I’m in southeast Colorado traveling through a valley tucked between the San Isabel National Forest and the White River National Forest, the amazing fall foliage of the Elk Mountains of Colorado are at their peak of color.

The leaves of aspens blowing in the wind resemble thousands of shimmering gold coins.

Suddenly, while I'm traveling through what seems to be the middle of nowhere, a sign declares that a ghost town is to the left. The narrow road turns from smooth asphalt to gravel and then civilization disappears.

Traveling on a twisting and turning road along a crystal-clear creek, I resist the temptation to stop every few minutes for the perfect photograph of nature's beauty on display.

I pass a campground located next to an old cemetery and at the very end of the road the famous ghost town of St. Elmo appears.

In the 1880s, St. Elmo's founders came with dreams of riches of discovering a mine full of gold or silver. At one point, some 150 mines were in the area.

During its most prosperous era, more than 2,000 people lived in this mining town, which had a general store, town hall, saw mill, five hotels, a church, newspaper and telegraph offices, a school and, of course, a saloon.

By 1890 the Denver, South Park and Pacific railroad lines ran through St. Elmo. Within four decades, the mining industry sharply declined. The trains stopped running in 1922 and residents began moving away. In 2002, the town hall burned down — as prophesied in the 1985 John Parr classic "St. Elmo's Fire."

The General Store offers drinks and snacks along with St. Elmo trinkets. At the end of Main Street is a trail that leads hikers deeper into the mountains.

A few families who have a lengthy ties to St. Elmo live in vintage homes along the edge of the once prosperous little town.

After a short stay, I head north to Red Cliff, another historic mining town, where I will stay the night.

As the sky darkens with angry clouds threatening snow, I cross the Red Cliff Bridge, which is actually green and often called the Green Bridge.

Built in 1879, Red Cliff Bridge is a marvelous example of a cantilevered steel arch bridge. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and often is the focus of photographers.

After a drive down to the valley floor, I’m in Red Cliff where the Green Bridge Inn is designed in the style of an 18th century steamboat and serves as the town’s cornerstone.

Family-owned, the three story inn is a stone’s throw from a cold mountain stream. The rustic rooms are paneled with wood from trees in the region that were killed by beetles.

At an altitude of 9,000 feet, this authentic mountain community is the perfect  get-away. Across the street in a restored bank building is the Mango Mountain Grill which serves delicious mango shrimp tacos.

If You Go

A two-hour drive west of Denver in the heart of ski country, Red Cliff is a winter sport destination for cross-country skiing or snowmobiling. It is a bicycling and fly fishing mecca during the summer.

St. Elmo is an hour drive farther south a few miles off Highway 24. Take County Road 306 at Buena Vista and drive until the road ends. Bring your camera, good hiking boots and a treat for the chipmunks. 

Ann Bush is a freelance writer and photographer based in East Texas. 

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