The ghosts that haunt us: A look into the haunts of the Roaring Fork Valley

A woman identified as Nellie Bird stands on Little Nell in the late 1880s. Aspen and Red Mountain can be seen in the background. Bird moved from Leadville and had interests in Aspen and Ashcroft.
Aspen Historical Society/courtesy photo

It’s that time of year again: The time of witches, ghouls, goblins, and pumpkin spice — when spooky and creepy and campy permeate all things pop-culture. 

But, when you live in a place like Aspen, vestiges of the past and parables of the supernatural are present year-round.

The metaphysical aspects of the Roaring Fork Valley are discussed openly but in a hushed tone of voice. Stories of the native Utes — who called this valley “Shining Mountains,” and placed a curse on those who sleep in the shadow of Mt. Sopris to be forever doomed to never leave — are told matter-of-factly to new visitors. And, for those of us who initially came here for a casual visit and are either continually drawn back or stayed for good, that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Snow caps the top of Mt. Sopris after a storm blew in the night before in Carbondale on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, there is no denying that this valley is rich in historical places that give us a clearer picture of our past and that those places have an intangible energy when we spend time in them.

“While we (at Aspen Historical Society) don’t tell the ghost stories, the areas of both Castle Creek and Independence Pass do tell stories of many peoples from the native Utes through the 1960s,” said Nina Gabianelli, vice president of programming and education for AHS.

Eleven miles up Castle Creek Road lies the remnants of the town of Ashcroft. The area was originally inhabited for thousands of years by the indigenous Utes, who spent summers there hunting and fishing. After the treaty of 1880, the Northern and Uncompahgre Utes in Colorado were forcibly removed by then-Governor Frederick Pitkin and relocated to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah.

That’s when the miners came. According to the AHS, which has maintained the ghost town since 1975, “In the spring of 1880, prospectors Charles B. Culver and W. F. Coxhead left the boomtown of Leadville to search for silver deposits in the Castle Creek Valley.” The town, which came to be known as Ashcroft, quickly ballooned to over 2,000 people, which was a much larger population than Aspen at the time. It even had two newspapers.

A crowd gathers in a street at Ashcroft on July 4, 1882. The town was bustling at that time because of local mining activity.
Aspen Historical Society

But, the party was over within three years, when it was discovered that the mines were shallow and couldn’t sustain the population. After 1885, only a handful of aging, single men with mine claims remained, and the last of them, “Judge” Jack Leahy, died in 1939.

A group gathers in front of the Ashcroft Post Office in a photo taken in about 1900. Ashcroft boomed in the early 1880s and went bust before the decade was out.
Aspen Historical Society

On the other side of Aspen, 16 miles up Highway 82, lie the remnants of the first mining town in the Roaring Fork Valley — Independence — so-called because legend has it that “prospectors discovered the Independence Gold Lode on July 4, 1879.” By 1882, the town had a population of roughly 1,500 with businesses, boarding houses, and three saloons. However, like Ashcroft, the boom didn’t last more than a few years, as workers began to migrate to Aspen for more work and a better climate since life was quite difficult at an elevation of 10,900 feet.

One mounted b/w photograph of the Farwell Mill at Independence, when it was still in use. The trees on the hillside have all been cut down, and there is an American flag flying from the top of the building. Date gathered from counting stars on flag. 1896
Aspen Historical Society

By 1888, there were only a 100 citizens left in Independence. In 1899, when the worst storm in Colorado history hit and blocked off supply routes to the town, the remaining men dismantled their homes and made 75 skis on which they escaped into Aspen.

Independence Pass in 1920.
Aspen Historical Society

So, why should we care about any of this?

“The ghost towns will tell us who has lived in this valley. You find very interesting things in the mining sites — metal, bone, stone, leather, glass bottles. As a historian, without looking at the past, we don’t have a way to look forward. We are bound to make the same mistakes,” said Gabianelli.

In 1975, both Ashcroft and Independence made it onto the National Register of Historic Places, and Aspen Historical Society was granted a permit by the U.S. Forest Service to maintain and interpret the ghost town site.

The old boarding house at the ghost town of Ashcroft is an attraction even in winter. You can ski or snowshoe through the ghost town while on the Ashcroft Ski Touring trail network.

These days, when you walk through either Independence or Ashcroft it’s hard not to feel … something. The cool air manifests goosebumps on the skin. There is an undeniable energy that remains, certain smells and sounds that feel familiar that you just can’t place. And, your mind begins to wander, wondering how people were able to live, survive, and even thrive in the High Rockies in those days without the modern conveniences we take for granted. But, are these experiences evidence of the presence of ghosts?

According to Dean Weiler, owner and operator of Dean’s Aspen Tours, it all depends on your perspective and what you consider a ghost to be. He is an actor and storyteller who has been giving walking tours of Aspen since 2007. One of his tours explores the dark side of Aspen and takes guest through the Ute Cemetery.

“Studying cultural anthropology, like ghost stories, are so embedded in our culture and all other cultures, even if it’s just make believe, why do these things exist? And, there’s a desire to know the unknown,” he said.

He attributes his interest in Aspen ghost stories to his love and natural curiosity of history and desire to know more about the people who became before him. He acknowledges he is a bit of a skeptic when it comes to his views on the supernatural but doesn’t deny that many people who take his tours are more attuned to the “other side,” and it’s a condition of telling — or hearing a story over and over again — that makes us, as humans, begin to believe in that story.

“I wouldn’t really label the experiences I’ve had as supernatural so much as getting feelings, like in the Ute cemetery. I’ve been giving that tour for probably about 10 years now. And, it’s really interesting. I don’t know, it could be all my head, but it’s like I have a relationship with the people buried there,” he said.

Dean Weiler
Courtesy photo

He says it’s natural for people to project their hopes and fears on the past and create these connections because of something they may have experienced in their lifetime and the need for connection to lost loved ones.

“Is it really like somebody’s spirit trapped in this world? Or, is it a different parallel universe that we are just bumping up against or remnants that are entered into our memory, like energy of a memory somehow reverberating back to us?” he questioned.

He doesn’t know the answer but finds it all fascinating and admits he continues to learn more about Aspen and the human condition with each tour and encourages guests and locals to reach out to him with any ghost stories they care to share.

And, who does he believe is Aspen’s most famous ghost?

“I think the most famous ghost would be ‘the waterboy’ in the Hotel Jerome. I’ve heard many people, both staff and guests, tell me they have encountered him in the halls. As far as personalities, (that haunt us), it has to be Hunter S. Thompson. There is a certain energy here, right? And, I think that is one of the things that makes Aspen so unique. It’s not just the great sightseeing, great restaurants, and great cultural things, but there’s something else here,” he said.

If you go…

What: Dean’s Aspen Tours, including cemetery and DarkSide tours

When: Most days this month and next (except Thanksgiving week)

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