Colorado ghost towns offer a peek in the foggy windows of a once-rowdy brothel, an ATV trek on roads no one bothered to pave on their way out of town and stories of intense standoffs in gulches will remind you why this was the Wild West.
Colorado’s mining boom put the state on the map as one of the most lucrative places to be in the late 1800s. Promises of riches brought gold-starry-eyed workers in by the droves as newcomers quickly assembled towns near medal-laden landscapes on grassy meadows and rocky hillsides.
Some of these towns, like Breckenridge, Leadville and Idaho Springs, remain some of Colorado’s top destinations, while the not so lucky faded into shadows of their hopeful former selves. Visiting eerily quiet ghost towns revives Colorado’s boom time as modern-day adventurers wander through abandoned streets once teeming with rambunctious saloons, outlaw showdowns and a lucrative industry that bolstered — and built — the West.
Here are a few of the state's most accessible ghost towns where there are still buildings to see. Be careful. Many of the abandoned buildings are unsafe to enter, and many are privately owned or protected by a local or state historical society. Taking souvenirs is strictly prohibited. Take all the photos you like, though.
Independence sits close to 11,000 feet on Independence Pass, a steep and nail-biting passage for stagecoach travelers headed to or from Leadville and Aspen in the 1800s. Just off Highway 82, the Aspen Historical Society gives tours of the short-lived town that was deserted by miners via wooden skis made from cabins in 1899.
St. Elmo & Tin Cup
West of Buena Vista, St. Elmo is one of Colorado’s best-preserved ghost towns. With wooden storefronts and a dusty main street, it looks straight out of a John Wayne movie. You can get to St. Elmo in a regular car, but after you explore a bit, rent ATVs at the general store and make your way to the nearby infamous town of Tin Cup. One of the more rowdy towns, sheriffs didn't last very long here, and you can see echoes of their sorry fates lingering at the town cemetery.
Vicksburg & Winfield
North of Buena Vista you’ll find the tree-lined streets of Vicksburg, located in a steep clear-creek canyon. A little farther on this scenic route, you'll come to Winfield, where not much remains but the ghosts of disappointed miners. This flash in the pan went boom and bust in only three years.
Visitors to Carson often think they’re the first to discover the high-altitude town when they see its undisturbed buildings and remote, tricky-to-get-to location near the Continental Divide (from this point, rivers east of the divide flow to the Gulf of Mexico; those west flow to the Pacific Ocean). In addition to its harsh winters, Carson was also unpopular with miners because of its inaccessibility; it sits at nearly 12,000 feet. The best way to get to Carson is from Lake City on Wager Gulch Trail (via 4x4, bike or hike). Continue to the Pacific side of the divide and you’ll find the sister ghost town of Old Carson.
Once home to two newspapers (even Denver only has one!), 20 saloons, a school and many private homes, Ashcroft faded before the turn of the century. Only 10 miles from Aspen, take a guided tour of a dozen or so buildings preserved by the Aspen Historical Society, including the jail, livery stable and a couple saloons.
Plagued by avalanches, the staple feature in Animas Forks is the huge bay window in the two-story Duncan House. Local lore has it the mining heiress and owner of the Hope Diamond, Evalyn Walsh, wrote her biography here. Four-wheel drive is the best way to reach Animas Forks, or you can rent an ATV in nearby Silverton or Lake City.
Southeast of Walden in Colorado's North Park area, Teller City was a silver-mining camp set amid dense forests. The town was booming in the early 1880s with hundreds of log cabins and nearly 30 saloons, but was busted and ghostly by 1902. Today, there's a three-quarter-mile loop trail that guides visitors through the scattered cabin remains and artifacts, as well as the surrounding peaceful scenery.
On the way to Tomboy you’ll pass through “Social Tunnel,” the supposed place where single women met their Tomboy Mine men for, well, social time (you get the idea). Local outfitters offer Jeep tours, but mountain biking into Tomboy from Telluride is a rewarding pursuit — even if there’s no social time along the way.
The incredibly productive Portland Mine was the reason this town came to exist in the late 1800s, but unlike nearby Victor and Cripple Creek, it didn't survive the final bust. A union town with 3,000 citizens at its peak, it relied on the mine for jobs. Today, only remains of a few buildings can be seen, but very easily — right from the highway (County Road 81, about a mile north of Victor) that goes by it.
Ohio City & Pitkin
Several prime ghost towns lie northeast of Gunnison. From town, take U.S. 50 east to Parlin, where you'll take Quartz Creek Road north. First you'll come to Ohio City, where a few folks still live. It went boom and bust several times. Of the many remaining buildings, you'll find a city hall and a number of private homes.
Pitkin, established as a mining camp in the 1870s, has one of the largest collections of still-standing buildings of any ghost town in the state. Some folks even have turned some of the old houses into summer cabins. A church, store and a number of private homes make a picturesque photo for visitors. But don't trespass; many of these are privately owned.
Fifteen minutes west of La Veta between Walsenburg and Fort Garland, Uptop is a town that is ghostly, but not deserted. A railroad depot built in 1877 now houses a museum, and there's also a chapel, tavern, quilt museum and dance hall to tell the stories of this Sangre de Cristo mountain hideaway. You can even rent Uptop's cabins for hunting trips or just exploring this historic and scenic area.
The only all-black settlement in Colorado was situated on the eastern plains in the town of Dearfield, east of Greeley. More than 700 African Americans settled here in the early 1900s, but the town died during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. Three buildings still stand: a gas station, a diner and the founder's home. Long neglected, attempts to preserve the site are now being undertaken by the Black American West Museum in Denver, with help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the History Colorado Center. To get there, take CO 34 east of Greeley about 25 miles and watch for the sign.