This route is a classic Colorado Gravel biking route. Many of you from Colorado will recognize it as it is the annual gravel grinder race route called the Crippler.
Wow- Well there is a reason this one is considered a classic Colorado route! There is spectacular scenery with panoramic views, great gravel surfaces, challenging climbing and fun descents.
Phantom Canyon is amazing: The road surface was mostly smooth "hero dirt", there was very light car traffic and drivers passed respectfully, there are bits of cover from the canyon wall, trees and tunnels, the river was flowing and beautiful and wild flowers were blooming all along the road. It features green-spotted canyon walls and twisty turns lying on top of what was once a powerhouse railroad (the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad). Ghost towns of Wilbur, Adelaide and Glenbrook (to name a few) that washed away in flashfloods or dissipated as a result of the slowing economy after the railroad closed in 1912 are eerily present throughout. (More info/history on Phantom Canyon here.) The climb up the canyon IS about 30 miles long and increases in elevation from 5,500 to 9,500 feet, but the average grade is about 3.5% with absolutely nothing super steep.
Shelf road was also a high and was equally beautiful! This road is a little rougher/rugged than Phantom Canyon, but we had room to pick our lines and avoid the big rocks, pot holes and occasional washboards. The downhill was fun and curvy without ever feeling dangerously steep.
Right off the bat, there is a little route thing to note (and our least favorite moment of the ride): You start off on Fremont Drive (a frontage road to 50/Royal Gorge Blvd.) and it quickly dead ends. At that point you have to hop the curb and very briefly get onto that busy road. However, you only have to cross the two lanes of oncoming traffic and can get immediately into a left-hand turn lane to get to Latigo Lane. Please be careful here! (Unfortunately, It is unavoidable/no alternatives to make this loop.)
Our other low was the paved section between Victor and Cripple Creek (Road 67 / miles 33.5-37.5). There is very little shoulder and traffic includes fast moving trucks.
Do this ride if you want a spectacularly scenic and classic Colorado gravel route from Canyon City to Victor through Phantom Canyon and back via Shelf road. 65 miles total with the first 30 a gradual climb and over 5,000 feet of elevation gain makes this route both challenging and beautiful.
This route is the annual gravel grinder race route for the Crippler. This year, the race will be on September 25th, 2021. You can register here.
The race director of the Crippler believes that the perfect bike for this race "would be a gravel bike with 35-38 mm tires", and we agree!!
We parked and began this ride at the Walmart Supercenter where there is tons of free parking.
Country Road 123 (at the beginning before Phantom Canyon) had a bridge that was undergoing construction and there was a sign that indicated there was no thru traffic. (Sign said till 6/30/21). We took our chances and continued, and luckily, we WERE able to get through the barriers and cross the bridge since it was was intact and no active construction was happening on the weekend.
Between Cañon City and the town of Victor it is very remote, but there are a few public bathrooms we found- One at about mile 11 and another around mile 22. There is no water available at either of these places. We spotted another public bathroom on Shelf Road where there was a trailhead between mile 50-54.
We stopped at the Claim Jumper General Store in Victor, CO (at 3rd and Victor Street) to resupply water and food. It is open 7 days a week and is a basic convenience store. (There are also other opportunities in Cripple Creek but the route doesn't actually go into Cripple Creek.) We had two 24 oz water bottles each and it was barely enough for that loooong climb on a hot day. We recommend bringing plenty of water!
It can get quite hot out there in the summer! We recommend starting quite early to avoid the mid-day sun or do it on a day where there is some expected cloud cover. At the same time we would recommend bringing a vest or rain jacket. Since you are climbing above 9,000ft there can be thunderstorms in the afternoons.
This would also make a lovely Fall route.