Visit Colorado's Ghost Towns

Colorado is a playground for the adventurous, the thrill-seekers, the lovers of all things outdoors. It's also a place for the curious, the intrepid and those looking for something a little more offbeat in their travel itinerary. For those looking for a truly unique way to see Colorado, try visiting some of its many ghost towns.

Living History:

Like California and Alaska, and other points West, Colorado experienced a massive Gold Rush starting in 1859. Other factors such as social changes, an abundance of wildlife for trade and a wild, sometimes lawless frontier beckoned settlers. Whatever brought them, many left with dashed dreams. When they left, the towns they created remained behind.

According to the State of Colorado, there are approximately 640 ghost towns with existing structures that are accessible to visitors. So, you have some options. Here are a few that you can hit over the course of a short visit that offers a great glimpse into Colorado's mining, rough-and-tumble, colorful past.

Declare Your Independence:

One of the most well preserved and most accessible ghost towns in Colorado is the town of "Independence", located just East of Aspen (about a three-hour drive West of Denver). At its height, Independence boasted an estimated population of 1,500 and over 40 businesses. When the Gold ran out, the population dwindled. Many buildings were dismantled during a massive snowstorm in 1899 when the few remaining miners used boards from the buildings as skis in an effort to get to Aspen.

However, many buildings like the Stables, the blacksmith, a hotel, bakery and some saloons survive today. Independence is one of a handful of Colorado ghost towns where you can actually get a tour. The Aspen Historical Society has preserved many of the buildings and offers tours to visitors at a maximum cost of $5 for adults.

Get Higher:

Not far from Independence, just to the South and a few thousand feet higher, sits the old silver mining town of Carson. Perched atop the Continental Divide at just over 12,000 feet, Carson isn't as well-preserved as Independence, but it's a spectacular example of what life was like in the late 1800s. While Carson was a much smaller town than Independence, (in its heyday it boasted only about 500 miners), many more buildings remain.

The views from the town are amazing, but getting there isn't easy. If you're driving out of Lake City, you'll need a four-wheel drive vehicle. Or, you could hike there or rent horses and take the trails up to the town. The town itself sits on private property today, but the town is open to the public at no fee. Life in Carson was difficult at best, and the buildings reflect the harsh winters and meager existence etched out by the miners. This town is only accessible in the summer months, but it's worth the trip.

St. Elmo's (ghostly) Fire:

Continuing South from Carson, you'll go down a few thousand feet and about an hour and a half to one of the most well-preserved ghost towns in Colorado, St. Elmo. Once called Forest City, it existed as St. Elmo from 1881 to 1922, when legend has it that the few remaining residents literally took the last train out of town, before the railroad shut down.

The founding family of the town, the Stark family, remained behind for many years, even when the railroad was torn up in 1926, in an effort to lure residents back to the once-thriving mining town. The family maintained as many buildings as they could, but eventually, they left as well, leaving behind an amazingly well-preserved town. You can wander down Main Street and look into the windows of the saloon, the hotel, private homes and the general store, which remained open to the town's final seven residents (all Stark family descendants) until 1956 when the post office finally closed down, signaling the death of the town once and for all.

A few residents still live in the area and the town is primarily maintained by the Buena Vista Heritage Museum. The general store has been restored and now operates as a visitor's center and general merchandise store during the summer and fall months.

Getting to St. Elmo is relatively easy, and can even be visited during the fall and spring, unlike Carson. The town sits just north of the modern town of Buena Vista. You can hike up to St. Elmo, or, if you don't have that kind of time, you can simply drive west about 16 miles to the town.

Legend has it that Annabelle Stark, wife of the town founder, still haunts St. Elmo, literally making it a "ghost town".

A Special Kind of Town:

The town of Dearfield is a different kind of Colorado ghost town. Unlike most other ghost towns, Dearfield didn't spring up because of mining. Instead, Dearfield was founded as a colony for African Americans in 1910. Located 30 miles East of Greeley, Colorado, Dearfield was a town of farmers and ranchers, despite the harsh terrain and difficult farming conditions.

The dustbowl and other factors slowly eroded Dearfield's population, and it became deserted not long after its founder's death in 1948. What remains is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of African American farmers in the early to mid-20th Century. Only a handful of buildings remain, including the founder's home, a diner and a gas station, but a museum and visitor center has been built on the site and the Black American West Museum in Denver is working with the Colorado Historical Society to preserve and mark the existence of Dearfield and its residents. Take a trip to the high plains of Colorado for this gem of a ghost town.

Chris Gallegos is a native of Colorado and has worked for over 20 years as a journalist covering events all across the state. He is currently working on an online magazine focusing on the Denver entertainment scene.