Colorado is home to hundreds of ghost towns, most of them early mining towns where eager prospectors dreamed of hitting the mother lode, whether the mine produced gold, silver or lead.
Walk through these places today and free your imagination. You can “see’’ the weathered faces of miners, anticipate their excitement at the assay office or hear them ordering a beverage at the local saloon.
It’s a great time of year to connect with the past and the present and learn about ghost towns, which have little to do with ghosts but are living history museums with visible reminders of the yesteryear – old buildings, mines, railroad tracks and artifacts.
UCHealth Today picked some of the must-see towns in Colorado, knowing they’ll trigger appreciation for the rugged souls who first put Colorado on the map.
Located 20 miles south of Buena Vista in Chaffee County, St. Elmo is perhaps Colorado’s most well-known ghost town and one of the most well-preserved mining towns in the American West.
Established in 1880 for silver miners looking for precious metal in Chalk Creek, the area once had at least 50 active gold, silver and lead mines. The arrival in December 1880 of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad helped drive commerce and tourism.
Today, several wooden structures and residences remain, giving visitors a glimpse of what it was like to live in a mining town in the late 1800s. It’s not far from Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort and is accessible by car. The drive along Chalk Creek and through stands of aspen and pine trees is quintessential Colorado. Gorgeous.
More than a century ago, 2,000 hearty souls lived in the town at an elevation of 9,600 feet, which included a telegraph office, general store, town hall, school, saloon and hotels. A general store still operates today.
The Buena Vista Heritage and State Historical Fund are both devoted to preserving the town, listed in 1979 as a national historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors to St. Elmo enjoy feeding the ever-present chipmunks that dart across wooden sidewalks and dirt roads and climb the old wooden buildings. Sunflower seeds sell for 50 cents at the general store. Young and old alike revel in the fun, and the area is also a mecca for four-wheeler enthusiasts and anglers.
Historic St. Elmo and Chalk Creek Canyon, Inc. work to fundraise for the preservation of the 140-year-old town. The Colorado State Historical Fund has issued several grants for the preservation of the town.
About 70 miles northeast of Denver, Dearfield was established in 1910 by Oliver Toussaint Jackson and was the largest Black homesteading settlement in Colorado.
According to the National Park Service, 19 settlers trekked to Dearfield in 1911. One of those early settlers was James Monroe Thomas. Some of the settlers lived in dugouts and burned cow chips for fuel. By 1915, Dearfield had 44 wooden cabins on homestead claims.
An industrious town, by 1918, Dearfield harvested a crop of oats, barley, alfalfa, corn, beans, potatoes, sugar beets, watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, and squash that netted about $50,000 – an estimated $1.1 million in today’s dollars.
The town attracted more businesses, including a concrete block manufacturer, lumber and coal yard, boarding house, store and hotel.
The community’s cultural life grew as well. Two churches provided regular services. O.T. Jackson built the Dearfield Lunchroom, which became a place for residents to gather. Residents opened a school, and the community hosted an annual festival and carnival. The town attracted prominent speakers, including Colorado Governor George Carlson, according to the National Park Service.
After World War I, life in Dearfield became more difficult. The relatively wet 1910s gave way to the drier 1920s and extreme drought in the 1930s. Prices for crops collapsed, and fewer new settlers arrived. The Dust Bowl forced most Dearfield homesteaders to seek work in the city.
Jackson tried rebranding Dearfield as a “Valley Resort” for African Americans from Denver. He later offered to sell Dearfield to the federal government for use as an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Both plans failed, and most of the town was torn down.
A few deserted buildings remain in Dearfield: a gas station, a diner, and the founder’s home. In 1995, the town was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A 2010 monument next to one of the remaining buildings contains information about the history of the site.
Between Leadville and Buena Vista on U.S. Highway 24 lies Vicksburg.
Like other towns in the Rockies, the lure of mining silver attracted prospectors to Vicksburg. Later, the discovery of gold and lead kept miners in the area.
By 1880, more than 40 buildings stood in Vicksburg: a schoolhouse, blacksmith, hotels, boarding house, assay office, billiard hall and a livery stable. A stagecoach made daily trips between Granite and Vicksburg.
In its heyday, Vicksburg had as many as 700 residents. The town was founded by accident. Prospectors from Leadville lost their burros. Turns out, the animals wandered into Clear Creek Canyon. When the miners found their animals, they discovered gold in the creek bed.
Vicksburg was added to the National Register of Historic Places in March 1977. It is currently home to a dozen buildings and a main street lined with balsam poplar trees planted by miners more than a century ago. Irrigation ditches dug by the miners still deliver water to the trees.
The Missouri Gulch Trail is a popular hiking spot. Along the trail, you’ll pass along the graves of several Vicksburg residents who are buried there.
If you drive farther up the canyon, you’ll come to Winfield, another ghost town high in the Rockies.
Arrow, originally called Arrowhead, is one of the few ghost towns in Colorado that isn’t a former mining town.
Located at the top of Rollins Pass, Arrow was once a railroad and lumber camp and home to thousands of people until it burned to the ground in 1920.
To get there, drive U.S. Highway 40 through Winter Park and take the exit for Forest Road 80. Head north on Forest Road 80, also called Corona Pass Road, and continue going right to stay on USFS 80 until you arrive in the town.
Incorporated as a municipality in 1904, Arrow had around 11 saloons, several hotels and restaurants, a couple of general stores and a school. Additionally, there were four sawmills, a stockyard, and a large log train station. The main street consisted of two-story false-front buildings. Also, the very first gaslights in Grand County illuminated the business district at night, according to a June 2017 article in the Winter Park Times.
Today, only a lone nearby gravesite gives an indication that the town once existed, the newspaper reported. Though not much is left of the town, enthusiasts with metal detectors have found a few artifacts there.
Located near Nederland in Boulder County, Caribou is a former mining town named after the nearby Caribou Silver Mine.
In 1861, a prospector discovered placer gold downstream. The prospector followed the gold on Coon Trail Creek and discovered the first silver vein in what later became the Caribou district.
The town, which had a church, three saloons, a brewery and the Caribou Post newspaper, was established in 1870. A year later, the Caribou Mine was sold to investors for $3 million, but the new owners found that the best ore had already been removed.
At its peak in 1875, Caribou’s population was estimated to be about 3,000 people, but the mine was struggling. A fire in 1879 burned down the town. By the 1920s, fewer than 50 people lived there.
To get to Caribou, take County Road 128 west out of Nederland. Follow for 4.7 miles until you reach the town site.
Caribou Ranch, a famous music recording study, is along the way to the former town. The music studio recorded musical icons, including Elton John, Chicago, the Beach Boys, Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Joel, Chad & Jeremy, Frank Zappa and Amy Grant.