Colorado Getaways: Summer Fun in Mining Towns

Jennifer Broome

Originally known as the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, the Colorado Gold Rush started in 1858. More than 100,000 prospectors known as “Fifty-Niners,” referring to peak year of 1859, searched for riches in America’s second largest mining pandemonium. Let’s strike it rich with history and outdoor adventure in a few of central Colorado’s historic mining towns.

Breckenridge’s Golden Nuggets

Breckenridge was a small mining outpost until the spring of 1860, when it swelled to a town of 8,000 people seeking gold fortunes in the “Blue River Diggings.” In the 1870s and 1880s, silver, lead, and zinc mining fueled the prospecting fury more than gold. But on July 23, 1887, two prospectors, Tom Groves and Harry Lytton, who were working in the Gold Flake Mine in Farncomb Hill, unearthed “Tom’s Baby,” the largest gold nugget ever found in Colorado, weighing 13.5 pounds.

Country Boy Mine in Breckenridge is one of Summit County's oldest mines. © Jennifer Broome

My adventure starts in a real gold mine. Donning a hardhat at Country Boy Mine, I descended 1,000 feet deep into the tunnel on a 45-minute tour. Founded in 1887, Country Boy is one of the oldest mines in Summit County. The temperature is 45-degrees Fahrenheit year-round, but snowmelt makes it very damp in summer, giving you a taste of how rough mining life must have been. After the tour, pan for gold, pet the donkeys, and enjoy a stellar view of Breckenridge Ski Resort before returning to your vehicle via a tunnel slide.

My friend Carroll and I set off on an easy hike to Jessie Mill and Preston Ghost Town. This three-mile round trip hike is a great introduction to the plethora of mining relics around Breckenridge. Operating from 1885 to the 1930s, Jessie is the best surviving example of a stamp mill, and the Preston Ghost Town is just a short hike up the hill. For an in-depth experience, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance offers a guided hike—one of their many hikes with history.

Breckenridge Heritage Alliance’s downtown walking tour tells tales of famous gunslingers, socialites, and architecture. Founded in 1859, Breckenridge has one of the largest historic districts in Colorado, once filled with saloons, brothels and prospectors If you take the self-guided tour, like we did, don’t miss the Polluck House—one of the oldest buildings in town—and the Barney Ford House Museum in a restored 1882 Victorian home. Escaping slavery, Barney Ford was Breckenridge’s first black business owner and a civil rights activist.

For happy hour we sauntered into Gold Pan Saloon. Opening in 1861 as Long’s Saloon, the bar claims to have “the longest continuous liquor license west of the Mississippi.” For dinner, we sat on the balcony of Relish, a quaint, AAA Three Diamond-designated bistro tucked away off Blue River Plaza. Afterward, we retreated to Gravity Haus, where we booked a two-night stay. From décor to guided experiences, this boutique hotel is a great base camp for the modern adventurer. Another good option is the AAA Three Diamond-designated Beaver Run Resort, which offers standard rooms, one- and two-bedroom condos, and specialty suites.

Isak Heartstone (the wooden troll) is Breckenridge’s most popular outdoor public art exhibit. © Jennifer Broome

The next morning, I took off on an early stroll, wandering through Breckenridge Alpine Garden and visiting a troll in the forest. Isak Heartstone is a 15-foot wooden sculpture originally created by Danish artist Thomas Dambo for the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts (BIFA). In search of more public art, I explored Breckenridge’s Arts District on a self-guided audio tour I found on Listening on my mobile phone, I learned about some of the public art like “Toro” and “The Cobble Column,” both near Blue River Plaza.

Late morning is prime time to take the free gondola ride up to Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 8 Fun Park. For thrill seekers, like me, zoom down the alpine slide or race along 2,500 feet of tracks through the forest on the Goldrunner Coaster. Let the kids play in mining-themed activities, like panning for gold, while parents relax on T-Bar’s sun-drenched patio.

We met Carroll’s son, Dorsey, for lunch at Canteen Tap House and Tavern, where we filled up on upscale comfort food before our hike to Sallie Barber Mine from French Gulch Road. The wide multi-use trail is a little under three miles round trip and great for families, and a hotbed for mining relics. The 365-foot zinc mine was discovered in 1881 and peaked in production in 1900 before closing in 1909. Noticing a family searching for gold, I quickly joined in looking for any speck of golden treasures.

For more advanced hikers, I highly recommend Mohawk Lakes. The upper lake sits at 12,100 feet, where you’ll see multiple mining relics and the Continental Falls tumbling through three chasms. As with any high-altitude hike, go early because afternoon storms are common.

We celebrated a fun day with cocktails and cuisine at the award-winning Breckenridge Distillery—one of my favorites because you can pair their spirits with outstanding cuisine. Rootstalk, housed in an 1889 Victorian home, is the newest restaurant. It’s on my list this summer, along with Breckenridge Heritage Alliance’s new Bawdy Breckenridge Tour, highlighting the seedier side of mining town life.

Carroll and Dorsey stayed in town a couple more days, while like a prospector, I hit the road in search of more riches.

Historic scenic route: Boreas to Independence

Driving along Boreas Pass from Breckenridge, I followed the historic Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railway route from the 1880s, until tracks were removed in the 1940s. The first four miles are paved, and the rest is a rocky dirt road. Be sure to stop along the way for the views and railroad relics, like Bankers Tank. At the summit, you’ll see the Section House built in 1882, Ken’s Cabin, and a narrow-gauge boxcar. It was home to the highest altitude post office in America from the late 1880s to 1905.

The 22-mile drive takes you to the former railroad community of Como, originally named for Italy’s picturesque Lake Como. I stopped in Mountain Man Gallery to get a historic walking tour guide. The Como Depot, Como Roadhouse, and Como Eating House and Hotel are on the National Register of Historic Places.

For a fully paved road option, Hoosier Pass (State Highway 9) between Breckenridge and Alma is one of the easier spots to stand on the Continental Divide. You’ll pass through the town of Alma, sitting at 10,578 feet, and North America’s highest incorporated town. After gold was discovered in Buckskin Gulch, approximately 10,000 people lived in the area referred to as the Mosquito Range Mining District in the 1870s. The town was named after the grocery store owner’s daughter. There are several historic buildings including town hall and the Paris Mill, built in 1895 to mill ore from the Paris Mine on Mount Bross.

Along this route, you can drive the 5.5-mile U.S. Forest Service’s Buckskin Gulch Auto Tour. The first four and half miles are doable in a passenger car, and you’ll see old miners’ graves, the ghost town of Buckskin Joe, mining relics, and rock layers millions of years in the making. In the Sweet Home Mine, folks still search for rhodochrosite, a rose red crystalline mineral. The last mile to Kite Lake is rough, rocky, and steep. This is the road you’d take if you’re hiking the DeCaLiBron (Mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross) to bag four 14-ers (14,000-foot peaks) in a day. When I did this big hike, I imagined prospectors scrambling up the slopes to search for fortunes.

Inside one of the cabins at South Park Museum in Fairplay, Colo. © Jennifer Broome

As I continued toward Leadville, where my friend Lisa would join me, I stopped in the town of Fairplay, spending a couple of hours wandering through the South Park Museum. It’s not a place dedicated to the popular animated sitcom. It’s an authentically restored mining camp with more than 40 buildings, where you’ll get a glimpse of what life was like in an 1880s Colorado mining boomtown. For a pick-me-up, grab a coffee at The Java Moose, or if you’re hungry, relax on the deck at Platte River Saloon.

Sitting at 10,200 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in America. Silver was discovered in 1877 in the upper California Gulch, turning Leadville into a booming mining town and, at the time, the second biggest city in Colorado. When gold and silver mining declined, lead, zinc, and other minerals became big business. including the Climax Mine, which produced 75 percent of the world’s molybdenum.

Lisa and I walked along Harrison Avenue, admiring the Victorian-era architecture, like the four-story Tabor Grand Hotel, now an apartment building, and historic Delaware Hotel—both built in the 1880s. Seventy square blocks of downtown were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Wanting a sweet treat, I got a sinfully good peanut butter and chocolate ganache cookie at the Silver Llama Market and Eatery. We continued west on Top of the Rockies’ Scenic Byway, stopping for lunch in Twin Lakes—home to the state’s two largest glacial lakes.

“Wow,” was repeatedly said in the car, as we passed jaw dropping scenery up Independence Pass through Lake Creek Valley. Stunning views, hairpin turns, and narrow stretches of road by rocky cliffs are why Independence Pass is my favorite route to Aspen in summer and fall. Summit elevation on the Continental Divide is 12,095 feet, making it Colorado’s highest paved state highway (Cottonwood Pass is the highest paved pass). On the west side of the pass, we stopped at the well-preserved Independence Ghost Town, the first mining site in the Roaring Fork Valley. Legend has it on July 4, 1879, prospectors discovered the Independence Gold Lode. A tent camp quickly sprang up, and by 1882 there was an estimated 1,500 people. Fascinated by what life was like at 10,900 feet in the 1880s, we wandered around the business district and walked a half mile to the Farwell Mill, along the original road connecting Independence Pass to Aspen and Ashcroft.

Aspen’s Silver Linings

Originally named Ute City, Aspen was founded as a silver mining camp in 1879. With a population of more than 13,000 by 1890, it was the country’s largest silver producer and Colorado’s third-largest city.

I had made reservations at the AAA Four Diamond-designated Hotel Jerome, one of the oldest hotels west of the Mississippi River, opening in 1889. Walking into the lobby, I instantly felt like I stepped back in time to another era. Our oversized room was accented with nods to the Wild West, mining history, and Native Americans. After settling in, we ventured into Hotel Jerome’s “Living Room,” one of my favorite hideaway spots, and a great place to spot celebrities, followed by dinner outside at Bear Den Aspen, a delightful gourmet bistro.

The author pauses in John's Song Garden to read the "Rocky Mountain High" lyrics at the John Denver Sanctuary. © Jennifer Broome

We eased into the next day starting at John Denver Sanctuary. In John’s Song Garden there are native river boulders engraved with lyrics of some of his songs, including “Rocky Mountain High.” Next, we rode the gondola up Aspen Mountain, soaking in the summit view and admiring the wildflowers along the Nature Trail before heading back down for lunch on the patio at the AAA Three Diamond-designated Ajax Tavern. The truffle fries are a must!

Aspen Historical Society’s downtown walking tour filled our afternoon. Our guide Suzie was decked out in a late-1800s outfit. On the 1.5-hour tour, she shared stories of some of Aspen’s historic buildings like the Wheeler Opera House and Andres Building, which is believed to be the town’s oldest building. Fitting the Andres Building now houses Prada because haberdasheries sold couture in Aspen’s mining heyday.

TDocent leads one of Aspen Historical Society's downtown walking tours. Courtesy of the Aspen Historical Society

We ended back at our hotel and wandered into the J-Bar, where miners and cowboys rode their horses into the bar in the late 1800s. I love J-Bar’s tin ceiling and chandeliers, which are made from bottles found during renovations in the 1980s. If you want to sip a bit of history, try an Aspen Crud—a bourbon-spiked vanilla milkshake. While sipping ours, we heard its famous story. During Prohibition, J-Bar turned into a soda foundation, with a secret drink you had to ask for with a wink or a finger brush on your nose. The boozy shake was popular with 10th Mountain Division members after long days on the slopes in the 1940s.

While waiting for an outside table at the AAA Three Diamond-designated Meat and Cheese, we discovered their sister property, Hooch. As I sipped a sparkling negroni and Lisa enjoyed a classic old-fashioned, it felt like we had been transported to a secret speakeasy during Prohibition.

The next morning, we dropped off our luggage at the AAA Three Diamond-designated Limelight Hotel, where we stayed for the next two nights. It’s a wonderful property for families. (Note: At press time, the Limelight has closed for renovations until Thanksgiving.) Grabbing coffee and burritos at Paradise Bakery, we drove Castle Creek Road to hike to Cathedral Lake. The aspen and fern forest is like something straight out of a fairy tale. This is not an easy hike, especially the very steep switchbacks about 15 minutes before you get to Cathedral Lake, which sits at 11,866 feet. It was peak wildflower season, so this 5.6-mile round trip hike was filled with a bounty of color.

We had about an hour to explore Ashcroft Ghost Town before our shuttle reservation to Maroon Lake. Founded as a silver mining town in 1880, nearly 2,000 people lived here at its peak. We wandered into some of the miner’s cabins, saloon, and hotel tucked away in Castle Creek Valley’s picturesque setting.

We arrived at Aspen Highland to catch our shuttle. Reservations, along with face coverings, are required for shuttles and private vehicles. During our 18-minute shuttle ride, a typical afternoon summer soaker was in full swing. Seeing the iconic Maroon Bells peeking in and out of clouds and fog was worth braving the downpour. Plus, the normal droves of people admiring the Bells weren’t there.

Back at our hotel, we settled into our huge modern room, then headed down to Limelight Lounge. “Livin’ My Best Life” cocktail was perfect to cheers a great day as we noshed on a hand-tossed gourmet pizza. Be sure to save room for the decadent chocolate chip cookie bake.

Inside the Grottos ice cave near Aspen. © Jennifer Broome

The next morning, we hit the Grottos trail at 6:45 a.m., to enjoy this popular hike without its typical crowds. Right off the bat you see a geological wonder. Erratics, are giant boulders deposited 18,000 years ago on top of a slab of granite. Hike for about five minutes and you’ll see the sign marking an opening in some boulders. That’s where you scramble down about six feet into the cave. Inside, are giant slabs of jagged ice and ultra-smooth walls in an out-of-this-world underground landscape. We scrambled back out and followed the loop to the cascades, arriving just as the sun was coming up over the mountains, giving the cascading falls a golden hue.

For our next adventure, we rented bikes from Four Mountain Sports for the 16-mile round-trip ride along Rio Grande Trail for lunch at Woody Creek Tavern. Margaritas at this legendary joint are so strong they come with a warning, and you have to ride eight miles back to Aspen if you didn’t pre-arrange pickup. Lisa and I split the Mexican veggie burger and bean nachos, trying our best to finish the delicious huge dishes. About halfway back to Aspen, we stopped and sat by the Roaring Fork River, dipping our feet in the icy water.

We were going to take in Aspen’s outstanding culinary scene, but both of us fell asleep before sunset, tuckered out from two non-stop days. My dreams were filled with adventure, including a mine tour, dinner at Smugglers Mine, and exploring Holden Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum during my next summer stay in Aspen.

This only scratches the surface of exploring Colorado’s mining history. From ghost towns to still-thriving cities, it’s easy to combine history lessons with the outdoors on this summer road trip.

Jennifer Broome is a frequent contributor to EnCompass, and a freelance television personality, speaker, travel journalist and blogger. She has traveled to all 50 states and more than 30 countries. She’s an avid hiker, skier and adventurer. Follow her on Instagram @jenniferbroometv.