If you love to wander around old ghost towns, you’ll want to eventually find your way to Animas Forks, deep within the San Juan Mountain Range in southwestern Colorado. This boomtown went bust nearly a century ago, but plenty of relics from the good times remain, including numerous houses and ruins of the old mining operations. Best of all, it’s located in an impossibly beautiful high-altitude mountain landscape.
When you arrive in Animas Forks, you’re greeted with some excellent old ruins of a town that withered away, a century ago. One old mining operation (the Columbus Mine) remains perched on one hillside above the Animas River…
… and on the other side of the stream, there are numerous houses.
The roofs have been replaced on some of them, but otherwise they’ve been left untouched (except by time).
You’re free to go almost anywhere you want to, within reason. You can wander inside those old houses, but you should step carefully, for obvious reasons.
One of the first houses you’re likely to explore will be the Gustavson Home, since it’s near the parking area. The Gustavson Home was built around 1906 or 1907, and was famous for having an indoor toilet (or more accurately, an in-house outhouse).
That makes the Gustavson Home one of Animas Forks’ newest structures. The town sprung up in the mid-1870’s. By 1882, it had its own newspaper, and in 1883, 450 people lived there.
The weather made it tough to live in Animas Forks. In 1884, a blizzard dumped 25 feet of snow on the town, and residents had to dig tunnels between buildings. Over the years, landslides swept away many of the town’s buildings. Most people left in the fall, and returned in the spring.
Not long after the start of the 20th century, mining was on the decline. The town’s Gold Prince Mill closed in 1910. Within another decade, Animas Forks was a ghost town.
It’s hard to imagine such a harsh life in such a beautiful place, especially when you visit during the summer or fall, when all the snow is gone. During these times, you can enjoy incredible views out the windows of the old houses.
Seriously, that’s a pretty good view, right? This window looks south, towards Silverton, at the valley you just drove through to get here.
A hundred years ago, this would have been trash. Now, it’s a historic relic — and i’m guessing, it’s also one of the most photographed broken bottles in the world.
Another notable building is the Duncan House or Walsh House, a two-story structure that overlooked the Columbus Mine.
The house is most notable for its bay window, which provides a perfect frame for the mountain scenery.
The Duncan/Walsh House was built by William Duncan, and later purchased by Tom Walsh. Walsh was a successful miner, who is remembered for giving his daughter, Evalyn, the Hope Diamond as a wedding present. Some sources say Evalyn lived in this house, others dispute that claim.
And yes, you can climb up to the second story of the Duncan/Walsh House. That bottom step is a little tricky, though.
Before leaving, I walked over to the other side of the creek, for a closer look at the old mining works. This is certainly an area that’s more treacherous than the rest of Animas Forks. I assume you could climb up there, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The mining ruins are located at a crossroads. From here, you have a choice of two roads, leading to either California Gulch or Engineer and Cinnamon Passes.
… which I thought was one of the prettiest places I’d ever seen. If you followed that dirt road from Animas Forks, you’d come up this valley, and eventually end up at this viewpoint. In 2005, I was trying to find Animas Forks, but made some significant wrong-turns. I had no idea that if I had continued down into California Gulch, I’d eventually make it to Animas Forks.
I don’t know the condition of the road to California Gulch, but I can tell you about the road to Engineer and Cinnamon Passes. I decided to give it a try, and for about a minute or two, it was great. I was quickly climbing up above Animas Forks, and the remarkable views were getting even better. But the fun didn’t last long. Just a few hundred yards up the road, I came upon a spot that appeared too rough for my stock SUV. With no place to turn around, and no way to go forward, I threw it in reverse, and carefully backed down the hill (creating a great deal of anxiety in my passenger!)
If I had successfully traveled Engineer Pass Road, I would have reached US 550 near Ouray. I saw the other end of the road, later in the day, and it looked pretty rough there too. And while I’m sure the dirt road was awesome, I would have missed the Million Dollar Highway portion of US 550, so I suppose it’s just as well that I backtracked into Silverton.
And trust me, there’s nothing un-spectacular about the road back to Silverton.
The Bottom Line
Bodie, California will likely remain, in my eyes, the best ghost town I’ve ever visited, but I think Animas Forks deserves to be a very close second. The town’s remote location makes it tough to reach, but also adds to the beauty of the ruins. If you love exploring old ghost towns, this is one that you’ll need to add to your list.
Animas Forks requires some effort to reach. It’s located north of Silverton, Colorado.
From downtown Silverton, head north on Greene Street. Watch for a right turn onto County Road 2 near the end of town. If you stay on Greene Street, it will curve around and head towards the Silverton Mountain Ski Area — this is the wrong direction.) Follow CR 2 past the cemetery, then through Howardsville, Middleton, and Eureka. You’ll be traveling alongside the Animas River the entire time.
This road starts off as a smooth, wide dirt path, but gets rougher as you go. By the end, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle (but you’ll probably be okay without a 4-wheel-drive).
Also, be aware that you’ll be climbing in elevation, from 9,308 feet (2,837 meters) at Silverton to 11,200 feet (3,414 meters) at Animas Forks. That’s high enough to cause some serious elevation sickness, if you’re not acclimated.