Colorado is so full of natural marvels that you couldn’t see them all in a lifetime. Still, residents of this state often seem strangely compelled to create man-made wonders to match its mountains. Not just architectural marvels like the Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy or such engineering miracles as the narrow-gauge railroad bridges that span deep chasms, but weird and wacky roadside attractions that prove there are no limits to imagination...or obsession.
Bill Swets’s Swetsville Zoo, the subject of this week's cover story, certainly ranks at the top of these (see our cover story). But there are many more around Colorado, and a visit to any of these six physical manifestations of magnificent obsessions would make for a perfect end-of-summer road trip, Colorado style.
CO-165 near Rye
Jim Bishop has faced plenty of challenges as he tries to finish Bishop Castle, the amazing stone-and-ironwork edifice that towers 160 feet high in the trees of the San Isabel National Forest. He started building this incredible monument in 1969, on a two-and-a-half-acre parcel he’d bought ten years earlier for just $450, when he was fifteen. Working with his father at Bishop Ornamental Iron Shop, he acquired the skills needed to create a structure that looks like a cross between a medieval castle and the Eiffel Tower. In recent years he’s worked through health problems, fires, the loss of his beloved wife, and a bizarre attempt to steal the place away from him...but he soldiers (and solders) on. Open daily, free admission (but don’t miss the gift shop!).
10th Avenue and State Street, Antonito
No phone or website
Do all of Colorado’s peaks inspire people to just keep building up...and up...and up? Like Bishop Castle, Cano’s Castle is the work of one man: Donald “Cano” Espinoza, who started building his castle three decades ago as thanks to God for having survived the Vietnam War. It consists of four towers, dubbed “the king,” “the queen,” “the palace” and “the rook,” all built of wire, recycled aluminum, hubcaps, beer cans and anything else he can get his hands on. Although there are no formal hours, you’ll often find Cano working on the place; he claims Jesus Christ has been living in the building since 1987 and is trying to convince Cano to go meet the president.
The May Natural History Museum
710 Rock Creek Canyon Road, Colorado Springs
While other states boast such attractions as the world’s biggest ball of string or rubber bands, Colorado has the world’s largest beetle: Herkimer, a (replica) West Indian Hercules beetle that stands outside the May Museum of Natural History, which authentically boasts “the world’s largest private insect collection.” John May got his start touring the world with his father’s exotic insect collection, adding his own creepy-crawly finds along the way. In 1947, he began building the facility that today is the May. Herkimer was added in the ’50s to advertise the place; it survived a move to Florida in the ’60s and is now proudly back in Colorado, where it has a fan in Governor Jared Polis. The May is open daily through October 1; adult admission $8, kids six to twelve $6.
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The Tank Center for Sonic Arts
233 County Road 46, Rangely
The Tank wasn’t designed to become a roadside attraction; it was built as a railroad water-treatment facility back in 1940 and was moved to Rangely in the mid-’60s, where musician Bruce Odland found it standing empty in 1976. Over the years, it had turned into a parabola, giving it remarkable acoustics “with these dizzyingly beautiful reverberation effects going all over the place,” Odland remembers. For decades, the Tank survived as a secret recording and performance space, but when the owner threatened to sell it for scrap in 2013, Odland and other fans set up Friends of the TANK, which raised enough money to turn it into an official studio and venue. Hear for yourself at “Echoes of the Ages,” a performance by soprano Joelle Greenleaf and lutenist Hank Heijink on September 7.
6249 South Turkey Creek Road, Morrison
George Turner began constructing a tiny town, Turnerville, for his daughter at the old Denver Leadville Stage Coach Station in 1915; five years later, he opened it to the public. At its high point, it boasted 125 miniature buildings as well as a train added in 1939, when it was renamed Tiny Town. Ten years later, though, it started a fast slide when U.S. 285 was moved, and then fires, floods and other calamities turned it into a tiny ghost town. Three decades ago, volunteers decided to save Tiny Town, setting up a foundation and rehabbing the buildings that could be restored. Kids can still ride the tiny train (departures every thirty minutes) while adults wander the town or browse the gift shop offerings. Open daily; adults $5, kids $3, train rides $2.
Highway 17, Hooper
When Coloradans aren’t building castles, they’re building towers. Author and UFO enthusiast Judy Messoline constructed the UFO Watchtower “in the heart of the mystical San Luis Valley” in 2000. Her attraction boasts an observation deck, camping, a gift shop (of course) and, most important, “no light pollution,” which means you’ll be able to spot any alien spacecraft overhead…if the tower happens to be open after 5 p.m., which it is only on special occasions. But this is still an undeniable roadside attraction, especially if Messoline is around to share out-of-this-world tales. Admission is $2 per person or $5 per car.
What's your favorite roadside attraction in Colorado? Post a comment or email firstname.lastname@example.org.