Darkness feels downright scary when you're 1,800 feet into the earth, low rock ceilings with walls so narrow you can spread both arms and graze the cool, moist limestone with your fingertips. It's unnerving. And the discomfort settles in as Smuggler Mine foreman Jay Parker flicks off the electric lights. We've just scurried like mice along rusted steel-ore tracks into the 128-year-old mine's belly. Parker strikes a match and lights a candle, like miners did over a century ago.
On the outskirts of Aspen, the Smuggler Mine is the opposite of a tourist trap. You won't find a single commemorative key chain, shot glass, sun visor or any other trinket in the mine's gift shop because, well, there is no gift shop. Tours operate by reservation only. And there isn't a cast of costume-clad "miners" acting out the parts. It's just you, Parker and a side of Aspen you didn't know existed.
The tour starts in a shack that served as the mine office. After a crash course in Aspen's shuttered mines - some tunnels really do go under the courthouse - visitors are fit for hard hats and miner's lights. Parker leads his pupils carefully down a narrow steel staircase to the opening of the mine, which looks like little more than an oversized rabbit warren. Some of the tunnels are so tiny that they measure just a tad wider than your shoulders. (Anyone over six feet tall should be prepared for some serious hunching.) It's so pitch black, you can't even see your own hand in front of your face. It's at once claustrophobic and exhilarating.
A 67-year-old pyrotechnician who is one of the mine's owners, Parker knows Aspen's mining history as if he'd been there during its making. He points out not only where the tunnels lead, but spills dirt on the feuds and fortunes that drove Aspen's mining boom. More than a century before anyone skied Ajax's trees, miners were extracting one fifth of the world's silver from below the town.
These days, though, the mine's owners are more likely to strike it rich developing the land above the mine; for now, theirs is a labor of love. Preserving the mine, Parker says, is preserving what he calls "Aspen's biggest secret: its past."
IF YOU GO>>>
Cost: $30 adults; $20 kids ages 5–12. Not appropriate for children under 5.
Contact: Tours operate by reservation only. Call 970-925-2049.
Be Sure To Bring: Good walking shoes and a jacket. The temperature in the mine stays a constant 50 degrees.