The three-mile route up Smuggler Mountain Road sees year-round foot-traffic, and it's no surprise why: As one of the most popular hikes in Aspen, it boasts magnificent views of downtown, ski resorts, and surrounding peaks, all culminating at the 180-degree vista from the platform.
However, many people who embark on the hike have no idea that below their feet is something equally remarkable: a honeycomb of mines rich with Aspen’s history.
Located at the base of Smuggler Mountain, Smuggler Mine helped put Aspen on the map during the mining boom of the 1800s; like other mines in the area, Smuggler was full of silver. According to some accounts, it produced one-fifth of the world's total silver during the Colorado Silver Boom. After an up-and-down history that included some time being shut down by the EPA for lead contamination, the mine was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
These days, the mine remains active, but mostly for tours. There are many remnants of its fascinating history strewn throughout the property, which still has a permit for extraction, but the last shipment of ore went out in 1984, as it’s no longer profitable to mine the 860,000 tons of high-grade ore from the mountain. So four would-be miners plan on continuing to explore and unearth Smuggler's forgotten depths.
These four friends, Chris Preusch, Shane Stevenson, Fred Wilson, and Jay Parker, are keeping the mining history alive at Smuggler, continuing the age-old Aspen tradition of exploring underground. They also volunteer to lead tours so they can continue to open up new parts of the mine.
Smuggler was owned by the group until recently, when it was sold in July to Aspen Green Mountain, a LLC that was formed earlier this year, local media outlets reported. The group was kept on to maintain the mine, volunteering their time to their passion. On a recent tour, each one pointed out different things they have discovered in their years of exploration as they strode down the dark tunnels.
They are also the history keepers of this legacy property, which originally put Aspen on the map, and they pass down their many stories to visitors. “In its heyday, it grossed $98 million for the Hymans,” recalls Jay Parker, referring to the family that once owned the mine.
During that time, Smuggler produced a world record nugget of nearly pure silver that weighed almost a ton and ultimately had to be broken into three pieces to be hauled out of the mine. Until 1918, the mine was still under the Hyman family’s direct supervision. But when silver was devalued in 1893, so was the mine, and after changing hands several times it was eventually closed down.
Tunnels were closed or, in the deepest parts of the mine, collapsed. But there are at least 30 miles of tunnels inside Smuggler Mountain, and more than 100 throughout Aspen. Many of the shafts have not seen people for nearly 60 years.
But now you can explore the cold, dank tunnels and see what it was like to work there about a century ago. During the one-hour tours, volunteers lead groups through a portion of the mine, following the old rail tracks that once hauled tons of silver out of the ground and into the world. You'll wear a hardhat as you explore the mining world that made Aspen famous.
The entrance to the mine is on the first switchback as you head up Smuggler Mountain Road, just on the east side of downtown Aspen. The mine is open Friday through Sunday tours cost . To set up your journey back to the dark labyrinths of the late 19th century (tours cost $30/person), call (970) 925-2049. For more historical tours of Aspen, check out Aspen History.