Today, the Ashcroft ghost town is mostly silent, save for the crunching of snowshoes, the clip-clopping of horse hooves, the trickle of Castle Creek and the breeze blowing through aspens and evergreens.
But in the 1880s, this region of Colorado’s scenic Castle Creek Valley, located 12.5 miles south of Aspen in the shadow of the Elk Mountains, was a lively, bustling town where upwards of 2,500 silver prospectors hoped to strike it rich.
Though the 1893 silver crash thwarted those plans, later, in the early 1930s, Ashcroft became the site of another big dream: a sprawling, downhill ski resort meant to rival those in Europe. That plan never came to fruition, either.
But, as the experts at the Aspen Historical Society note, these failures ultimately helped stave off development and preserve the region’s history and natural environment for us to enjoy today. Ashcroft is a serene, all-season destination for cross-country skiing, hiking, cycling, snowshoeing, birdwatching, horseback riding, photography, fly-fishing, nature tours, historical exploration and other pursuits.
“It’s a fortune of failures,” said Nina Gabianelli, the historical society’s vice president of education and programs. “There are a few successful operations going on out there today, but very little development. Because of all the failed commercial, capital developments, we have this beautiful pristine valley and can interpret all the different pieces of its history.”
From silver mines to ski slopes
Ashcroft’s story starts with members of the Northern Ute tribe, or “Nuche,” who successfully hunted along Castle Creek every summer, Gabianelli said. After the U.S. government relocated the Ute to a reservation in northeast Utah — banning them from Ashcroft in the process — silver prospectors took over and established the town site, initially called Castle Forks, in 1880.
Fortune-seekers did find some silver deposits here, but they were shallow and ran out quickly. On top of that, the burgeoning town of Aspen’s silver discoveries were more lucrative, which lured Ashcroft’s residents away. The silver market’s collapse in 1893 all but sealed Ashcroft’s fate — just a handful of people remained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, mostly single men and their dogs, Gabianelli said. The U.S. Postal Service stopped delivering mail to Ashcroft in 1913.
In the early 1930s, when developers first began building European-style downhill ski resorts in the United States, the site piqued the interest of Olympic bobsledder Billy Fiske and business partners Ted Ryan and Tom Flynn.
In 1936, they opened the Highland Bavarian Lodge and began charging skiers $7 a day to visit their fledgling ski area. The trio created a detailed map of proposed ski runs on Mount Hayden and hired an architect to draw up plans for a new town at Ashcroft. Tramway companies even submitted bids for a proposed transportation system.
The men likely would’ve succeeded in building their resort, too, if not for World War II, which meant that both steel and labor were in short supply. Fiske, who persuaded the British government to let him join its Royal Air Force, was shot down and killed in the Battle of Britain in 1940, Gabianelli said.
Meanwhile, the Aspen Ski Club had begun teaching people how to ski on Aspen Mountain, planting the seed for Aspen to eventually become one of the country’s top resorts. Ryan never gave up on his dream of building a ski resort at Ashcroft, however, and continued buying nearby property, which saved it from commercial development.
Ryan leased some of the land to Stuart Mace, a botanist who trained sled dogs during WWII. Mace, who became the property’s caretaker and steward, and his wife used reclaimed materials to build their family home at Ashcroft, which they named “Toklat,” an Inuit word that means “headwaters.” (Today, Toklat is home to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ Catto Center and is currently undergoing renovations.)
Mace also ran dog-sledding excursions at Ashcroft, which attracted attention from TV production companies. In the mid-1950s, crews filmed the show “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” here, including Mace and his sled dogs in some of the scenes.
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Forest Service began managing Ashcroft and brought in the Aspen Historical Society to preserve and interpret the site. Ashcroft made the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
How to experience Ashcroft
Today, visitors can wander through the ghost town, poke their heads into the historic buildings, look at artifacts and read interpretive signs. It’s especially popular during the summer, when an on-site docent is available to answer questions, but can also be viewed via self-guided tours in the spring, fall and winter. (Castle Creek Road, which connects Aspen and Ashcroft, is also a steep — but beautiful — road-cycling route.)
The society maintains six original Ashcroft buildings here, plus an additional three that it relocated from other historic sites.
“Our preservation begins with restoring and maintaining what was there, but we do let some of the pieces fall apart so you can see what happens to something when it’s left out in the snow, sun, wind and rain for 130, 140 years,” Gabianelli said.
In the winter, travelers can explore the ghost town and 600 surrounding acres along Castle Creek on snowshoes and cross-country skis.
Ashcroft Ski Touring has an on-site Nordic center, a full-service restaurant called Pine Creek Cookhouse and several warming huts that are stocked with hot cocoa, cider and water; the company also offers gear rentals, lessons, tours and horse-drawn carriage rides. Day passes for skiing or snowshoeing on Ashcroft’s 35 kilometers of groomed trails are $25 for adults and $15 for seniors and children under 12.
Aspen Center for Environmental Studies naturalists also lead guided hikes and snowshoe tours of the area, offering additional insights into the region’s geology, plants and animals.
“What’s really special is there’s no internet, no cellphone service — everybody is 100 percent engaged and enjoying the beauty,” said Johnny Wilcox, Ashcroft Ski Touring’s general manager. “It’s just an incredibly special and tranquil place to get away from the busyness of life, have a little peace and quiet and take in the rivers and mountains.”
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