The craziest castle in Colorado: Bishop's vision is a work in progress

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SAN ISABEL NATIONAL, FOREST, Colo. -- If not for a dozen cars pulled to the side of this scenic mountain highway, it would be easy to zoom past Bishop Castle, a little slice of "Lord of the Rings" -- or maybe "Mad Max" -- in the Rockies.

Rob Owen, Post-Gazette photos
Signs at Bishop Castle ask visitors to sign the guest book as a release of liability. "It would be a good idea if I had insurance," Jim Bishop acknowledged, "but there ain't no insurance company that will insure an open construction site."
Click photo for larger image.

Bishop Castle

Hours: Open daily, year-round, during daylight hours only. Free admission, but donations are requested.

Directions: Located 90 minutes from Colorado Springs, 2 1/2 hours from Denver. From Colorado's I-25, take the Colorado City exit. Head northwest on Highway 165 for 24 miles into the mountains. Additional directions are available at under "Visiting the Castle."

Details: 1-719-485-3040.

Less than an hour's drive from Pueblo, Bishop Castle's tallest tower rises 160 feet from the forest floor, peeking above the tops of pine trees that shield it from a clear roadside view.

Made of native stone that castle builder Jim Bishop extracted (by permit) from adjacent national forest land, the castle features intricate wrought-iron bridges and walkways that cling to its towers. Bishop Castle is decorated with stained-glass windows along its front wall; a metallic dragon's neck and head jut from the apex of the castle's great hall. The dragon, made from recycled metal hospital trays, shoots fire from its gaping maw with the aid of a burner from a hot air balloon. The castle's fireplace vents through the dragon's nose, expelling smoke from the beast's nostrils.

"Usually when people are here from out of town, you take them up that way," said Janelle Kidd of Pueblo, who visited Bishop Castle with out-of-town guests in early June.

It's unique not only because it's a medieval castle in cowboy country, but also because it was constructed by one man. When he was age 15, Mr. Bishop bought the 2 1/2 acres of land in 1959 for $1,250. The structure that started as a family cabin in June 1969 grew over 37 years into the castle visitors see today.

Fearless children clamber up its concrete steps and along the wrought-iron balconies. Their more inhibited parents move cautiously behind them, marveling at the craftsmanship of the hand-laid stone and metal work, including a basket-style lift that runs on a track from the ground up to the castle's great hall level.

Building a castle wasn't Mr. Bishop's original plan.

"My dream was to be in the mountains, hunting, fishing, climbing, having adventures with a neighborhood friend of mine," said Mr. Bishop, who's now 62 and maintains a home in Pueblo with his wife. "It was a way for me to get away from Pueblo."

Because he used stone to build the initial cabin ("We were too poor to buy conventional building materials," he said), passers-by said it resembled a castle. So he decided that's what it would be and kept going. In 1971, Mr. Bishop's father, Willard, quit the project, and Jim Bishop has done pretty much all the work since, a point of some contention.

"It is Jim, and only Jim, who has built the castle," reads the Frequently Asked Questions page at the castle's Web site, On a water tank in the oldest corner of the castle, Mr. Bishop has scrawled a note explaining that his father helped with that part only. "Jim Bishop has constr. [sic] (by hand) everything else!"

At one time Mr. Bishop allowed others to lend a hand here and there, but he had bad experiences with unskilled laborers getting in his way.

The castle's dragon, made from recycled metal hospital trays, shoots fire with the aid of a burner from a hot air balloon.
Click photo for larger image.
Visitors marvel at the castle's stained glass.
Click photo for larger image.

"I don't want to be the schoolteacher or the boss or supervisor," he said. "If I have to teach everybody how to do it, I might as well do it myself."

Mr. Bishop is well-known in Pueblo for his castle and, Ms. Kidd said, is viewed as "very eccentric when he gets going on his anti-government trip, but people just think, 'Oh, that's just Jim, that's the way he is.' He's quite a conversationalist, actually."

Indeed, Mr. Bishop said he's mastered the art of building while chatting with visitors, who will find him working on the castle weekends and four weekdays in the summer.

Admission is free, but Mr. Bishop asks visitors to make a donation to help fund construction, and he finds he receives more donations when he's on-site to chat with visitors. He acknowledged that he "gets to ranting and raving about the government" during these conversations, but he tries to mellow such talk with a few jokes.

"That's just my nature," he said.

Mr. Bishop's anti-government rants, some scrawled on large pieces of wood he displays near the castle, stem from local government's attempts to contain the castle through zoning laws. His uneasy relationship with the government is also the reason you won't find the castle mentioned in Colorado travel brochures. (He also has a beef about the need for driver's licenses.)

Other signs ask visitors to sign the guest book as a release of liability on Bishop Castle, for which he has no liability insurance.

"It would be a good idea if I had insurance," he acknowledged, "but there ain't no insurance company that will insure an open construction site."

Though the castle itself is nearly complete, Mr. Bishop continues to work. This summer he's building what he envisions as the start of a "dungeon room" that will run along the highway initially and, perhaps eventually, encircle the property.

Mr. Bishop said his son is working on an improvement for the dragon's fire-breathing apparatus, which currently throws fire six feet. The latest contraption, utilizing a new valve, could shoot fire as much as 30 feet.

Mr. Bishop's uneasy relationship with the government is why the castle goes unmentioned in Colorado travel brochures.
Click photo for larger image.
Two of the castle's towers show evidence of Mr. Bishop's winter job in his family's ornamental iron shop.
Click photo for larger image.

"Like you see at a monster truck show," Mr. Bishop said. "I've just got to make sure we don't set fire to any trees."

Mr. Bishop said the design of the castle project has been almost entirely in his head with little of it committed to paper. He built it all, he said, "with very little error and a lot of trial.

"Everything just seems to work," he said. "What's real neat about not having blueprints is that if you make a mistake, you call it art."

Mr. Bishop, who works in his family's ornamental iron shop in Pueblo the seven months a year weather keeps him from castle building, acknowledged that erecting a castle can have tragic consequences.

Mr. Bishop's 4-year-old son, Roy, died in a tree-felling accident at the castle site in 1988, a setback that he said led him to work through his tears at the castle many days. Roy's ashes will eventually be interred in one of the castle's towers that's named after him.

"In the early years, I had a real zeal for what I did, and my family done without," Mr. Bishop said. "I wasn't a very good father for that. That's changed. I'm spending more time with the family. I just go day by day. I don't plan too much ahead. It used to be if I didn't get so much done, I was fit to be tied."

After he's gone, Mr. Bishop hopes his castle will live on, and that his children and grandchildren will pick up where he leaves off, offering tours and continuing to make the castle a tourist destination.

"Tourism is big money and a good way to have a livelihood," Mr. Bishop said by phone last month from his Pueblo home. "The future is bright up there if they've got any sense."

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582.


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