For a chance to strike it rich in gold and silver, Colorado’s early prospectors grew fixed on taming its wildest canyons, where they carved rail corridors into mountains and constructed stage roads that lured eager new arrivals pursuing “Pikes Peak or Bust.”
But not every vein led to riches, and many new arrivals went “bust.”
When claims went dry – yielding meager returns dwarfed by the effort of extracting, refining and transporting them – mining camps, tunnels and entire towns were abandoned, left to weather in the unforgiving elements of the Rocky Mountains on their inevitable return to wilderness.
For today’s explorers, Colorado’s ghost towns are places of mystery that add elements of history and adventure to any hike, drive or backpacking trip, while inviting visitors to learn more.
LULU CITY, Rocky Mountain National Park
Founded in 1879 on rumors of rich veins of silver, Lulu City enjoyed four years of high times with a population that peaked at 200.
By the mid-1880s, it grew clear that the low-grade silver ore retrieved by the miners wouldn’t offset the expense of transporting it, and the town was abandoned, leaving orderly rows of cabins. Outcasts went on to found Dutchtown in the Never Summer Mountains.
Today all that remains are foundations, a few logs and a plaque in a lonely, scenic canyon within Rocky Mountain National Park.
To get there: From Grand Lake, drive north on U.S. 34 about 2 miles to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance station. From there, drive another 9.5 miles to the Colorado River trailhead and park on the west side of the road. Restrooms are available at the trailhead, but no water. The hike to Lulu City is about 7.5 miles round trip.
CRYSTAL, near Marble
By the mid-1880s, the mining community of Crystal boasted a population of 400, with two newspapers, two hotels, saloons, a billiards parlor, a barber shop and the men-only Crystal Club, a booming backwoods refuge fueled by seven working silver mines, according to “Ghost Towns of the Mountain West” by Philip Varney.
The 1893 silver crash nearly emptied the town, and by 1915 just 15 residents remained.
A dozen old cabins are the only sign of those days, including the Crystal Club, a log building with lumber facade.
To get there: Crystal is 5.9 miles east of Marble on Forest Road 314. A four-wheel drive vehicle and considerable experience on rough roads are required. Consider a hike or bike ride in.
CARSON, near Lake City
Silver outpaced gold 100 to 1 when this abandoned mining town was in its heyday, supporting 150 separate claims until the silver market cratered in 1893. By 1902, The Gunnison Times reported, “Carson with its many promising properties is practically abandoned.”
Today, Carson is a haunting site in a place of rare beauty, with seven historic buildings, some made of hewn logs, some of cut lumber.
To get there: From Lake City, head southeast on Colorado Highway 149 for 2.3 miles to Road 30. Take Road 30 for 9 miles to Wager Bulch Road (Road 36), which heads south. The 3.6 miles to Carson require four-wheel drive.
GHOST TOWN HOLLOW, Pikes Peak
Located in a shadow-filled gulch beneath Pikes Peak, this litter-strewn former mining camp will give visitors a new appreciation for the hardships endured by its residents.
The tumbledown log shelters, surrounded by rusted cans and barrels, are covered in snow until midsummer.
The cliffs a few hundred yards up the trail hide the miners’ former worksite: Oil Creek Tunnel, a now-blocked miners’ access reaching some 1,600 feet inside Pikes Peak, the legacy of a fruitless attempt to extract gold from within the mountain.
To get there: Ghost Town Hollow can be reached in a variety of ways, but the shortest route involves a shuttle up the Pikes Peak Highway to the Elk Park Trail cutoff, followed by a roughly 5 mile round-trip hike. From Elk Park, hikers descend a couple of miles on Elk Park Trail before reaching a sign directing them onto the path to this ghostly site.
ST. ELMO, west of Buena Vista
Perhaps the state’s best-preserved ghost town, St. Elmo sits at 10,000 feet in the Collegiate Peaks west of Buena Vista.
The main street looks much like it must have in the 1880s, when the town was a thriving mining hub with 2,000 residents. Two restored buildings, Pawnee Mill’s livery stable and its blacksmith shop, are among 40 antique structures that remain.
To get there: From Buena Vista, drive south about 8.5 miles to Nathrop on U.S. 285. A quarter-mile south of Nathrop find Road 162 and take it west for 15.4 miles to St. Elmo. The drive is suitable for most passenger vehicles.