It’s probably the very last thing you’d expect to see, as you’re driving through the Colorado mountains: a medieval castle. But all of a sudden, there it is, at the top of a hill on Colorado Route 165, southwest of Pueblo. The castle is part architectural wonder, part adult-sized jungle gym, and part folk-art creation. Best of all, you can wander around in it, and if you time your visit properly, you can even watch a dragon breathe fire.
If you’re old enough, you may remember a time when edges were sharp, surfaces were hard, and everything wasn’t quite as safe as it should be. Those were fun times — and everyone was relatively safe, because everyone took responsibility for being safe, and didn’t do stupid things.
Of course, those days are long gone. Kids can’t roam around in the back of a station wagon, or play on a merry-go-round. There’s a warning on your cup of coffee that tells you it’s hot. We’re all very protected from everything.
I think this is why I enjoyed my visit to Bishop Castle so much. In the 21st century, with the rules we follow these days, this place shouldn’t exist. It’s home-made, it’s wobbly, and there are a thousand ways you could get injured. But it’s quite easy to cheat death here — because you’ll instantly realize you need to be careful, and rely on common sense rather than safety regulations.
Bishop Castle started out as a stone cabin, constructed by a guy named Jim Bishop, in the late 1960’s. Jim decided to clear the land on his little slice of high-altitude heaven, and use the stones on the property to build a humble abode. But, as he worked, people kept asking him if he was building a castle. Eventually, he decided it would just be easier to build a castle, than to keep telling them no. And so, he built a castle. For real. All by himself.
I didn’t know any of this, as I drove by, and spotted this monstrosity at the side of Highway 165. I pulled in, and hiked up the hill, through the drawbridge entryway, and up to the castle itself.
Jim obviously has some strong political feelings. Numerous signs will inform you, or at least entertain you, with facts and opinions about the government, the constitution, and taxes.
If you’re not a drunk taxpayer, and it’s not after dark, you’re free to wander onto the property… and more amazingly…
… you can wander all the way up there. This is the main room of the castle, complete with stained glass windows. Yes, that’s a dragon at the top, and it really does breathe fire.
You enter Bishop Castle here, at the donation box, where a $5 or $10 donation is suggested. I think I slipped a $5 into the can, and then overpaid wildly at the nearby gift shop, so I feel like I did my part — and got a bargain for the amount of entertainment I received.
Notice the stairs behind the donation box…
… that’s the entryway. As I climbed these steep, narrow stairs, I got my first taste of the slightly frightening nature of Bishop Castle.
Once you reach the top of the stairs, it already feels like you’ve accomplished something.
Before you go inside…
… take a walk around the balcony that surrounds the castle’s main room.
At first, I thought this was an unfinished section of wrought-iron railing, but on closer inspection…
… I realized it was an entryway to an inclined railroad car — an alternative to the stairs, I suppose, if someone was available to hoist you up.
There is also an actual elevator, but it’s blocked off.
Oh, and it also looks really dangerous. There are boards missing in the floor! Probably best to leave it alone.
Inside the great room, the castle really starts to look like a palace. This room is huge, cavernous…
… and surrounded by windows and stained glass.
In the corners, you’ll find staircases that take you up into the towers.
The first one I climbed was a metal staircase, complete with a bell. From this tower…
… you have a great view of the other tower. That’s right. Two towers.
Keep going to the top…
… and you end up inside this thing — a two-story-tall metal sphere.
At the very top of the sphere, there’s a sign that warns “This is not a jungle gym!”
I beg to differ. This is the most awesome jungle gym ever!
Of course, the sign is warning people not to climb on, or swing from, the sphere. I was more than happy to follow that rule. The entire structure wobbled with every move I made. I was pretty sure it was all safe, and yet at the same time, I could easily imagine the metal framework crumbling around me. I moved slowly and deliberately, and got the heck out of there.
For some perspective on how high I am at this point, notice the dragon below. It’s located at the peak of the roof on the great room. Highway 165 is also down there.
If you visit on weekends during the summer, you may get the chance to watch the dragon breathe fire. Jim installed an old (donated) hot-air balloon burner in its mouth!
Jim Bishop picked a nice plot of land, with an incredible view. He saved up the money for this land when he was only 15 years old, and bought 2.5 acres for just $450, in 1959.
From the sphere, you can take a look at where you’re headed next. The opposite tower looks sturdier, and is topped by four minarets and another metal sculpture.
Oh, I should mention that in addition to the second tower…
… there’s a smaller, third tower, accessible by a flimsy-feeling metal staircase that stretches through the air.
I walked over to it, and back, while feeling weak in the knees the entire time.
There’s also another bridge-like structure that looks like it was originally planned to stretch all the way over to the second tower. Instead, it ends abruptly, about halfway across, with a ladder. More on that in a moment.
This is not a place for anyone with a fear of heights. Or death.
I backtracked again to the sphere…
… and down into the great room.
Looking up from below, perhaps you can get some perspective on how high those towers are!
To get to the staircase for the other tower, you have to go outside and circle around on the balcony.
Here, you can also get a view of that “bridge” that I mentioned earlier. I’m assuming it’s a work-in-progress, although I have no idea where it’s going. For now, it just ends — and I suppose you could climb down, if you wanted to. Yeah, it’s a jungle gym.
Watch your step as you arrive at the next staircase. Some of the floor is missing. No big deal.
There are metal stairs…
… and stone stairs, all leading to this:
The pyramid at the top of the tallest tower provides yet another opportunity to go somewhere that common sense tells you not to go. I climbed all the way up that spiral…
… until there was nowhere else to go. This is the view looking down from the highest point at Bishop Castle — 160 feet in the air. Notice the minarets are far below my feet.
Never mind that bare electrical wiring.
At the end of the adventure, the gift shop is waiting for you.
Jim’s wife Phoebe established the gift shop to help fund the castle’s construction. It’s now run by someone else, but it still helps pay the castle’s bills.
I should mention that I chose to drive Route 165 — the Frontier Pathways Byway — purely for the scenery. I had no idea Bishop Castle was there. And in early October, there was still a good bit of fall color to enjoy along this route. At this spot (south of Bishop Castle), you’re looking down on the flat, eastern half of Colorado from the top of the mountain, with a picture-worthy barn down the hill from the road.
Colorado 165 ends at another scenic road, Highway 96. It cuts east-west, connecting Pueblo with Westcliffe. At the intersection, directly in front of you, you can see Hardscrabble Mountain in the Wet Mountains of the Sangre de Cristo range.
The Bottom Line
The scenery alone makes it worth the drive on Highway 165. A visit to Bishop Castle makes it even better. If you’re not afraid of heights, plan to spend a couple of hours here, climbing around and experiencing this unique creation, built by just one man.
Bishop Castle is about 50 miles from Pueblo, plus or minus a mile or two, depending on the route you choose. It’s slightly shorter to drive south on I-25, then north on Colorado 165. Alternatively, you can drive west on Colorado 96, and then south on Colorado 165.
Since I was coming from the south, I chose to drive the entire length of Colorado 165, from south to north, just for the scenery.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive on Highway 165 and 96 to Bishop Castle: