It's like something out of a dream... or a nightmare, depending on how you look at it...
Driving down an obscure road, winding like a snake in the grass through the Colorado mountains, its towers rise above the trees, capped by gold mosque-style minarets that catch the sun. Like a Gothic castle out of Game of Thrones, it's nestled among the pines and aspen trees on the mountain side. An empty moat stretches out in front, and a gatehouse and drawbridge stand open to greet visitors.
Since mid-February, the kids have been hinting that they want to go back to Bishop Castle. Finally here, they run under the iron gate and across the bridge, paying no attention to the silver-headed dragon that emerges over the castle walls. This dragon (with the help of a hot air balloon burner and two redirected chimneys) actually breathes fire!
Hiking up the eroded mountainside, the castle walls loom before us like a sleeping stone giant, at once both threatening and enticing. Legend has it that a ghost wanders these halls at night, slipping through the rock walls and keeping watch from the towers high above. A vapor in the form of a small child with the voice of a man, he disappears like a wisp of smoke into the cool mountain air. He draws us in. Beckoning in the softest whisper, "Come in. If you dare." Or perhaps that's just the wind, moaning through the open windows.
But where rumors of ghosts are concerned, it's always a good idea to start at the beginning. So let me take you back 45 years, when a man by the name of J. Bishop began collecting the pink granite rock, carving out a hillside, and building the foundation of a cabin. As the cabin grew, passers-by began asking if he was building a castle. He soon decided that's exactly what he'd do. By hand, stone by stone, without a single blueprint or plan, the castle began to come to life.
With no formal training, a high-school drop out, he worked as a welder and used his skills to create the ornate iron scroll-work which runs through the halls and supports a hodgepodge of stairs, bridges and balconies that hold the castle together. The lumber came from trees on the property, and it was while he was clearing some trees back in the late 80's that Mr. Bishop's young son was killed near the castle. Is it his ghost - this child-like apparition - that roams the halls and climbs the north tower, the one which is named in his honor?
The ground floor is cool, dark, musty and quiet. Pad-locked iron cell bars keep Mr. Bishop's tools safe from marauding tourists. Dark stone staircases are tucked into the blackest corners. Ascending one of these staircases we emerge into the eerie light of a second floor surrounded by a dizzying array of stained glass windows. Many of the panes are broken and shards of glass litter the wooden plank floor, but no matter, this level is a magical maze of iron, glass, and stone. Cool air seeps through the gaps in the floor boards, adding a surreal element of cool and warm to the labyrinth. I can't decide whether to wear my sweater or tie it around my waist. This level is, above all, confusing. From here, three interior staircases of stone and iron spiral up to the next level.
We step from the dark stairwell into the light of, what Mr. Bishop calls, the Grand Ballroom. Soaring wood beams support a massive glass ceiling. Two elephantine fireplaces sit across from each other. It's their chimneys that direct smoke through the dragon's nostrils. An iron balcony, with mesh flooring (disconcertingly see-through, I might add), stretches around the castle.
Feeling adventurous, I leave the kids to play with their grandpa in the ballroom, and begin climbing the towers. The first is topped by an open-air observatory, surrounded by a skeletal orb of iron bars. It sways in the wind and with the motion of the people on the stairs below. Climbing back down to the ballroom, I check on the kids. Then head up the taller tower. It's more narrow than the first, and so dark I can barely see the stone stairs. Climbing higher, the stairs turn to iron and light shines in from gaping, open windows that encircle the tower. Higher and higher still, and the tower walls fall away, leaving me with just the iron frame of a steeple that reaches into the clouds. I cling to the frame like a spider in a web. There's no handrail, and I find myself climbing on all fours. At the top there's a tiny platform just barely wide enough to kneel on, and I'm far to scared to stand. I snap a few shaky pictures of the panorama - just to prove I made it. If I could breathe, the view would have been breathtaking.
I head back down quickly, trying to avoid a misstep that would send me tumbling down the stairs and through one of the open windows, onto the glass roof 100 feet below. I'm struck by the sudden fear that if something happens to me here, my kid's will be left motherless, and that thought alone is more terrifying than even the vast height of the treacherous tower. It's tradition to ring a large church bell on the way down if you've made it to the top. I feebly push it and it barely makes a sound. Oh well. One of the draws of Bishop Castle is the immediate camaraderie between perfect strangers as we both marvel at how dangerous our surroundings really are. It's certainly an unusual connection, and a bizarre feeling, to say the least.
The kids we're happily slaying a dragon (grandpa) on the castle grounds when I finally made it to the ground, and by now my mind and my stomach were both screaming "food," so we headed down the road to Lake Isabelle, in the green valley below the castle.
I knew that after climbing and exploring the kids would be famished and packed a picnic accordingly. I made a batch of Sweet and Spicy Picnic Chicken the night before. Forget the sandwiches, there's something romantically old-fashioned about packing cold chicken for a picnic. With it I served a hearty, picnic-friendly fresh mushroom salad. I say picnic-friendly because it's super easy to throw together, doesn't need to stay very cold, and the mushrooms only get better the longer they marinate. And of course a summery, light red wine, served slightly chilled. Earthy and natural, we could almost imagine that we'd foraged the meal from the forest earlier in the day.
If the castle wasn't idyllic enough, we found a shady spot next to a clean, clear alpine stream that was. The icy temperature of water didn't keep the kids from playing in it and knowing that it was freshly melted snow from the glaciers above put the mom in me at ease. The stream spilled into the clear lake, and after all his hours of dragon slaying, Connor was convinced that the Loch Isabelle Monster inhabited this lake. We spent hours trying to spot it. Eve would have been happy simply spotting a fairy among the wildflowers.
With their tummies full and their imaginations even fuller, they drifted off in the back seat of the car. I knew their dreams were alive with magical lands, mythical creatures, far away kingdom and fairy tales. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
Bishop Castle is located along Colorado State Rd. 165, a few miles north of Lake Isabelle. It's free and open to the public 365 days a year. Donations are encouraged. Enter at your own risk! You'll most likely find Mr. Bishop working away, followed by his brown Cocker Spaniel, Bessie.
Sweet and Spicy Picnic Chicken
10 chicken legs
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp chili powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp dry mustard
black pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 350 F (180C). In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, salt, chili powder, garlic powder mustard, and black pepper.
Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Place in a shallow roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil. Rub the spice mixture even over the chicken. Bake for 60 - 65 minutes, until a meat thermometer registers 180 F.
Cool at room temperature for a few minutes. Pack in a picnic ready dish and refrigerate. Be sure to keep cold until you're ready to serve.
Fresh Mushroom & Herb Salad
14 - 16 white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/4 of a red onion, minced
1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1/8 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
black pepper, to taste
freshly grated Parmesan
Place the onion in a small bowl with the vinegar and let sit while you prepare the rest of the salad. Place the sliced mushrooms and herbs in a large serving bowl. Add the oil, salt, sugar, and black pepper to the onions and stir well. Pour the dressing over the mushrooms. Add the cheese and toss. Let sit in the refrigerator or cooler for a few hours before serving.