Here, we highlight a handful of specialty museums that you can schedule in among the basics to yield a well-rounded experience of the Pikes Peak region. Plus, they’re either free or quite affordable.
May Natural History Museum710 Rock Creek Canyon Road, coloradospringsbugmuseum.com
Drive south on Colorado Highway 115 and turn right at the giant Hercules beetle to discover a fascinating museum of creepy crawlies. This family-operated entity displays 7,000 insect and arachnid specimens from all over the planet. Butterflies, stick insects, beetles — you name it, they have it. Highlights include the butterfly life cycle, a tarantula chowing down on a hummingbird, and the biggest beetle in the world displayed next to the smallest.
As the story goes, in the late 19th century, an Englishman named Edward May took his family to Brazil, where he collected insect specimens for the British Museum. His son James became fascinated by insects, and after his father’s death from malaria he went on to build his own massive collection from around the world. James’ son John, possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit, turned his father’s collection into a money-maker with a traveling exhibit that operated through the 1950s. Attracted to Colorado’s dry climate and central location, the family bought their first parcel of land here during World War II, opening the museum in 1952.
“Colorado is perfect because the dry climate helps preserve the collection —and the fact that we have fewer dermestids, or microscopic bugs that would eat the specimens,” said Diana Fruh, tour guide and John May’s granddaughter.
Beyond its array of insects and arachnids, the museum features artifacts from the life of the bug-collecting May family — original tins and setting instruments and news clippings from the traveling show — along with wonderfully old-fashioned displays and lighting. Open May 1 through Oct. 1 (groups of 10 or more are welcome by appointment during the winter months); admission is $7/adults, $6/seniors, $5/kids 6-12, 5 and younger/free. The family also runs a campground and hiking area.
McAllister House Museum
- Matthew Schniper
- The McAllister House Museum — a piece of living local history
Henry McAllister and William Jackson Palmer were both born in Delaware, raised as Quakers, and lived in or near Philadelphia. And as a Union Army major, McAllister served in the Civil War in the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry under Gen. Palmer. Following the war, McAllister became president of Palmer’s National Land and Improvement Company in Philadelphia, ultimately moving to Fountain Colony (Colorado Springs) in 1872 to promote the new town, sell plots of land, and oversee the planting of 5,000 cottonwood trees along the dusty prairie streets. McAllister’s English-style home — built in 1873 in the Downing Gothic Cottage style — was constructed with double layers of brick so he could protect his investment from the area’s fearsome winds.
McAllister and his wife Elizabeth raised their family in the house, and Henry lived a life dedicated to civic service, including election in 1877 to the Executive Committee of the Colorado Women’s Suffrage Association (the year Colorado held a referendum for full women’s suffrage; it was defeated). McAllister died in 1921, and the family sold the house in 1958.
There were plans to tear it down to make way for a parking lot, but the National Society of Colonial Dames of America sought funds to buy and furnish it, and opened the museum in 1961; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The rooms inside include a parlor, study, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and an attic. Highlights include a mirror that belonged to Abraham Lincoln, historic photos of Colorado Springs, and knowledgeable and engaging tour guides who tell colorful stories of the house’s life and times. Admission is $5/adults with reduced fees for seniors and kids; tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday; check online for seasonal hours.
Penrose Heritage Museum11 Lake Circle, tinyurl.com/Penrose-Heritage
Admission is free (parking is validated for the adjacent Broadmoor garage) and includes three exhibits: the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Experience, the Carriage Collection, and displays of Western and Native American artifacts.
Spencer Penrose, a local businessman and entrepreneur, spearheaded construction of the dirt-surfaced Pikes Peak Highway in 1915, inaugurating the grueling annual motor race in 1916. The “Race to the Clouds” starts at 9,390 feet and ends at the 14,115-foot summit, covering 12.42 miles with 156 turns. The museum’s Hill Climb Experience displays historic and modern Hill Climb race vehicles, pays tribute to the drivers’ amazing feats, and shares the heart-pounding thrill of the race through a video simulation from the driver’s perspective. One of the highlights is the crushed Mitsubishi Evo driven in 2012 by Jeremy Foley and his co-driver Yuri Kouznetsov. They missed the turn at Devil’s Playground and cartwheeled down the mountain, engine parts, body panels and wheels flying in all directions — but walked away with just minor injuries.
The Carriage Collection includes 14 motorized vehicles and over 30 horse-drawn carriages, including a circa 1895 Abbot-Downing touring coach that belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody and Julie Penrose’s 1928 Cadillac limousine. The third exhibit displays Native American artifacts, antique firearms and more items from Spencer Penrose’s life and travels.
“The Penroses were an incredible couple. They bought and collected things for the purpose of preserving the time,” said assistant curator Bill MacEnulty.
Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway
- Matthew Schniper
- Railway enthusiasts preserve the history of trolleys and trains.
Horse-drawn and electric trolley systems were the preferred mode of transportation in Colorado Springs and Manitou from 1887 to 1932. The rails carried working folk from point to point, and families could take a Sunday ride on the Colorado Springs & Interurban Railway to Cheyenne Cañon for a picnic. The CS&IR, founded in 1901 by gold prospector and city philanthropist Winfield Scott Stratton, had its best year in 1911, after which automobile ownership caused ridership to drop. But a loyal group of railway enthusiasts, the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation, has worked to preserve the history of street railway travel as well as the rolling stock that was so much a part of U.S. urban and rail history.
The museum, which sits on the former site of the Rock Island Railroad roundhouse, features historic rail cars, trolley cars and a working restoration shop; model trains and photos; and information on the Rock Island Railroad line. You can visit Wednesday to Saturday; tickets for adults are $5, with discounts for children and seniors.
Williams Fire Museum375 Printers Parkway, williamsfiremuseum.com
Dr. Lester L. Williams was a Colorado Springs urologist who was interested in firefighting and firefighter safety, and in 1953 he joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department as their volunteer physician. It is his collection of firefighting memorabilia — much of it donated by former Springs firefighters and their family members — that is now on display at the museum that bears his name. There are vintage vehicles, including an 1896 horse-drawn combination hose wagon and a 1945 American LeFrance pumper, plus loads of historic photos. Displays of breathing masks, helmets and hoses show advances in firefighting innovation and tell the stories of famous local conflagrations, including the Antlers Hotel fire of 1898 and 2012’s Waldo Canyon Fire.
The museum, which has found a home at the Colorado Springs Fire Operations Center, is open Monday through Friday and weekends by appointment, and it has a small bookstore where you can buy your kid a fire hat or patch. While you’re in the area, be sure to visit the International Association of Fire Fighters Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial (1315 E. Pikes Peak Ave., tinyurl.com/IAFF-CS-memorial) that honors firefighters, emergency medical personnel and paramedics from Canada and the United States who died in the line of duty.