Shelf Road, Phantom Canyon, Skagway Loop

Jim Anderson, April 7, 2013

Having recently ridden Phantom Canyon, the old 1890’s narrow gauge railroad bed for the Florence and Cripple Creek railroad, when I opened Steve Farson’s The Complete Guide to Motorcycling Colorado, and discovered a parallel route to the west called, The Shelf Road, I was immediately captivated.

Of course I’d heard of the Shelf Road for years, but despite living on Colorado’s Front Range since 1985, I’d never had the opportunity to explore it.

Carving my way up twisty Ute Pass at the foot of Pike’s Peak, I had just passed the sleepy village of Crystola and pulled over to mount my Go-Pro helmet camera. Just then, I experienced a small-world moment. The Yamaha Super Tenere mounted Steve Rust, a fellow I’d met just last week in the equally sleepy town of Penrose, pulled up beside me. Bound for Deckers, the Shelf Road appealed to him and we headed off together.

Pulling over on the highway 67 fork to Victor, two 1200GS’ rolled up beside us, then throttled on. One of the bikes was distinctly different and I instantly recognized it as BMW’s new water-cooler boxer. This is a revolutionary new bike and the first I’d seen.

I excitedly barked to Steve, “Lets catch them!” and tore off in hot pursuit. But they weren’t wasting any time. Despite briefly sending the 1150GS speedo to triple-digits, I wasn’t gaining much ground.

Luckily, our fleet-footed duo, William & Beth Shott from Golden, decided to stop in Victor for a breather. At 9,789 feet elevation, a light wind made for a crisp but enjoyable visit. I was mesmerized by Germany’s new mechanical marvel, and found the couple delightful. Things got especially interesting with William’s mention of a planned Alaska trip!

A Wet-Head! (I almost wet my pants...)

With our new acquaintances opting for Phantom Canyon, Steve & I motored off to the Shelf Road. Leaving the tarmac, one thing was immediately apparent: Steve had considerably more experience with big Adventure bikes in dirt than I did. He was off like a shot while I tentatively plodded along. (He later admitted that having Continental’s knobby TKC 80 up front made all the difference).

Having ridden the Shelf Road before, Steve knew right where to stop. Joining him in the pull-out, I marveled at the fascinating rock formation above called Window Rock. True to its name, there was a massive square portal in rock – big enough to drive a car through. This was a geological formation that begged further exploration!

Steve warned that the road’s namesake “shelf” lie just ahead – a narrow single-lane snaking along a sheer cliff face with a meandering creek far below. Once there, my thoughts surprisingly turned to fishing, as few would likely venture down to the bottom for a feisty brown.

This more arid, rocky canyon had a much different personality than neighboring Phantom Canyon, and was mildly reminiscent of Utah.

Once in Cañon City, Steve decided to head home to Colorado Springs. But to a bachelor like myself, the day was young! Approaching highway 50’s southern access to Phantom Canyon, I pantomimed to Steve that I was peeling off. Thumb’s up, we parted ways.

Climbing ever upward, I soon came to the steel bridge where the historical society had chosen to erect a few informative markers. All the while, I’d been thinking this looked like classic wild turkey habitat. So imagine my surprise when I pulled over to soak up some history and found turkey tracks a mere 15 feet from my bike!

Continuing on, craggy canyons gave way to high parks and aspen. On top of the world, you could see forever. Nearing Victor, the fork to Skagway Reservoir beckoned. Son Justen & I had drown many a worm there and a stroll down memory lane might be fun. But spring comes slow to the high country, as I found the lake still hiding beneath a sheet of ice.

For a better off-roading footprint, I’ve gotten into the habit of dropping tire pressure to 20 psi when playing in the dirt. So before heading home, I pulled into Victor to air-up. With the front up to 32 psi, I’d moved to the rear when disaster stuck. The pump I carry has a levered hose attachment that, even when released, maintains a death grip on the valve stem. In trying to detach it, the stem’s brass insert pulled free from the rubber housing. “Pissshhhheeww!!….” instant flat.

Having blown valve stem in Yellowstone last June on my R1100RS, I made a point to keep a spare in its toolkit. But I wasn’t sure that foresight extended to the more recently acquired GS. By the setting sun, I feverishly searched the panniers for a spare. Nope.

The silver lining to this cloud was that I’d parked across the street from the only mechanics garage in a 30 mile radius. But, since it was approaching 7:00pm on a Sunday, the one-horse town of Victor had long since rolled up it sidewalks.   

My tire wasn't the only thing deflated.

When I first laid eyes on it, Victor was a dilapidated, wide-spot in the road, well on its way to achieving Ghost Town status. But it does have a rich history – in the most literal sense! This one-time bustling gold camp, located at the foot of Battle Mountain - once called the “Richest Hill on Earth” - is said to have offered up $434,000,000 ($6 billion in today’s value) in gold from its fabulously rich veins.

At its peak, over 500 mines dotted the landscape surrounding Victor and some 50,000 people called the area home. But Victor’s grand heydays would be dampened on August 21, 1899, when a fire began in a brothel along notorious Paradise Alley. Before the inferno was under control, fourteen blocks had been destroyed, including some 800 buildings, causing $1.5 million in damages, and leaving 1,500 people homeless. Victor’s days of prosperity would draw to a close in the early 1900’s when the vast majority of gold had either been panned out or was too expensive to get to. In time the town dwindled to a shadow of its former self.

Today, with legalized gaming reinstituted in nearby Cripple Creek and the resurrection of the local gold mine, Victor is now at least on life-support. However, the town’s few inhabitants are largely comprised of an eccentric mixture of off-the-grid types.

A staggering bird's-eye view of modern mining.But, enough history; back to my dilemma. Failing to locate a spare valve stem, I noticed the temperature rapidly dropping. At nearly 10,000 feet in April, freezing temps are still common. I’d have gladly settled in at the local hotel – if they had one. About to go knocking on doors, a shady but kind-hearted local couple came strolling by and noticed my dilemma. “You don’t look like you are from around here…” the fellow stated. After assuring me there was no hotel in town, he pointed up the hill and added, “If you need a place to lay your head, we’ll put you up for the night.”

Walking way, he said over his shoulder, “Spaghetti and garlic bread in an hour…”   

Having a distinct talent for putting myself in these situations, Vivien Leigh’s famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire came to me once more: “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers…”

 My hosts for the evening loaned me their jack.

My hosts for the evening loaned me their jack. 

Well, the people turned out to be major drug addicts with a checkered past who consumed pot & vodka like there was no tomorrow. While I have nothing against the party scene, these folks had an air of desperation that was a bit unsettling. I wound up sleeping on their filthy floor with one eye open all night, telling myself it was better than freezing to death outside. (Friends later envisioned potential horrors ranging from Deliverance to the Pulp Fiction pawn shop sex dungeon. I guess I'm a trusting soul...).

Yet another use for Rok Straps (strapping rocks!)

At the crack of 10:15am, the town mechanic decided to show up for work. Locking up his two menacing pit bulls, he took my rear wheel and headed for the tire machine. Back in business, I asked the lanky fellow what I owed him. “Oh, five bucks…” (What year is it?). Slapping $10 in his hand, I walked out and re-assembled my bike, not terribly disappointed to be missing a day of work.

As promised, once up and running, I returned to my impromptu lodging with the borrowed jack and to provide the better-half of the savior couple with a lift to Cripple Creek. This would be her first motorcycle ride (with all the usual counterbalancing lean antics) but midway through the journey, she confessed it wasn’t as scary as she’d imagined. Arriving at Casino Central (Cripple Creek), I thanked her and put $20 in her hand and asked her to take her hubby out to dinner.




 The problem. Okay for cars, but there is a better way.

 The solution. No UV break-down, dry-rot, leave-you-stranded rubber!







The other problem...

And solution…


One last look at the new water-cooled 1200GS