Colorado has a rich history of mining. Spending three nights at the Hecla Junction Campground in Browns Canyon National Monument near Buena Vista Colorado provided a great base from which to explore the old mining towns of the area.
To get from Mueller State Park to Hecla Junction Campground, we decided to drive the Gold Belt Scenic Byway. Instead of taking County Road 1 from Florissant to Cripple Creek, we continued south on Colorado 67 to Cripple Creek and picked up the Gold Belt route from there. Cripple Creek is a mining town. We could see a lot of mine tailings dotting the hillside just outside of town. The main street of town, Bennett Avenue, is lined with old town store fronts with wonderful mining era architecture. However, some of the buildings are new but made in the old style of architecture. Part of the old Butte Opera House and Theater has been turned into the fire station. Most of the buildings have been combined into large casinos. We found it charming that they maintain the old town feel. We’ll take that over Vegas any day!
We continued through Cripple Creek onto Victor. The large, active gold mine, the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine, dominates the mountain side with its open pit mining activity the whole five mile stretch of road to Victor. Victor, which is a little smaller than Cripple Creek, is also a mining town with old town charm along Victor Avenue, but, unlike Cripple Creek, it has no casinos. After driving through Victor, we headed back to Cripple Creek.
We walked up and down E. Bennett Avenue to stretch our legs and let Right Buddy (RB) take some pictures of the interesting architectural details of the 19th century buildings. We ate lunch in the picnic shelter in the city park. As we were eating, we could see the coal-powered Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad train return to town in the distance, billowing its dark smoke into the air.
There are three legs to the Gold Belt route from Cripple Creek to Cañon City, but we only went on one of them. According to the sign at the Cripple Creek overlook, the Shelf Road is 27 miles long and takes two hours to get to Cañon City. However, it is a 4WD dirt road, so that was not an option for us. The Phantom Canyon Road, which goes from Victor to Florence (not too far from Cañon City), is 35 miles long and also takes two hours. Phantom Canyon Road is an unpaved, winding road that does not allow vehicles over 25 feet in length. Our van could do that road, but two hours of sharp switchbacks on a dirt road did not appeal to us that day, so we opted for the third option: High Park Road. Although High Park Road is 60 miles long, it is paved, has no vehicle restrictions and only takes one and a half hours to reach Cañon City. That sounded good to us.
There was hardly any traffic on High Park Road for most of the drive, until it joined up with Colorado 9. The road winds through rolling mountains, not breathtaking scenery, but very pleasant on the eyes. When we reached Colorado 9, RB was almost dozing off due to the comfortable swaying along the road lulling her to sleep. But Left Buddy’s (LB’s) shin started cramping up, so RB grabbed a Coke to wake herself up and took over driving. Somehow we missed the turn off of US 50 to drive down the historic section of Cañon City, but we did see the sign for Florence, so we headed over there first along Colorado 115. We drove down Main Street in Florence, past the historic Rialto Theater. However, it was not as impressive as Cripple Creek or Victor, so we did not stop. Instead, we headed back to Cañon City. We still struggled a little bit to get onto Main Street because a couple blocks of it were closed due to construction. Again, we decided a drive through town was good enough and did not stop.
From Cañon City, we headed over to Salida on US 50. The highway follows the Arkansas River through a gorgeous canyon. RB saw a few stone structures on the canyon walls that she thinks might have been prehistoric shelters as they looked similar to the dwellings we saw in Canyon of the Ancients (Canyons of the Ancients – July 11th to 13th, 2020) and Mesa Verde (Mesa Verde National Park – July 13th to 16th, 2020) earlier in the summer. For several miles, there were empty railroad box cars parked along the tracks that followed the river canyon. That’s a lot of box cars! We’re not sure if they are being temporarily stored there or it is some type of railroad graveyard. Either way, that probably means that the railroad tracks are no longer being used for train traffic as we only saw one set of tracks along the canyon.
We stopped in Salida to find a park with enough cell service for LB to get some work done. We headed for Riverside Park. We found a shady spot in the parking lot just on the other side of the Arkansas River from the park. The cell service was not great, but good enough. After working for a little bit, RB took a walk with her camera to check out the town. There were a lot of people relaxing in the park, but just as many enjoying the river in the hot summer sun. Kids with tubes or boards were balancing themselves on some of the waves. Just upstream from the park, a kayak course was set up in the river and people were testing out their skills. Some people were just floating through the mild rapids in their life vests.
The town itself was very charming. F Street headed away from the river from the park. Several blocks of it were closed off from vehicles so that tables could be set up in the street. The street was lined with old buildings with detailed architecture filled with shops, bars and restaurants. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
RB went back to get LB to see if he wanted ice cream from a shop she spotted in the Boat House building. The shop is called Chill Salida Ice Cream. RB really enjoyed her cone of mint chocolate chip and salted peanut butter cup. LB was not as impressed with his vanilla shake, mainly because they coated the inside of the cup with chocolate sauce.
From Salida, it was only a twenty minute drive to our destination for the night, Hecla Junction Campground. Hecla Junction is run by the Colorado State Parks and Wildlife, but it is inside the Browns Canyon National Monument. From US 285, it is a 2.5 mile drive down a dirt road to the campground, which is alongside the Arkansas River. It is a steep, narrow and winding road. Our Red Tail Lodge did not have any problems with the dirt road, but we wouldn’t want to drive a large rig down it. Hecla Junction is also a popular rafting take out point for rafting the Browns Canyon section of the Arkansa River. Since it was around 5 pm as we were driving down to the campground, we passed many buses and vans loaded with rafts heading out.
The campground is in a lovely setting. Rocky canyon walls and a small section of the river are visible from our campsite. From other parts of the campground, the Collegiate Peaks are visible to the west. From the campground, the river is accessible by either walking down the road to the boat ramp or by a short scramble down some undefined rocky trails from the edge of the campground.
For dinner we had gazpacho soup since our cucumber and green pepper were starting to shrivel in the heat of the van. RB used the hand blender (paid link) to puree the cucumber, green pepper, tomatoes, and bread crumbs together. A dash of red pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar finishes off the soup. A cold soup was refreshing since Hecla Junction was much warmer than Mueller State Park. The thermometer read in the high 80’s when we arrived. We were a little concerned that it would be a little warm while sleeping in the van, since there are no electrical hookups to run the air conditioning. However, the temperatures cooled down quite a bit in the evening, getting down in the 50’s overnight. Perfect sleeping weather. As the sun set that evening, we were treated with a colorful sky above the canyon walls. Later that night, the stars and Milky Way came out for us to enjoy.
We set aside the next full day for working, but that does not mean we didn’t have our share of excitement that day.
The sliding door of our van faced south, so putting the awning out did not really give us any shade to work in. However, we put the awning out anyway to shade the van to keep it from heating up in the sun. We put up the Moon Shade on the driver’s side of the van which gave us plenty of shade to set up our chairs and camping table to work. The last time we were home, LB added a couple of eyebolts to the van roof rack on the driver’s side to hook the Moon Shade into. We felt this would hold better than the large magnets in the wind. The Moon Shade comes with a couple of pull cords that can be attached to the carabiners on the corners of the shade so that the carabiners can be operated from a distance. These allowed us to hook the carabiners into the eyebolts high above our heads. The setup went pretty smoothly. We anchored the poles on the other two corners of the shade with one cord each and used large rocks instead of stakes because the ground was too soft for the stakes to hold.
The cell signal came and went, so LB was a little frustrated. Then RB wrestled with Final Cut Pro, trying to get it to render the right font. While the video was rendering, she decided to relax the best way she knew how, go for a walk with her camera (paid link).
The Arkansas River Trail leads south from the boat ramp and follows alongside the river for about a mile. For most of the way, the river is pretty calm and not many boats went by. RB had a great time though, being creative and taking pictures of a variety of subjects. Near the end of the trail, or she thinks it was the end, there was a small set of rapids and a small excavator abandoned on the bank of the river.
While RB was gone on her walk, LB was back working at the camper van. LB felt a little breeze, then the intensity picked up. He looked up and saw a large dust devil heading for the neighboring campsite. He grabbed our awning and held on for dear life to keep it from ripping off of our van while cursing the fact that RB was not there to help him. The next thing he knew, one of the tents in the neighboring site rolled over a couple of times, then their large tent was suddenly picked up off the ground and lifted 100 to 150 feet up in the air. The dust devil carried it about 100 yards over to the river and dropped it in the river. He could hear the people down at the boat ramp whooping and hollering as they watched the tent in the air. The fly of the tent flew even higher, about 300 feet in the air. The fly floated up in the air for several minutes before it was carried over the river and beyond the ridge of the opposite bank. No one knows where the fly came down, probably somewhere deep in the Browns Canyon Wilderness. In the meantime, LB managed to yell over to a couple of guys in another campsite to come help him get our awning in. They managed to get it in without any damage that they could see.
Someone pulled the large tent out of the river. It still had about 30 pounds of gear in it, like bedding and clothing. A park ranger brought the tent back to the owner’s campsite, with the contents soaking wet. When the occupants returned to their campsite, they seemed to handle the situation rather calmly. We don’t know if the tent was damaged or if they got all of the parts of it back. They did not put the tent back up. Most people would have left the campground at that point, but they stayed another night. They seemed to be part of a large group. We don’t know what they did for sleeping arrangements that night. Perhaps they squeezed into some of the other tents, slept in a car, or some combination of the two. The next morning we overheard one of them say that they were still in the same clothes they arrived in two days earlier because all of their other clothes were still wet.
A little while later after the dust devil was long gone, LB walked around the other side of the van to check on the Moon Shade. The wind had knocked the poles of the shade over against the van which left a few scratches on the van, but the shade was still attached to the roof rack. The scratches are not too noticeable. They will just become some of our battle scars from traveling.
Of course, RB returned from her walk, totally oblivious to what had happened in the campground. There was no wind where she was, about a mile down the river from the campground, too far away to hear all the commotion. LB filled her in on what happened. The lesson we learned was that we probably shouldn’t have the awning or shade out when we are not both there.
For dinner we had pizza tortillas with pepperoni, cheese, onions, tomato sauce, and what was once a green pepper. When we bought the pepper from the store, it was green. As it sat for a week hanging in our net bag (paid link), it gradually turned mostly red before we used it. The previous day, a woman by the name of JJ had asked us some questions about our hitch swing-away arm. After the local wind event earlier in the day, LB helped JJ put away their Thule awning. JJ, her partner Chesley, and their dog Ravi were camping in a converted Dodge Ram Promaster. They had never used the awning before and were having some issues bringing it back in. After LB helped them out, he arranged for us to go over after dinner and check out their converted van. We then gave them a tour of our van. We had an enjoyable evening exchanging ideas about camper vans with them. After dark, we sat outside staring at the stars, watching for shooting stars, and seeing how many satellites we could spot traversing the night sky.
The next day was a day of ghost towns. After breakfast we headed out on a driving tour. We left our bicycles at our campsite just to make it easier to park and maneuver our van since we were really not sure what the roads and parking situations would be like that day. Our first destination was St. Elmo. The drive up county road 162 was pretty. It goes along the base of Mt. Princeton, right by the Chalk Cliffs, following the Chalk Creek in Chalk Canyon. The canyon seems to be a popular place for ATV’s and OHV’s, with several trailheads and US Forest Service campgrounds along the way. The road is paved until the last 5.5 miles to St. Elmo, but the dirt section is good for most 2WD vehicles. We were thankful that we left our bikes behind because there was a deep dip at a dry wash which we might have scraped our bike hitch on.
We had been to St. Elmo about a decade or two earlier. It is much more touristy now. St. Elmo is not technically a ghost town since there are several residents in the town. There is an operating General Store and an antique shop open for the public. There is even a hotel, called the Ghost Town Guest House, where you can spend the night in St. Elmo. There are several buildings you can peer into the windows and see what was abandoned inside. You just have to pay attention to the signs so that you respect people’s privacy and don’t peer into an occupied house. It looked like normally there are a couple of buildings you can go into, but they were currently closed due to COVID. One building was set up like a museum inside with lots of information about the town.
There is a parking lot to park in before you enter the town and there were lots of people there that Sunday. It might be less crowded on a weekday. There are plaques on each of the buildings indicating what they were and the year they were built. Luckily, LB was paying attention and saw a map of the town and saw there was another street of buildings on the other side of the creek. RB would have missed it. There is also a restroom located behind the old school building on the second street which we gladly took advantage of. The road continues past the town and over Tin Cup Pass and eventually leads to another ghost town, Tin Cup. However, the road is better for 4WD, ATV’s and OHV’s than our van, so we headed back down to Buena Vista.
Along the way back down country road 162, we stopped at the Cascade Falls View pullout, between the Cascade Campground and the Chalk Lake Campground along the Chalk Creek. It felt good to rejuvenate ourselves with the sounds of nature after being among the loud vehicles and people at St. Elmo.
We drove to Columbine Park in Buena Vista to have lunch. Since it was Sunday, the traffic through Buena Vista was heavy as people were trying to drive home after a weekend in the mountains.
After lunch, we headed for another ghost town, Winfield this time. It is on Forest Service Road 390, north of Buena Vista, along Clear Creek. Once we got past the Clear Creek Reservoir, the dirt road got really bumpy. Our research said the road should be fine for 2WD vehicles which is probably true, but in order to not rattle our teeth loose, we could only average about ten mph. It was 12 miles of dirt road to reach Winfield. There is another town along the way, Vicksburg, which is about eight miles in. After thirty minutes of slow, bumpy traveling, we made it to Vicksburg. Windfield was probably another half an hour away. We decided Vicksburg was good enough for us and stopped to tour it. Technically, Vicksburg was never a ghost town. It has had continuous residents since its founding in 1867. A couple of buildings are available for the public to tour and peer into, along with mining artifacts labeled and displayed outside. The one building is a museum, but just like St. Elmo, it was closed due to COVID. There is a button you can push to hear a recording of a short history of the town. Along the other side of the main street of Vicksburg, Broadway, there is a row of cabins which are privately owned and occupied by dependents of the original residents of Vicksburg. You can walk along the street and view them from a short distance. Although we saw many parked vehicles, we were the only ones in Vicksburg. Everyone else seemed to be there for the nearby Missouri Gulch Trailhead.
We turned around at Vicksburg and headed back to US 24 for another thirty minutes of bumping and bouncing. We stopped at a different park, McPhelemy Park, in Buena Vista in search of a cell phone signal that would allow RB to upload a video. RB started the upload and we walked down Main Street in search of ice cream. We went to Louie’s Ice Cream Shop. It was a cute little shop with a long line for ice cream, which is usually a good sign. They serve Lik’s Ice Cream from Denver. RB got her usual waffle cone with a dip of mint chip and another dip of chocolate. LB got a thick vanilla shake. They were tasty, but we enjoyed the ice cream at Chill Salida better. After eating our ice cream, we continued walking down towards the river before turning back to the van. Buena Vista just didn’t seem to have the same appeal and vibe that Salida had.
When we got back to the van, the upload was still going to be another couple of hours, so RB stopped the upload. We’ll try again the next day. Our original plan was to head to Poncha Springs to use the automated dump station at the Welcome Center and fill up on fresh water. Hecla Junction Campground has no dump station, no fresh water and no trash cans or dumpsters, only vault toilets. We normally go through about 6 gallons of fresh water per day which means we also have up to 6 gallons of gray water per day. We filled up our two six gallon fresh water tanks and emptied both of our gray tanks before leaving Mueller State Park. However, we were staying three nights at Hecla Junction. Going into Poncha Springs meant spending an hour and $10 to dump. After reading some of the reviews of the automated dump station, we were not sure it would work for us because people were saying you had a limited time to insert your dump hose into the dump station. We don’t have a dump hose. We just pour our gray containers using a spout. Somehow we had conserved enough water that we felt we could make it to Crawford State Park, our destination for the next day, so we skipped dumping our tanks.
We got back to the campground in time to make dinner. The menu that night was an egg scramble with bacon, onions, a yellow zucchini from our garden, a tomato, and some cheese. Again we sat outside after dark gazing at all the stars.
Although the old (non-)ghost towns were something different and interesting to tour, we enjoyed our time at the Hecla Junction Campground even more. Despite not having much in the way of amenities, the surrounding setting and solitude of the campground more than made up for it. What are your favorite campgrounds to relax in?
Check out our related video: Buena Vista Ghost Towns