With abandoned mines, dusty streets and ramshackle buildings, Colorado’s ghost towns have a knack for giving visitors goosebumps.
Colorado has roughly 300 ghost towns throughout the state, mostly concentrated deep in the mountains, where miners — who had dreams of striking it rich — set up settlements, and along the Eastern Plains, explained Tom Noel, a state historian who is known as “Dr. Colorado.” Noel defined ghost towns as a place that had a post office that is now closed.
The silver crash in 1893 depleted towns of their populations, although a couple stragglers still stuck around some places. Gold mining towns were already disappearing before then, Noel said. Although the remaining gold mining towns tended to survive the crash, they still ended up dying after.
It’s certainly eerie to think of these once-booming mining towns being deserted en masse, leaving relics behind that give us tantalizing clues into the state’s Wild West past, such as the graveyards with the names of ill-fated sheriffs in one infamous ghost town.
Near Buena Vista
Take a day trip just west of Buena Vista, and you’ll discover two of Colorado’s most storied ghost towns: St. Elmo and Tin Cup. When you arrive in St. Elmo, which is 25 miles southwest of Buena Vista, you just might feel as though you’ve stepped foot into a John Wayne movie, with the dusty main street and wooden storefronts lending cinematic effects. The town was founded in 1880, and at one point, had a population of 2,000. Local lore has it that St. Elmo residents rode the last train out of town in 1922 and never turned back. While the St. Elmo General Store is shut down for the season, the town itself is open year-round.
Tin Cup is also nearby and accessed from Cottonwood Pass — and this town, in its heyday, put the wild in “Wild West.” It was known as a raucous town that ran off (and even killed off) sheriffs. The town cemetery holds this secret. If you want to spend more time in the area, consider soaking your bones in the nearby Mount Princeton Hot Springs. (You also may want to stop by the old Iron City Cemetary, which is located two miles east of St. Elmo behind the Iron City campground. Note: The campground closes for the winter season)
This poster advertised the new Dearfield community as “A Valley Resort.” (Provided by Fort Morgan Museum Collection via Fort Morgan Times)
Colorado’s ghost towns are mostly clustered in the mountains. But Dearfield, about 25 miles east of Greeley, was an all-black town on Colorado’s eastern plains. Settlers built Dearfield with the hope that it would be a place where former slaves and their children could live without racism. More than 700 people lived in Dearfield in 1920, but the town’s population dwindled during the Great Depression, and was further compounded by the Dust Bowl. By 1940, only a dozen people lived in Dearfield. A college and canning factory had been planned for the settlement. Today, a gas station, diner and founder’s home remain and preservation efforts are in the works.
Near Durango and Silverton
Get ready for a treasure hunt about 10 miles north of Silverton. You just might stumble upon remnants of decaying burlap bags mixed in the soil, containing the bounty of a miner’s ore theft, says Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Tours, which guides trips into Animas Forks. High grading (which is when miners would steal gold and silver from the mines) was an offense punishable by death, so the bags were carefully hidden, sometimes lost and abandoned, Mickel says.
Animas Forks, which was thriving by 1875, was cursed by avalanches. It’s best to reach this ghost town via four-wheel drive or by renting an ATV. The last jeep tour of the season that’s run by Mickel’s company is Oct. 27. Once there, be sure to snap a photo of the Duncan House, a still-standing building that’s two stories, which is a rarity when it comes to ghost town architecture.
Blue Mirror Saloon in Ashcroft. (Provided by Aspen Historical Society)
If you still want to squeeze that Maroon Bells hike in this fall, a quick getaway to Aspen is in order. Nearby, Ashcroft is a ghost town bidding for some attention, too. Ashcroft went from boom to bust in about five years because the silver mines that lured prospectors in 1880 turned out to be shallow deposits. At its peak, though, Ashcroft was flourishing with a population of 2,000, plus two newspapers, 20 saloons and a school.
It almost had a reprise in the 1930s when the captain of the U.S. Olympic bobsled team and a sportsman planned a European-style ski resort for the area, but World War II derailed the plans. In 1942, the 10th Mountain Division used Ashcroft for mountaineering training. Located 11 miles up Castle Creek Road, the ghost town features the restored remains of several historic buildings, including the Blue Mirror Saloon, a post office and a hotel. The season of guided tours given by the Aspen Historical Society is over, but you can visit the ghost town on your own and pay a $5 admission on an honor system.
The former general store at Independence. (Provided by Aspen Historical Society)
Want to hear a good ghost (town) story? Miners in 1899 deserted this short-lived ghost town via wooden skis they made from their cabins. A massive winter storm that cut off the supply routes prompted the mass exodus. Independence was built at 11,000 feet, perched above Independence Pass.
If you plan to visit, you’ll want to get there before the road to Independence becomes treacherous and shuts down, which is typically the beginning of November. The ghost town is located 16 miles east of Aspen on Colorado 82. Today, you’ll spot trace remains of the stables that once housed mules, burros, donkeys and horses that helped miners transport their ore as well as a building presumed to be a general store. A $5 admission donation is suggested.
Your first order of business on the way to this ghost town is to stop in Telluride for a cup of coffee at Ghost Town, a beloved and aptly named local coffee shop. Tomboy, a once productive mining town that was abandoned in 1920, is perched just above Telluride and near Imogene Pass. To get there, you’ll pass through “Social Tunnel,” which is where miners met single ladies for, let’s just say, “social time.” Intrepid types who are up for a rugged, 5-mile ride can mountain bike into Tomboy from Telluride if the weather is nice.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.