Skiing Through a Ghost Town: A Day of Winter Adventure in Ashcroft

A view of Ashcroft in the snow
A view of Ashcroft in the snow John Pattillo
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It's no secret that Nordic skiing is a heart-pumping, kick-butt workout. Plus, it's fun, doesn't involve chairlifts, expensive lift tickets, or dizzying heights like alpine skiing, and it usually happens in beautiful places, especially when you’re talking about hitting the trails in and around Aspen.

Almost 100K of municipally maintained trails connect town to Snowmass, with Nordic centers at both the Aspen and Snowmass golf courses, and continue along the Rio Grande Trail to Basalt. And you can skin on them for free. But, if you’re looking to explore outside of town with a chance to still score fresh corduroy at noon, head up Castle Creek Road from the traffic circle to Ashcroft ghost town, some 11 miles via road but worlds away in time—and an enticing option for an Aspen-area winter excursion full of fascinating history.

What is now a bucolic meadow and a few abandoned wooden structures was more than a century ago a silver mining boomtown with some 2,500 residents (at least in the summer months), six motels, a bowling alley, public school, daily mail delivery, and 17 saloons.

A black-and-white image of Ashcroft during an autumn snow dusting evokes the mood of bygone eras.
A black-and-white image of Ashcroft during an autumn snow dusting evokes the mood of bygone eras. Ryan Fonkert

But the town's rapid decline came almost as quickly as it popped up. The once-prolific silver mines quickly depleted, and in 1887, the rail line was run into Aspen instead of up to Ashcroft. The town's population plummeted, and by the turn of the century, it had only a few full-time residents.

According to the Aspen Historical Society, in the 1930s interest re-emerged around Ashcroft thanks to international sportsman Ted Ryan and his partner Billy Fiske, who was captain of America’s gold medal Olympic bobsled team. The pair built the Highland-Bavarian Lodge and had plans for a European-style ski resort in the town, complete with an aerial tramway up Mount Hayden, but those never materialized after Fiske was killed in World War II.

The Hotel View is the last remaining hotel from Ashcroft's busy days
The Hotel View is the last remaining hotel from Ashcroft's busy days Allison Pattillo

In 1974, Ashcroft was put on the National Register of Historic Places, and today it serves as a launching pad for year-round adventures with access to backcountry huts and hiking and biking trails.

Since the winter of 1971, Ashcroft has also been home to the Ashcroft Ski Touring, with 35 kilometers of groomed trails across 600 acres—including trails that pass right through time and the center of town. In the snowy silence of winter, it's hard to imagine that, more than a century ago, these abandoned buildings were anchors of a silver mining boomtown.

King Cabin Nordic Center offers ski and snowshoe rentals, bathrooms and a cozy place to get warm by the woodstove
King Cabin Nordic Center offers ski and snowshoe rentals, bathrooms and a cozy place to get warm by the woodstove Allison Pattillo

At 9,500 feet, the elevation of the town itself may take your breath away. Or it could be the stunning views of the Elk Mountains as you ski on rolling trails through aspen groves and pine forests, along Castle Creek and across frozen sub-alpine wetlands.

Trail passes are available at the King Cabin Nordic Center for $25 a day and $15 for a half day beginning at 12:30. The center also rents gear, including snowshoes, offer lessons and tours, and serves as a perfect place to hang out by the fire before or after your snowy adventure. Two additional warming huts complete with wood stoves make great places to take a break and eat a picnic lunch before cranking out more skiing. Consider wearing a backpack or waist pack to carry water, snacks, and an extra layer.

Groomed tracks, skiers, snowshoers and the horse drawn sleigh traveling to and from lunch
Groomed tracks, skiers, snowshoers and the horse drawn sleigh traveling to and from lunch Allison Pattillo

If you are feeling ravenous from your adventurous outing (or just ready for some apres action), stop in the Pine Creek Cookhouse, also in the Ashcroft Ski Touring area, for beverages, lunch, or dinner. Nestled at the edge of an aspen grove and against the hillside, the lodge offers lustworthy views from the dining room and bar are lust worthy, even by Aspen standards.

Hungry skiers and adventurous diners have been enjoying mountain fare at Pine Creek Cookhouse (the current structure is the second iteration) for more than 30 years. Don’t stress about what to order—it’s all tasty (and yes, it’s true, exercising at elevation gives you a ravenous appetite).

Pine Creek Cookhouse is a full service restaurant and bar with yummy food in an incredible location
Pine Creek Cookhouse is a full service restaurant and bar with yummy food in an incredible location Allison Pattillo

A Bloody Mary and Kurt Russell’s Home Run Ranch Patty Melt are just the way to refuel after a few hours of skiing through the wilderness. Once you have a full belly, you can keep skiing or take the direct route back to King Cabin. It’s about a mile and a half back to the Nordic center and, as a bonus, is slightly downhill.

Draft horses waiting for their post-lunch sleigh passengers
Draft horses waiting for their post-lunch sleigh passengers Allison Pattillo

While you cannot drive to the Pine Creek Cookhouse during the winter months, you don’t have to kit up in Nordic gear to make it to dinner. Other options include arriving by horse-drawn sleigh (blankets are provided) or snowshoeing in on the groomed road. Skiers are also welcome on the road, and, if you plan to stick to the road, no trail pass is needed. Reservations are recommended for lunch and required for dinner.

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