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Places: Bishop Castle

By Elliott Jackson

I’ve only visited Bishop Castle a couple times in waking life, but in my dreams I have found myself wandering round it more than once, like an addled ghost looking for the Mortal Coil’s exit sign. One time, the dragon’s head which adorns the Castle’s topmost battlements came to life as an actual dragon that I had to escape. Another time, spies had chased me there for some unfathomable reason, and I had to try to ditch them by running up and down the spindly iron staircases within the turrets, and climbing higher and higher on the frail-looking iron walkways round the outside, till at length I was hanging from a spire like a brachiating gibbon. (Even in my dreams, I find myself thinking, “this is a hell of a place to discover you have vertigo.”)

On my most recent visit, therefore, I found myself almost surprised when confronted with the sheer amount of stone there is in the place – about 48,000 tons in its 160-foot height – because in my dream life the Castle looks much more like a medieval Eiffel Tower: the spidery webs of ironwork all around the real thing, which seemingly defy gravity as well as the elements, had become a short-hand in dream time for the whole structure.

The story of Jim Bishop’s quixotic 60-year quest to build his castle has elements both of high comedy and tragedy: a grand obsession, fueled by can-do spirit and cranky libertarianism. What struck me as I walked around the place this time was how peculiarly American this roadside attraction is. Europe has its share of castles and cathedrals, but they were financed by kings and nobility, and built by teams of highly-skilled craftsmen, specialists in their fields. This commoner’s castle was built by one man, a literal embodiment of the old homily, “a man’s home is his castle.” The stained-glass windows of the third-story “great hall” feature not ascetic saints or the stations of the cross, but Betty Boop with angel wings, Elvis wielding a guitar, a wizard, or a Pepsi logo.

[InContentAdTwo] Along the way, a frustration with the bureaucracies that Bishop saw as hindering his efforts (the Forest Service, the IRS, Custer County’s building department) hardened into the anti-government populist stance emblazoned on hand-lettered signs around the property: “Fire Bans Strip Rights!” reads one. Another rails against driver’s licenses as an unwarranted infringement on the “right to travel.” It all speaks to a peculiarly American individualism, where the rule of laws intended to promote community well-being are seen as outrageous – and therefore unacceptable – infringements on individual liberties.

In the end, though, Bishop appears to have enjoyed the last laugh: in the spirit of “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em,” the various governmental institutions that seemed intent on shutting the project down have largely given up. Bishop Castle is a bona-fide tourist attraction now, boasting some 50,000 visitors a year from all over the country and the world.

There’s even a gift shop, which my friend and I browsed toward the end of our trip. As I perused the polished stones, jewelry, dream catchers, t-shirts and other memorabilia I saw on display, my ear was caught by an exasperated, weary voice. I recognized that tone: a mother frazzled near unto death by the toll of running round after her darling tot, making sure he didn’t plunge down a dizzyingly narrow staircase or out a turret window. (Bishop Castle, as one of the hand-lettered signs reminds us, is very much a “proceed at your own risk” sort of attraction.) “No,” the voice said. “I can’t let you have a blow gun right now, no.”

Blow gun? I thought. Sure enough, there is a lively selection of weapons of individual destruction on hand, from wooden swords and slingshots to very real knives. Perfect for storming the castle, or holding off spies and dragons on the battlements.


The Castle is free and open to the public year-round, though donations are requested. Take State Highway 96 East or West to State Highway 165. The castle is located between the towns of Rye and San Isabel in Custer County, CO. You can park your car along either side of the highway, but be sure to lock up, as robberies from unlocked cars have occurred in the past. You can take dogs onto the grounds, as long as they are leashed. The grounds are surrounded by National Forest. For more information, visit the Castle website at