Shelf Road in Colorado: If you don't like steep drop-offs, don't take the road

Shelf Road is an adventurous and rugged mountain drive spanning Fremont and Teller counties in the US state of Colorado. This is a great drive if you're brave and trust the person behind the wheel. If you don't like steep extreme drop-offs, don't take the road. It's very narrow in some spots, and two vehicles can't go through.

Shelf Road

How long is Shelf Road in Colorado?

This narrow mountain road is 21.4 km (13.3 miles) long, running south-north from the city of Cañon City (in Fremont County), where it begins, to 21.7 km (13.5 miles) north of Cañon City, where it changes from Fremont County Highway 9 (Garden Park Road) to Shelf Road, to the city of Cripple Creek (in Teller County). The road is mostly unpaved and pretty steep. It climbs from 1,902 m (6,240 ft) above sea level to 2,863 m (9,393 ft) above sea level. The elevation gain is 961 m, and the average gradient is 3.80%. It is part of the Gold Belt Scenic Byway.

Is Shelf Road dangerous?

Most vehicles should not have any issues from its start to its finish. However, if the road is wet or snowy, it could give any vehicle some trouble, and vehicles with all-wheel drive are probably best. It has great views but is a little scary in parts, especially when there is oncoming traffic. It’s a one-lane, two-way dirt road on the side of a cliff with blind corners. It's a dirt road that's often narrow and at times clings to the side of a hill, with very little room to spare. It’s a two-way road that is just over a single vehicle wide in many places. You’ll be close enough to shake hands with the other driver. The road is carved along the side of a cliff that is supposed to fit two lanes, but really only fits one. It is used by employees of the Cripple Creek gold mine (the large light-colored area on the satellite view below) who use Shelf Road to commute twice each day, are very familiar with it, so they travel it much faster than you’d consider safe! They can appear very quickly around any sharp turn.

Is Shelf Road scary?

The really bad, scary 'shelf' part is the first three or four miles of Shelf Road coming from Canon City heading north toward Cripple Creek where it is the steepest and narrowest. When you are going this way, the passenger will be on the cliff side of the shelf looking down. Nervous passengers feel more comfortable when traveling south, as they will be on the wall side, and the driver will be on the cliff side. Check status before you go as roads sometimes close due to washouts or accidents.

When was Shelf Road in Colorado built?

The road was built in 1892 as a toll road, offers scenic views, and is good for all skill levels. Originally, it was a stagecoach route that delivered goods to and from Cripple Creek and Canon City. The road gets its name because it’s carved out of the canyon wall and goes up more than 100 feet in some places.

Is Shelf Road in Colorado scenic?

The road and the scenery it offers can be pretty spectacular given the steep pitch of the surrounding cliffs, with lots of hairpin turns as the road ascends, hugging the side of the mountain crossing over limestone cliffs with twists and turns through the area. Sightseeing is better left to passengers as the driver must concentrate on staying on the road and avoiding other vehicles.

What's the high-speed pursuit of Shelf Road?

Shelf Road was once the scene of a "high-speed" pursuit. At 9:30 pm on November 1, 2020, an armed fugitive from justice with five felony warrants led local city police from three cities and Sheriff’s deputies from two counties on a high-speed chase from Cañon City north through Cripple Creek by way of Shelf Road. One can only imagine the frantic, reckless drive up Shelf Road of one car followed by the many flashing red and blue lights that illuminated the dark along with the screaming sirens echoing off the steep canyon walls along the way. The fugitive fired at deputies and officers as he fled, crashed his car, evaded police on foot, and was apprehended the next day in an abandoned cabin. Just days after being sentenced to 34 years in prison he escaped the Teller County jail, and a manhunt captured him again four days later. Now he is part of the local folklore of Shelf Road.
Road suggested by: Catrìona M. MacKirnan
Pic: Ben Konrady