Colorado: After the gold rush, cue tumbleweed

The state is littered with ghost towns – echoes of the movies and an eerie reminder of the mining boom, says Sarah Arnott

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.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; flies daily to Denver from Heathrow.

Staying there

Delaware Hotel, Leadville (001 800 748 2004; has doubles from $70 (£47) including breakfast.

Twin Lakes Inn, Twin Lakes (001 719 486 7965; has doubles from $90 (£60) with breakfast.

Visiting there

Halfmoon Packing (001 719 486 4570; 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.

More information

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back