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Into the Mountain Fastnesses on Modern Steeds

Set in a valley that held troves of precious minerals, St. Elmo is a ‘ghost town’ that gives us a picture of what towns and life were like a hundred years or more ago. It is the only remaining intact ghost town of the rich Chalk Creek mining district. The town comprises a handful of houses, both occupied and vacant, and a dozen or so commercial buildings along a main street. Of those, two or three are open, particularly on the day we visited in October. St. Elmo is a destination for tourists wanting a look at the boom days of Colorado’s mining industry and sees thousands every summer. Today a few carloads of folks in fall clothing watch us as we putter down the main drag, their kids delightedly feeding the resident chipmunks at the ‘Chipmunk Crossing’ sign.

We are riding four-wheel OHV/ATVs, beginning a tour of two of the roads that snake away from the town. There are five of us, I and Mike of Colorado Experts, friend Daniel and friends of Mike’s, Jamie and Judy. First is a short ride down forest road 292 northeast to the Iron City cemetery. The sparsely occupied graveyard holds interments from the late 1800s and into the 20th century. There’s a list of the graves at the gate that gives a note about each person’s demise. Most are prosaic, a few have a story attached, such as the person who died in a snowstorm, or the miners who were killed at the mines. We bag a geocache near the cemetery, then go farther down 292 to where a tree has fallen across the road. We manage to make a space for the ATVs to pass by using a winch cable and one of the machines to drag the big trunk a few inches.

The road takes us a bit farther to where we turn off to check out an enigmatic wooden structure in pretty good shape. Inside, in an otherwise barren room, the concrete floor has a deep channel in it with an iron pipe leading in. I observe that there seem to be concrete bases for what might have been uprights to support the axle of a water wheel.

Returning to St. Elmo, we set off on Forest Road 295. It’s a broad, more or less smooth dirt road that angles to the southwest, passing several old mine sites. First stop is at the base of a tailing pile from an unknown mine. We’re there to photograph a bridge to nowhere. It’s a deck truss bridge from a rail line that no longer exists; blocked at both ends. Above it is a rusting metal clad building that once held the workings for an ore tram system. We find another geocache near it.

Then it’s a long run to where road 295 splits at the trailhead for the Alpine Tunnel Trail,

road 298. We continue on a road which now becomes a trough of big rocks. The riding takes on a challenging aspect as we maneuver from side to side on the road, rolling over breadbox sized rocks. It climbs toward our destination, Hancock Lake.

We dismount here at a parking area – although I wonder if any automobile can make it to this spot. There’s a walk of a few hundred yards to the lake. It’s a calm, clear, ice-cold expanse of water that reflects the craggy peak above it and the slope beyond where the Continental Divide Trail switchbacks up to the top of the ridge past the peak.

After a tranquil hour or so, the sun is starting to make its way toward the spine of the mountains around us. Time to start back, as we have more stops to make. A faster, but just as bumpy ride back down to the junction, we head back along 295 to find the turnoff for road 297, leading to the Mary Murphy Mine. We have another rocky, steep one mile ride up the side of a slope, at one point made a bit more worrisome because of a patch of ice in a drainage that slopes off into a steep drop.

The Mary Murphy was the principal mine of the Chalk Creek district, operating from 1870-1925.Over its life, it produced about $180,000,000 (21st century dollars) in gold, along with silver, lead, and zinc. The most easily visited remains are what appears to be an office building right by the road and the ruins of a tram house up a somewhat steep slope.The wooden frame tram house is several stepped levels, now collapsing forward down the slope, making a picturesque ruin. Inside is the turntable wheel that operated the cable for a tram that ran along the slope to the now vanished settlement of Romley, CO, the stop for the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad. A couple of other buildings hide out in the woods near the barren slope on which the tram house crouches in its slow demise. Beside it, at the edge of the cleared area, a small runoff stream flows, dividing in spots to a fan of small finger-like flows. At this point the water is bright aquamarine blue, colored by substances brought out of the tailings through which it flows.

By now, a finger check of the sun tells us we have only about 30 minutes until the sun dips below the ridge across the valley. We make our way back down the track to 295, turning

northeast. Along the way we make a fast ride till we stop to look at what appears to be a ruined cabin down below the road grade. It turns out to be two narrow-gauge train cars that had been moved in beside an ore tip. They are falling into ruin, of course, unused, but we can tell that one had been set up as a cabin because it has a hole cut in the roof for a stove pipe. We decide to run a mile or so back up the road to view another disused mine building down the slope about a hundred feet or so below us.

Finally, it’s time to get serious about getting back. In the gathering gloom we turn on the ATV headlights and step it up to get back to where we’d unloaded the ATVs. Once loaded up and down road 162 to link up with US 287, we catch the last red-orange glow on the clouds above the mountains in the west as the sky goes deep indigo-black.2 to link up with US 287, we catch the last red-orange glow on the clouds above the mountains in the west as the sky goes deep indigo-black.