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Colorado ghost towns, plus Central City

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Did You Know … ?

  • There are more than 17,000 mining claims in southern Gilpin County, location of Central City.
  • Dearfield was an all-black town launched by more than 700 settlers in the early 1900s.
  • In 1899, with food low after heavy snows, miners deserted Independence on wooden skis made from their cabins.
  • Some 500 mines in the Cripple Creek area produced 22.4 million ounces of gold (1890-1910).
  • Ashcroft was fitted with false fronts to be a set for the 1950s TV series, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”

Haunting places

In the 19th century, gold and other strikes brought prospectors to Colorado by the thousands and sprouted mining towns by the hundreds. Settlements with more than the ore to support them when the mines played out survived, but countless towns literally disappeared. Nevertheless, sufficient numbers of ghost towns dot the countryside to create full tourist itineraries. They are often high in the mountains, set against striking, or stark, scenery infused with the haunted — and haunting — nature of abandoned spaces.

Such locations also mean the search for many ghost towns is best pursued say, between June and September, without snow underfoot and with some assurance roads will be passable.

Mountain locations also allow the active outdoorsy type to combine the ghost town hunt with hiking and mountain biking. Some towns are only accessible on foot anyway. In other cases, a 4X4 vehicle or ATV is in order, providing access to remote settlements — and a very scenic drive into the bargain.

In the empty towns, many buildings, as well as the old mines, are unsafe to enter. Others are privately owned or protected by a local or state historical society. It is prohibited to take souvenirs.

There are varying degrees of abandonment, too. Some owners use their out-of-the-way properties as private retreats; a few ghost town cabins can be rented. Occasionally, visitors will find a ghost town with a museum and other rejuvenated buildings meant for tourist viewing.

Then, there are the towns that almost became ghosts. Central City is a ghost town that wasn’t quite — although the population did take a nosedive before the city reinvented itself as a tourist destination, much helped by legalized gaming in 1991.

Other towns survived the periodic busts, but Central City is particularly successful and well known because so many of its historic buildings survive intact, including the Central City Opera House and a former hotel, the Teller House, site of the fabled painting, “Girl on the Barroom Floor.”

Other surviving mine towns, which offer glimpses of their history in downtown streets, museums and/or guided mine tours, include Aspen, Breckenridge, Cripple Creek, Idaho Springs, Lake City, Leadville, Ouray and Silverton.

Things to do for Venturers

  • At the ghost town, St. Elmo, rent an ATV to get to the less-accessible ghost town called Tin Cup. The cemetery in Tin Cup tells sad tales about the fates of the town’s sheriffs.
  • High-altitude former mining towns like Silverton sit in areas that invite the outdoor lover to the backcountry for camping and hiking.
  • Or, rent a cabin at the not-quite-empty Uptop, using this as your base for exploring the area.
  • Head to the difficult-to-access Carson (at 12,000 feet above sea level) from Lake City on Wager Gulch Trail, traveling in a 4X4, on a bike or motorcycle or by foot. Stay the route to find the sister town of Old Carson.
  • At Slumgullion Pass outside Lake City, visit the site of a massacre, meaning the spot where the infamous local, Alferd Packer, killed and ate fellow prospectors when they were trapped in a blizzard. Then, visit the Hinsdale County Museum in Lake City where the skeletal leavings are on view!
  • Rent a mountain bike for travel from Telluride to a town called Tomboy for self-guided sightseeing, or take a Jeep tour to the site.

Things to do for Centrics

  • At the abandoned Teller City, a town that once had 30 saloons, follow a three-quarter-mile loop that leads to the scattered cabin remains and other artifacts.
  • Drive the 65-mile Colorado Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway, available June through September, linking three surviving mining towns (Lake City, Ouray and Silverton) and giving access to Animas Forks, Gladstone and Ironton ghost towns. The unpaved byway calls for a 4X4 vehicle.
  • Go boating at San Cristobal Lake just outside Lake City.
  • Take a ghost tour in Central City. Then, have a drink in the Face Bar, named for the painted face on its floor (an image of the artist’s wife), in the city’s Teller House, a former hotel.
  • Take a guided tour of an old mine, starting with the Old Hundred Gold Mine near Silverton, where you see live mining demonstrations and can pan for gold. At Ouray, make that the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine, or at Cripple Creek, tour the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine. Museums supplement the experience.
  • Soak up the atmosphere and wield a camera in the historic districts in Central City and Silverton.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Take a guided tour of the Central City Opera House and the Teller House. Attend an opera, or try your luck at one of Central City’s games of chance.
  • In Uptop, see the local museum, housed in an 1877 railroad depot, as well as the town’s chapel, tavern, quilt museum and dance hall. Or, take a guided tour of Ashcroft and Independence ghost towns, offered by the Aspen Historical Society in summer, with self-guided options at other times.
  • Drive the roadways in the Central City area in August when wildflowers are in full bloom. Or, in September or October, make the drive when autumn leaves are turning to reds and yellows.
  • Soak in the natural, sulfur-free hot springs at the Ouray Hot Springs Pool.
  • Put Pitkin on the itinerary because this 1870s mining camp has one of the largest collections of extant buildings among the state’s ghost towns. Some homes are privately owned and used as summer cabins — something to bear in mind when poking around town.
  • South Park City is a restored 1880s ghost town now operated as a museum in Fairplay. Plan to visit.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Colorado Tourism at www.colorado.com