Alta, Colorado Ghost Town: A Glimpse into the Past
Nestled high in the San Juan Mountains, the Alta Colorado Ghost Town is a captivating window into the rich mining history of this region. At an elevation of 11,800 feet, Alta was once a bustling mining town, home to hardworking miners and their families.
Today, it stands as a testament to the perseverance and determination of those who forged a living in this rugged and remote part of Colorado. In this article, we delve into the fascinating history of this Colorado Ghost Town, how to access it, and the unique experiences that await you when you visit.
The History of Alta: A Colorado Ghost Town
The Birth of a Mining Town
Alta’s story began in 1877 when Pat Cullen, Frank Dimik, and Thomas Knott discovered the Alta vein in Gold King Basin. Jack Mann struck gold the following year, leading to the establishment of the Alta-Gold King mining area.
The mines yielded an abundance of precious metals, including gold, silver, copper, and lead, attracting miners and their families to settle in the region. As the mining operation expanded, so did the settlement, eventually growing into a thriving town with offices, a general store, a school, a boardinghouse, a recreation hall, and several cabins.
The First Commercial Alternating-Current Power Plant
By the 1890s, the town faced a significant challenge: the cost of coal required to power the mines was skyrocketing. To overcome this issue, mine manager Lucien Lucius Nunn struck a deal with George Westinghouse to build the world’s first commercial alternating-current (AC) power plant in nearby Ames.
This groundbreaking hydroelectric plant began operations in June 1891, slashing the Gold King Mine’s monthly power costs from $2,500 to just $500. In a historical first, the Alta mines were powered by Tesla’s AC transmission system, revolutionizing the mining industry.
Boom and Decline
Between the 1870s and the 1940s, Alta was a hub of mining activity in the region, with the town’s population reaching several hundred residents. However, its fortunes took a turn for the worse when a major mill burned down in 1948, marking the beginning of the end for this once-thriving town.
As people moved away, the buildings and homes they left behind gradually decayed and succumbed to the ravages of nature. Today, Alta is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and visitors can still see remnants of its past, including original cabins, a boarding house, and outhouses.
Getting to Alta Colorado Ghost Town
To reach Alta, take Alta Lakes Road six miles south of Telluride on Highway 145. Turn left and stay on the road for four miles until you reach the ghost town. While the road to Alta is narrow and steep, it is maintained and does not require a high-clearance vehicle.
However, Alta Lakes Road is closed during winter, so plan your visit between May and October.
By Hiking or Mountain Biking
For those looking for a more adventurous route, you can hike or mountain bike to Alta from the Telluride Ski Resort using the Prospect Trail or the Basin Trail. These trails offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains and direct you to the ghost town.
Exploring Alta Ghost Town
The Preserved Buildings
While many of the original buildings in Alta are now in varying states of decay, several structures have been preserved, offering visitors a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the miners and their families.
Among these are a two-story boarding house, built in 1939 using materials salvaged from the St. Louis mine’s boardinghouse, and several cabins that once provided shelter to the town’s residents.
The Mines and Tunnels
As you explore Alta, you’ll find reminders of its mining past, including the remains of tunnels, shafts, and mine workings. The Black Hawk tunnel, for example, was driven 9,000 feet into Silver Mountain to intersect the Alta, St. Louis, and Bessie veins, providing direct access to the Bessie mill.
The mines produced over $5 million worth of ore during their operation, a testament to the hard work and determination of the miners who called Alta home.
Camping Near Alta
For those looking to extend their visit to the area, free dry camping is available at Alta Lakes, with a maximum stay of seven days. There are no services on-site, but vault toilets are provided during the summer months.
The 20 designated campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and visitors are advised to pack out all trash when they leave.
Recreational Activities at Alta Lakes
Paddle Boarding and Kayaking
The pristine Alta Lakes provide a stunning backdrop for paddleboarding and kayaking enthusiasts. Although the lakes are relatively small, their breathtaking mountain scenery makes any time spent on the water a truly memorable experience.
Anglers will find plenty of opportunities to cast their lines at Alta Lakes, home to various fish species. Enjoy the tranquil surroundings as you try your luck at catching dinner.
Other Nearby Ghost Towns
Tomboy Ghost Town
Another fascinating ghost town to explore in the Telluride area is Tomboy Ghost Town, perched 3,000 feet above Telluride after a drive through Imogene Pass. Home to nearly 1,000 residents during its heyday, Tomboy was active until the 1920s when its ore deposits were depleted.
Many of the town’s buildings remain in surprisingly good condition, making it well worth a visit.
Located near Silverton, Animas Forks is a historic mining town that once boasted a hotel, saloon, general store, post office, and 30 cabins. Founded in 1873, the town was abandoned by 1920, but its well-preserved buildings make it an excellent destination for history buffs and ghost town enthusiasts.
Guided Tours and Vehicle Rentals
Companies like Telluride Outside offer guided tours with off-roading vehicles and knowledgeable local guides if you prefer to explore Alta Colorado Ghost Town and its surroundings with expert guidance. Alternatively, you can rent specialty vehicles such as the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro from Mountain Adventure Equipment and embark on your own adventure.
The Best Time to Visit
The ideal time to visit Alta Colorado Ghost Town is between May and October when the roads are accessible, and the weather is generally pleasant. However, be prepared for unpredictable mountain conditions and always check local weather forecasts before setting out.
Alta Ghost Town Photography
With its hauntingly beautiful buildings and dramatic mountain backdrop, Alta is a photographer’s dream. Be sure to capture the stunning views of Mount Wilson through the window of one of the cabins – it will look like a painting.
Preserving Alta’s Legacy
As a testament to the resilience and determination of the miners who called this remote part of Colorado home, visitors to Alta Ghost Town must treat the site with respect. By following Leave No Trace principles, we can ensure that future generations can continue to experience the unique charm and history of this remarkable Colorado Ghost Town.
In conclusion, the Alta Colorado Ghost Town offers a fascinating glimpse into the past, providing visitors with an insight into the lives of the miners who once called this rugged and remote corner of Colorado home.
Whether you choose to explore the ghost town by car, on foot, or as part of a guided tour, the haunting beauty of Alta and its surrounding landscape will leave a lasting impression.