The approximately 11-mile drive from Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort across County Road 162 is flush with postcard-perfect views of the Sawatch Range, where colorful aspens brighten the region’s 20 highest peaks. Deep at the end of this golden, light-filled mountain drive, sits the dusty ghost town of St. Elmo. Despite its notoriety—and spot on the National Register of Historic Places—this abandoned gold and silver mining settlement is so far off the beaten path that it’s eerily quiet on a typical fall day. It’s a perfect side trip when leaf-peeping season overlaps fall’s spookier alter-ego: Halloween.
St. Elmo is a long haul for Front Range families and won’t take a full day to explore all by itself, but don’t let that dissuade you. The Arkansas Valley is easily one of the state’s best day trip destinations, and there are plenty of places in the region to hike, hit a hot spring, and ride ATVs.
To get here, my family and I left Denver early so we could wake up to breakfast burritos at The Midland Stop in Buena Vista before following the Riverside Trail to Buena Vista River Park. In addition to passing the Buena Vista Boulder Garden, a fun public bouldering park, you’ll gain access, via bridge, to the Barbara Whipple trail system, with a series of well-marked trails offering entry-level hiking opportunities. Consider grabbing lunch at one of the restaurants along East Main Street—you can’t go wrong with House Rock Kitchen—before continuing on to St. Elmo.
Many ghost towns are just skeletal remains of buildings that once stood. But St. Elmo has the characteristics of a full town. Start with a quick visit to the Ghost Town Guest House, the authentic—and operational—three-story bed and breakfast at the top of Main Street. It’s across from St. Elmo General Store, which is open seasonally, and closes at the end of September. Sharon and Chuck own the guest house, and if you catch them at the right time, they might give your family a brief history lesson that starts in 1880, when St. Elmo was founded with a telegraph office, general store, town hall, and schoolhouse, plus a handful of saloons. The boomtown thrived, briefly, with completion of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad, but after peaking at 2,000 residents, St. Elmo’s population rode the last train out of town and never came back, as the story goes.
Children get a sense of what life was like in Colorado in the late 1800s while poking around St. Elmo, perusing a series of structures and store fronts preserved with classic Main Street finishes. Can’t-miss buildings include an old courthouse, complete with jail cell, and the one-room schoolhouse, accessible via a bridge north of “downtown.” Step inside to view the interiors of these buildings, staged with 1880s furnishings, from a roped-off area. It’s a bit like a trip to a living history museum, without the interpreter. In 30 minutes to an hour, you can see the whole town.
If you’re feeling festive, take a stroll to the Iron City Cemetery. GPS likely won’t work out here, or it will be spotty, so to get there, backtrack on County Road 162 for a quarter-mile, until reaching the turnoff for County Road 292. There’s a pullout for parking where 162 and 292 meet. Turn onto 292, and follow the wide dirt road downhill, toward Iron City Campground. After crossing a bridge, you’ll reach secluded tent sites. Walk straight through the campground until arriving at the cemetery’s enchanting white gate, located about seven-tenths of a mile from County Road 162. Take some time to read the headstones, which tell a story of courage and community in hard times.
After exploring the ghost town, consider taking a slight detour to Salida, 17 miles south of Nathrop. My family’s favorite spots to refuel are Gathering Grounds and Amicas Pizza, Microbrews & More.
- Check it Out:
- 25865 County Road 162, Nathrop
- Need to Know:
- Allow two and a half to three hours driving time from Denver. There is no cell service in the area; bring a map, printed directions, and a hard copy of this article. Consider downloading the free Gaia GPS app that uses GPS coordinates instead of cell towers.