Aspen Historical Society hosts ‘History in Your Backyard: Hunter Creek Valley Camps’

The structure known as the roadhouse sits in a prominent spot for visitors of the Hunter Creek Valley. It’s shown here in February 2020 with an outhouse to the side.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Far before champagne-powder ski runs, Aspen was, of course, another untouched frontier wilderness see-sawing the edge of civilization. Ute Indians foraged and hunted Roaring Fork Valley forests for eight centuries. Miners began excavating its mountains for coal in the late 19th century.

Remnants of Aspen’s embryonic stages of becoming a full-fledged incorporated Colorado municipality are found along a simple hike between Red and Smuggler mountains. Log cabins on Hunter Creek Trail are currently being restored by the Hunter Creek Historical Foundation.

Next week, the Aspen Historical Foundation hosts a panel of historians and guests involved in this effort to restore and preserve this otherwise fleeting site. Called “History in Your Backyard: Hunter Creek Valley Camps,” the adult-education program delves into site history and details on what it’s like to resuscitate 19th-century infrastructure.

“I’ve been hiking out at Hunter Creek Valley for decades,” Nina Gabianelli, Aspen Historical Society vice president of education and programs, said. “And I didn’t know a lot of this information.”

The panel features well-known Aspen freelance writer Tim Cooney, who’s developing a written history for the site, as well as Hunter Creek Historical Foundation board members Graeme Means, Tim McFlynn and George Newman. 

Hunter Creek Valley acted as an access point to Aspen, when it was founded as a mining camp in the early 1880s, Gabianelli said. But, while mining activities claimed Smuggler Mountain, this high-hanging valley was reserved for ranching and logging.

Established here during this formative time was Adelaide Ranch, a genuine homestead and dairy farm owned by William Koch. These buildings essentially aided in supplying food for a young Aspen, which included barns, cabins, and a two-story structure dubbed “the roadhouse.”

A building identified as the shop in the Hunter Creek Valley, on right.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

“Currently, those buildings are in different levels of disrepair,” Gabianelli said.

Stepping in to help to curate and better tell the interpretive story of this area is the Hunter Creek Historical Foundation. With the help of donations and pledges, as well as permission granted by the U.S. Forest Service, the foundation has partnered with Morrison-based nonprofit HistoriCorps in undergoing the two-phase restoration project for the 60-acre site.

This process of restabilizing structures started just last week, and Means had just returned from higher ground on Sept. 8 when he said, “we want to tell a story of why we saved those buildings.”

“As an architect, I’m amazed that that one building is still standing,” he said, referring to the roadhouse. “There’s definitely a great threat to these buildings — them falling down, getting blown down, or wind-loaded, or snow-loaded down. Also, some of the buildings have been abused with bad graffiti.”

Means said access to the camp buildings are now restricted; nobody can fully enter. Window openings are covered with hog wire.

He said the aim is to not turn this site into another Ashcroft or ghost town of Independence. Instead, it’s more aligned with evoking a sense of natural wonder from whomever passes by.

If you go…

What: ‘History in Your Backyard: Hunter Creek Valley Camps’

When: 5:30-7 p.m. Sept. 20

Where: Wheeler/Stallard Museum grounds, 620 W. Bleeker St.

Tickets: $10 in advance


“The hikers who walk by will wonder about the history of the valley and maybe not be given all the answers,” he said. “Let their imagination go a little bit. ‘Hey, who lived in these cabins? What were they doing up here?’”

Donations for the restoration effort can be made at

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