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Thanks to a "perfect storm" of geologic events, a mere seven square miles near Cripple Creek has produced more gold than the California and Alaska gold rushes combined. —Courtesy of Lon Abbott

Colorado by Nature: The Gold Belt Byway

Strike it rich this summer while exploring the geoheritage of one of the world’s most productive gold-mining areas.

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Since gold was discovered near Cripple Creek in 1891, the district has produced a phenomenal amount of wealth. Over 23 million ounces of gold—more than the Alaska and California gold rushes combined—have been extracted from an area covering just seven squares miles. Worth more than $33 billion in today’s prices, this fortune isn’t just historical; an open-pit mine owned by Newmont still extracts more than $1 million worth of metal from the area every day.

This opulent ore helped spark Colorado’s last Gold Rush and laid the foundation for our modern state. But unlike most of Colorado’s gold and silver deposits, which are located along a belt stretching from Boulder in the northeast to Durango in the southwest, the Cripple Creek ore is confined to a very compact area, and scientists have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what events conspired to make this region so geologically unusual—and so productive.

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The Cripple Creek gold deposit is associated with an ancient volcano, which began erupting about 32.5 million years ago. But this wasn’t your average, run-of-the-mill volcano; its magma was very rich in the element sodium, a trait shared by nearly all of the planet’s enormous gold districts. This volcano also experienced particularly violent eruptions; when the hot magma encountered groundwater, it instantly flashed into steam, causing the volcano to explode. The force shattered the surrounding rock, which tumbled back down into the vacant magma chamber, leaving behind a very thick pile of rubble.

Finally, late in the volcano’s life, hot water laden with dissolved gold and other minerals welled up and repeatedly bathed this rubble, dramatically changing its composition and enriching the rocks beyond a miner’s wildest dreams. This “perfect storm” of events left behind small but economically important concentrations of gold distributed evenly throughout the volcanic rocks, as well as 2-inch-wide veins of quartz filled with incredible amounts—up to 43 percent—of gold.

One of these sparkling veins caught the eye of a local rancher, Bob Womack, in 1891. After he immdiately filed a mining claim, word spread like wildfire, and people quickly flocked to the area. Soon, there were 500 mines working this rich ore, and the area’s population quickly boomed from 500 to 10,000 residents (and 150 saloons). In 1892, the town was linked to Cañon City via a bumpy stagecoach route along what is now the 4WD Shelf Road, and the train reached the area the following year along today’s Phantom Canyon Road.

Both roads, as well as the High Park Road (Teller County 11) are part of the Gold Belt Byway, a National Scenic Byway that explores the heart of Colorado’s richest gold district and the history of its boom-and-bust communities. One of the byway’s many highlights is descending 1,000 feet in an old service elevator to explore the Mollie Kathleen Mine, where one of the rich gold veins is still exposed. With reservations, you can also tour the active Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine.

The byway also features many interesting museums and fossil sites to explore, such as the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Be sure to leave some time to seek your own fortune, whether it’s the beautiful scenery, searching for your own fossils at the Florissant Fossil Quarry, antiquing in Florence, or gaming in Cripple Creek.

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