Haunted Hills

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Animas Forks, CO

For every Aspen, there is an Animas Forks. There are no hotels in Animas Forks, no boutiques, no restaurants, no stylish visitors from the coasts. There are no parking problems, no traffic jams, no growth issues. In fact, there are no people. Animas Forks, unlike Aspen, Telluride, Crested Butte, Breckenridge and other Rocky Mountain mining towns made good, has been largely abandoned for nearly a century.

Colorado's mountains are studded with ghost towns like Animas Forks, clusters of decaying homes, mills and mining shacks that serve as fascinating open-air museums, as well as thought-provoking monuments to the challenges of early Western life. Animas Forks, which sits at a staggering 11,200 feet, 12 miles northeast of Silverton on a rutted road most wisely undertaken in a rented Jeep, is among the state's best preserved and most interesting abandoned town sites.

Founded in 1873 as a mining camp, Animas Forks grew large enough within a few years to merit its own post office, saloon, hotel, general store and newspaper. Many of the town's 450 residents were seasonal, miners who would retreat from the brutal winters and return in spring, but some stayed year-round, braving avalanches and profound isolation. During the winter of 1884, the town was snowed in for more than three weeks after a blizzard dumped 25 feet of snow. By the early 1890s, mining in the area had slowed and residents began drifting off to more hospitable locales, though the town held on in some form until 1917. Today, 10 or so buildings still stand and are readily explored, including the jail (miners were a rowdy lot) and an impressive home with bay windows identified alternately as the Duncan or Walsh house.

Other notable ghost towns in the area include Alta, a smaller site strewn with mining debris and blessed with stellar views of Lizard Head Peak that's an easy drive from Telluride, and Ironton, just off Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton. Local tour operators run 4x4 trips to Animas Forks, Alta and other area ghost towns, but you may find it more rewarding to rent a Jeep (readily accomplished in either Silverton or Ouray—perhaps the four-wheeler capital of the country) and explore on your own. Get an early start and you'll likely have these towns to yourself for a while—the best way to appreciate their quiet desolation and stunning natural surroundings. At a time when theWest is consumed with concern about overdevelopment, a visit to a ghost town can serve as a poignant reminder that nature is not always so easily tamed.

Ouray, Colo., makes a convenient base from which to explore Animas Forks, Ironton, Alta and other area town sites. More Info:Ghost Towns of Colorado by Philip Varney is an invaluable reference, with photos and directions.