantly) filling our bellies we had to fill the Jeep for our journey into the isolated and purportedly haunted Phantom Canyon. Luckily, we decided to fill up in Cripple Creek. For a moment we considered driving to nearby Victor and getting gas there, but as we later drove through Victor, we discovered there are no gas stations there.
The drive south from Cripple Creek is even more lonely and beautiful than the drive into town had been. Once we left the historic and haunted looking town of Victor, we felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere again, similar to the sense of adventure we found in southern Wyoming. It seemed like a forgotten corner of our great state and we were thrilled to be out exploring it together.
Phantom Canyon Road follows the route of an old narrow-gauge railroad track between Florence and the mining districts of years gone by. By driving it from the north end, we were starting from the highest point of the drive around 9,700’ which continued to provide us with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. As we dropped down into the canyon, the old tracks were covered by years of dirt and road base and the many twists and hairpin turns had us wondering how a train was ever able to navigate such terrain. Normally a lead-footed driver, Cam had to remain very cognizant of his speed on the one lane road that was little more than a car and half wide. Numerous blind curves, zero guard rails, snow pack and steep drops made the drive a thrill. While the road is big enough for just one car most the time, it does accommodate two-way traffic, which provided little spikes in heart rate every time we were faced with another car bearing down on us. This may have been partly due to the fact that when we were just about 20 minutes into the drive we encountered a man in a Cadillac who insisted on continuing to drive right at us. Easy for him, he was on the mountain side of the rode, while we were on the cliff side. His impatience gave Cameron no chance to back up to one of the pull-out areas. With the Jeeps tires precariously close to the steep cliff drop off, Cadillac man managed to squeeze his car past us, leaving Corrie a little paler than normal, and raced on toward Victor. Luckily all the other drivers we encountered (more than we expected, but still few) knew the respectful, common-sense, rules for a road like this and were much more careful.
One of the draws we had to Phantom Canyon Road is that it is home to a few gold mining ghost towns. We were excited to be able to explore these towns and maybe get a small hike in. With Cameron’s back, we knew a hike was probably out of the question, but we were still excited at the thought of doing a little ghost adventuring. We had set the ghost town of Adelaide as our destination on Google Maps, since it was the only one that showed up. Without cell service there was no moving map for us to follow, but it dutifully announced when we had arrived. It was a good thing too, because we could easily have driven right by it without noticing. We both looked around confused because there is nothing left of this little mining town other than a strange stone pit (of doom?) that looked like it was there for water storage. There were no remaining structures and while we thought we maybe saw a house foundation, it was hard to be sure. It was hard to even imagine how a town, even a small one, could have occupied the space. Between the road/tracks, the trees, the creek and the steep mountain walls, there was hardly any space for more than one structure to exist. But, the good thing about Adelaide, is that it looked like the perfect spot for a pee break. Not a lot of access to get behind the tress or bushes for coverage, but we figured we would be able to hear any car approaching. Unfortunately, as soon Corrie squatted and started to do her thing a car popped out from around the corner in the road without any warning. Startled, Cameron scrambled to block Corrie while she quickly pulled her pants back up. We’re not exactly sure what all they saw, but, it could be true that Corrie may have peed her pants just a little in the ghost town of Adelaide. Can we just blame it on the non-existent ghosts?
The drive through the canyon was amazing and totally worth the effort. Because it’s a slow drive, there is plenty of time to soak it all in. We had fun imagining outlaws and miners using the canyon to prospect or hideout; it’s still so isolated. And perhaps, being so close to Canyon City and Florence, outlaws still use it to hideout? Maybe one day we’ll get up the courage to camp in the canyon for a night and find out just why it’s called Phantom Canyon and if it’s really as overrun with escaped felons as Corrie’s imagination tells her.
Popping out of the south side of the canyon we made our way back to the I-25 slog and headed home.
February’s destinations were a truly eclectic mix of Colorado fun. We managed to mix nature, history, trashy casinos and questionable dining into a short overnight trip. And all of it was new to us. We continue to be amazed at how many opportunities we have to experience something new, so close to home. If you think you’ve seen everything Colorado has to offer… think again.
DESTINATION RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5.0
What We Learned:
- DO take the feeding tour at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, you get to see them really active and up close.
- DO drive Phantom Canyon and leave plenty to time to get out of the car and do some hiking. It looks like there are some amazing trails to explore.
- DO drive Highway 67 between Divide and Cripple Creek in the fall for what we can only imagine (for now) is some awesome leaf peeping.
- DON’T forget to bring your own pillows if you stay at the Midnight Rose. Unless you really enjoy a stiff neck!
- DON’T expect fabulous dining in Cripple Creek, it all seems to be typical casino fare.
- DON’T speed down Phantom Canyon Road, there are too many blind curves, steep drops and chances for head-on collisions. Be respectful.