The prospect of a visit to Colorado might conjure up visions of the slopes of Aspen or the trails of the Rocky Mountains National Park (when it's open). But the Centennial State is not only for active types. The Rockies are also littered with ghost towns, reminders of the gold and silver booms of the 1880s. Some are deserted, little more than a few piles of greying planks; some are inhabited, just, surviving by hiring all-terrain vehicles to summer tourists; some struggle on, a shadow of their former selves but still working towns nonetheless. All are a taste of the old American West and a fascinating alternative – or addition – to skiing or hiking.
I began my week-long driving tour in Leadville, high in the mountains, a three-hour drive from Denver's airport. Today, the sleepy little town is home to just 7,000 people but in its heyday, 120-odd years ago, Leadville was a teeming metropolis of 40,000 or more: the richest square mile in all America. Plenty of its former glories remain and, with a squint of the eyes to block out the occasional pick-up, you can be back in an old-time world of clapboard shop-fronts, raised wooden sidewalks and grand Victorian hotels.
To get into the spirit of the place, I stayed at the Delaware, built in 1886. Its current owner, Gail Dunning, has done all she can to restore the original character of the place. The cavernous foyer is a riot of period furniture, jewellery and clothing, overlooked by moose heads and lazy ceiling fans. Nor is there any shortage of good ol' Western tales at the Delaware, from the shoot-out on the stairs that left one ruffian and one deputy dead, to modern guests' reports of cigar smoke on the top floor (the ghost of the original owner, some say), to Doc Holiday's favourite room, complete with escape route over a next-door roof.
I also dropped in at the nearby Silver Dollar saloon – still a bar, albeit slightly more salubrious than it was – and the Tabor Opera House, built in 1879 by the town's founder. Horace Tabor made untold millions as the "silver king", lost everything when the market crashed in the "silver panic" of 1893, and died destitute a few years later. But if Horace's story is a sad one, that of his young second wife, "Baby Doe" Tabor, is sadder – particularly if you hear it, as I did, at the Matchless Mine, just outside town. After Horace lost everything, the once-glamorous Baby Doe lived another three-plus decades, alone and mad, in a tiny shack next to a worthless hole in the ground. She was found there, frozen solid, in 1935; and her room, its walls thick with insulating newspaper, is just as she left it.
The Matchless is just one of hundreds of abandoned mines in the Leadville area. To get a sense of the scale of it all – and also a fix of the heart-stopping scenery – you need to get into the hills, ideally with a horse doing the work. I went to Halfmoon Packing, a stable just outside town, and, accompanied by two of its wranglers, spent a glorious four hours imagining I was Clint Eastwood.
We meandered through lush mountain meadows, navigated around the odd abandoned cabin, and rode up, up, up, through sun-dappled aspen, on to the high ridge beyond. The views were spectacular. Or as Nick, my Texan guide, laconically put it: "It's real pretty up here."
The following day, I took a 4x4 tour with local expert Roger Pretti to get my fill of the mines themselves. And there were hundreds of them – a vast and empty outdoor museum being slowly devoured by the weather. Some of the structures are still in good shape, their wooden towers an eerie leftover from another world; others are merely piles of broken lumber; others still are nothing but a scar on the landscape. Best of all, perhaps, Roger spiced up the serious history with ghost stories gleaned from old newspapers. "If you come up here at night, you can still hear them crying," he concluded soberly after one particularly ghastly tale.
From Leadville, I decamped to Twin Lakes (population 171) and checked into the Twin Lakes Inn, once a way-station and brothel, now a tiny guest house with views over the water to the snowy peaks beyond.
Barely an hour's easy walk from the inn, along the picturesque shoreline, Twin Lakes has its own, rather different kind of ghost town. One minute one can be strolling along enjoying the silence and the odd glimpse of the water through the trees, the next one is confronted by the decaying remains of what was once the most exclusive of holiday resorts. In the clearing, just yards from the water, stands the grand clapboard hotel, its name – Interlaken – still emblazoned in tall letters across its gable. When the mining boom turned to bust, Interlaken went with it. Now, all is shut up, the preserve of woodpeckers, butterflies and only the odd 21st-century nostalgic.
The primary reason for my stay in Twin Lakes, however, was to visit St Elmo, 90 minutes' drive away. With more than 40 wooden buildings from the 1880s – all set along a single dirt street, in a remote valley ringed with snow-streaked mountains – it is on every Top 10 ghost-town list there is. It's easy to see why. From the blacksmith's shop to the Stark Brothers Post Office, a visit to St Elmo is like wandering into The Outlaw Josey Wales – except that everything is original.
St Elmo was not my favourite stop though. Extraordinary, yes; but also somehow lacking in atmosphere. For me, the unforgettable glimpse of the Old West was in Victor, another easy day-trip from Twin Lakes – just a little beyond Cripple Creek.
Sleepy Victor has bags more character. If I caught a glimpse of a real ghost anywhere, it was here, wandering amid the faded grandeur of the town's dusty, almost deserted streets or munching on burger-and-green-chilli at the Fortune Club Diner.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies daily to Denver from Heathrow.
Delaware Hotel, Leadville (001 800 748 2004; delawarehotel.com) has doubles from $70 (£47) including breakfast.
Twin Lakes Inn, Twin Lakes (001 719 486 7965; thetwinlakesinn.com) has doubles from $90 (£60) with breakfast.
Halfmoon Packing (001 719 486 4570; halfmoonpacking.com) offers day rides from $140 (£93) including lunch and drinks.
Roger Pretti offers ghost tours and cemetery strolls on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the summer and autumn, priced $15 (£10). Tickets are purchased in the lobby at The Delaware Hotel.