Western Loop, Days 6-7: Walsenburg & Bishop’s Castle

Trip Dates: June 12-13, 2019 | Photo Album

A week into our trip, we had memorable stops at the Museum of Friends in Walsenburg and Bishop’s Castle in the Wet Mountains.

We had left Pagosa Springs, driving up and over the continental divide at Wolf Creek pass, bound for Walsenburg, an old mining town on the plain northeast of the Spanish Peaks. We had previously taken this route in 2013, enjoying lunch at the La Plaza Inn and shopping in some junk stores in Walsenburg to break up a long drive to Dodge City, Kansas. But this time we would be staying overnight in Walsenburg before heading north to Manitou Springs.

We chewed gum as our drive took us upward almost 3/4 mile from the 7,126 feet elevation of Pagosa Springs to Wolf Creek Pass at 10,857 feet. Then we descended to the Rio Grande River at South Fork and headed east to Del Norte. Our minivan was halted just east of Del Norte for several minutes as cattle from the Off Family Ranch were herded west along highway 160, surrounding us. Wendy, thinking of a funny scene from the movie Twister, exclaimed, “We got cows!” We giggled as the cows struggled to find their way among the halted traffic, loudly mooing and bellowing.

We crossed the heavily irrigated San Luis Valley and drove south around Blanca Peak to take the North La Veta Pass into Huerfano County. Huerfano is Spanish for orphan, and later in this post I’ll explain how the county earned that moniker.

We passed 11 miles north of the Spanish Peaks, which the Utes called Huajatolla, meaning “two breasts” or “breasts of the Earth”. The two igneous intrusions are separate from the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains, predating them by over a million years, and rise 7,000 feet above the plain. They were important landmarks for the Old Santa Fe Trail.

Spanish Peaks from the minivan

Walsenburg

Walsenburg began as La Plaza de los Leones in the mid-1800s, incorporated in the 1870s, and became a center for coal mining in the early 20th century, with over 100 mining camps in the county. Multiple miner strikes were put down violently. The town peaked around 1940, and the mines closed in the 1960s. In recent years the town had a private prison and a modular-building factory, but they have closed. In 2015 the town sold 330 acres to be used for cannibis production, hoping to grow weed to be sold up north in Denver, but it remains one of the poorest communities in Colorado.

We enjoyed our lunch at the Library Café at La Plaza Inn and then visited the Museum of Friends. Artists Brendt Berger and Maria Cocchiarelli-Berger so named their museum because it began with over 600 pieces given to them or the museum by fellow artists. The two have lived in places across the country, from Maine to Hawaii, building up a diverse collection over 50-odd years. Many of the artists were active in the numerous “hippie” communes that popped up in southern Colorado 40 to 50 years back. Their collection has now grown to over 1,700 pieces.

Museum of Friends in Walsenburg

We met Maria, who happily told us how they were finally going to be getting an elevator so the older folks in town could go upstairs to see the permanent collection. Wendy was wearing a t-shirt depicting horses and Santa Fe, and Maria, liking the colors, asked if she could photograph it. Wendy, who has made various artworks with color schemes reflecting our travels, readily agreed.

We toured Earth, a Plein Air Artists Colorado Group Exhibition downstairs. Wendy liked Stacy Erickson’s French’s Field.  Then Maria had Candice Knowles take us upstairs, where the walls were covered with their friends’ art.

Candice was a hoot, saying she didn’t have a great memory and then proceeding to share details about each piece of artwork hanging on the walls. When another couple came upstairs, she merrily focused on them while we strolled about the rooms. Wendy liked Arnold Wechsler’s Ancient Books 1968 acrylic, and when she circled back to us, Candice shared how noticeable slashes across the painting had been made by one of Brendt’s girlfriends years ago. He now says the painting saved his life, “The person I was living with at the time took a knife to this painting and just started slashing it. That could have been me, very easily.”

Ancient Books by Arnold Wechsler

Brendt was working in his office, which Candice led us through to his Hawaiian room, with walls covered in tapa cloth paintings and displays of island art ranging from fine to kitsch. Who would ever think there would be this sort of fun oasis up above what was once a Colorado coal mining town’s JC Penney store?

We wrapped up our visit in the small museum store, where I spotted a dark moonlit seascape by Earl Daniels. I like to decorate Meador Manor with paintings and photographs purchased at vacation stops, alongside Wendy’s many beautiful pieces. I had to grin when Candice asked me, “Are you sure you want that one? It’s expensive!” I was happy to have it, both to decorate our home and in a small way help support the Museum of Friends. I have even bought one of Earl’s old art instruction books on eBay to see more of his works.

Moonlit seascape by Earl Daniels

Candice bundled up my purchase, and we packed it in the minivan. Wendy thought the colorful cats decorating the planters in front of the museum were hilarious, while across the street I noticed the interesting timbers of the Miner’s Park.

We checked into the Best Western Rambler on the north end of town and did our laundry. The dryer’s coin slot was jammed, so the clerk let us finish our loads in the hotel’s industrial dryer. Dinner would be back downtown at a pizza joint.

That turned out to be part of Rosa’s Cantina on main street. Our waiter told us he would also be the cook and that we should help ourselves to drinks in a nearby refrigerator. He pointed out that his mother’s famous lemonade was in there, as she’s been making it with freshly squeezed lemons for 40 years, along with cucumber water. I’d never heard of the latter, but the next day would find Cucumber Sour Beer for sale in a convenience store in the prison town of Florence, Colorado. So I guess the flavor of cucumbers appeals to folks in those parts. Wendy speculated it arose when the locals discovered melons and other Cucurbitacea grew well in that high desert climate.

The pizza was fine, and we enjoyed meeting the two brothers running the restaurant. Wendy, who hears far better than I do, got a kick listening to the patrons in the adjoining bar. One “lady” told a fellow he was a number of profanities, to which he calmly responded, “I am a man of many titles.”

The Orphan

Busy bee restroom door

We had a good breakfast the next morning at the Busy Bee Cafe & Malt Shop back in town, which had Elvis photos and old 45 rpm records on the wall with cute decorations on the restroom doors. Then we drove north out of town. Wendy noticed El Huerfano, the volcanic plug butte I had first driven by in 2012. I’d forgotten about it, but The Orphan is how Huerfano county got its name. When the Spanish Peaks formed, it was one of the outlying igneous intrusions that never broke through the surface of the inland sea. Erosion has since stripped away the sediment that once covered the top of this plug, leaving a 300-foot isolated butte amidst the high desert plain, orphaned from the other peaks.

The Orphan

Through the Wet Mountains

We turned west at Colorado City to head up past Greenhorn mountain along highway 165. You would be mistaken to think the mountain’s name refers to inexperienced frontiersmen; it comes from Cuerno Verde, or “Green Horn”, which was what the Spanish called the Comanche leader Tavibo Naritgant because of the green-tinted horn he wore on his head-dress in battle. He was killed in the area back in 1779 by Spanish troops with Ute, Apache, and Pueblo indian auxiliaries. The “green horn” headress was taken from the battlefield and presented to the Spanish Viceroy, and then reportedly passed along to the King of Spain and then the Pope. So perhaps it is still buried somewhere in the Vatican archives.

We drove up and up, rising from 5,800′ at Colorado City to over 9,000′ in the Wet Mountain range, so named because of its heavy snowfalls and subsequent runoffs. We passed the tiny Lake Isabel as we made our way upward to Bishop’s Castle.

Bishop’s Castle

Jim Bishop is an obsessive and cranky old man who has labored for decades to construct a castle of sorts up in the Wet Mountains. What began as a cottage has morphed into an enormous and rather perilous structure that attracts tourists like us.

When we pulled up on the highway, we could see a tall spire poking up above a road cut as well as a large metal dragon head, probably sporting an inactive flamethrower of some sort. A short walk brought more of the castle into view, with tourists clambering about on metal grates and stairways from one spire to another. It didn’t look particularly safe from afar, and a sign out front saying we were guests and Bishop was in no way not responsible for our safety was not reassuring. We visited the portable toilets out front and then climbed up to the castle grounds, passing through a separate two-story gatehouse onto the dusty hillside.

The lay of the land makes it hard to get enough distance from the tall structure to capture it with a camera. We had to resort to shooting video and assembling panoramas from multiple shots.

Bishop’s Castle

I immediately climbed a long concrete exterior stairway leading straight up a buttress to the third floor, which was encircled by a grilled walkway. I noticed how the cast iron railing’s balusters were spaced far enough apart to allow a young child to slip through, which was surprising. As I circumnavigated around the building, I came across a part of the railing that had broken away, with only a simple rope tied across the gap. Another part of the railing had separated from the deck and hung loosely, vibrating along with the grilled floor with my steps. Yikes!

Third floor of Bishop’s Castle

How I entered the third floor

Wendy made it only partway up the exterior stairs before deciding to turn back around and instead explore the perimeter and a nearby gift shop. I ventured into the third floor through a large Gothic window/door, into a huge open room. The opposite end had a triangular glass window with many panes linked to open as a group for ventilation. The peak of the roof was glass skylight panels, with the remainder consisting of wood planks resting on what appeared to be a cast iron filigreed truss. There were high and narrow stone fireplaces, but the wooden floor had some damaged boards.

I found an enclosed stone spiral stair that led down to ground level, exiting out the back side of the building. I went and found Wendy and showed her the enclosed stairway, and we toured the second and third floors. The second level had separate end windows: one set had nice stained glass flowers, while the other had a kitsch Betty Boop angel and some colored panes with various remembrances.

Second floor windows

We were both struck by how some interior stairs would abruptly end in drop-offs. We had no interest in ascending into the towers to partake of their perilous exterior walkways, which looked like something out of a video game fantasy or a teenager’s sketchbook. If we were parents, we agreed we would never allow young children to roam the structure because of its multiple safety hazards.

The ground floor had an uneven dirt floor and featured large painted signs where Bishop ranted about governmental interference and his successful escapes from lawsuits and included a stereotypical “they took our guns!” section.

Challenging stair

The ground floor also had a rusty abandoned range and other signs of how it might have once been on the trajectory of becoming a functional cabin yet evolved into a fairly barren interior for tourists to roam through. We exited, and I noticed a man had halted on the exterior stair about where Wendy had also decided that was quite enough. It is indicative of my personality that I wished I could have groups of people try to climb that stair and record and chart which steps they first halted on. He eventually clambered on up.

The dragon portion of the structure has an interesting history. From Bishopcastle.org:

Enter The Dragon
In the mid 1980s, a friend of Jim’s was driving a truck full of discarded stainless steel warming plates from the Pueblo County Hospital to the landfill. He decided that Jim could probably put this mother lode of expensive stainless steel to better use than the dump could, so he dropped it off at the Bishop Ornamental Iron Shop instead. Jim spent the winter building a chimney out of the steel, riveting thousands of hammered “scales” that he had cut out of the plates together around a steel frame. The dragon was completed in the spring and Jim hauled it up the mountain to tackle the daunting task of raising and installing this incredible sculpture to where it rests today perched off of the front of the Grand Ballroom eighty feet in the air! Later on came the addition of a burner from a hot air balloon (that was donated!) which Jim put in the back of the dragons throat, making it a true Fire Breathing Dragon! The dragon usually gets fired up weekends through the summer.

I left a donation in the begging box, glad that Bishop shared his passion project with us, even if he is certifiable. When he passes on, I fear the castle will be at high risk of having vandals burn it up (it appears they had already lost their interior gift shop to a fire) and turn it into an abandoned ruin. So I’m glad we got to see it near what might be its peak.

Rear of Bishop’s Castle

I walked up the hillside to shoot the back side of the castle, and then we returned to the minivan to make our way north to Manitou Springs.

To Manitou Springs

Highway 165 continued as a lovely scenic drive through the Wet Mountains for another 20 miles until it descended to the plains. I had hoped to find restrooms at Wetmore, but had no luck at that tiny place built on Hardscrabble Creek. We took highway 67 north to Florence, passing a large federal prison. Florence was larger and had services, but looked pretty tough. Seeing Cucumber Sour Beer at a convenience store reminded me of the cucumber water we’d been offered in Walsenburg.

We took highways 115 and 24 to Manitou Springs, just east of the far larger Colorado Springs. We had stayed at the nearby Garden of the Gods Resort in 2015 but had only made one drive through crazy little Manitou, which reminded both of us of Eureka Springs in Arkansas with its mountainous setting and shopping district.

This time we would be staying a couple of nights in Manitou Springs itself, meeting up with fellow teacher Betty Henderson and her husband, John, as they returned west from fishing at Taylor Park in Colorado. The next post will cover our travels together in Manitou Springs and to a rock and mineral show up in the historic old mining town of Victor on the southwest side of Pike’s Peak.

Photo Album

Western Loop, Day 8: Victor >

< Western Loop, Days 4-5: Pagosa Springs

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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