BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — What I remember most about my first trip to Gold Hill was the look on my dad’s face as he white-knuckled the steering wheel of his two-wheel drive Toyota sedan while it fought its way up the precariously steep county road MapQuest told us to take to meet a hippie who allegedly had Rocky Mountain Folks Festival tickets.
That was almost a decade ago, and I still recall the moment when the car finally crested Lickskillet Road and emerged onto Gold Hill’s Main Street, where we were rewarded with 360-degree views of the Indian Peaks and Longs Peak, as well as a visit to a rustic Colorado town that hasn’t changed much since the 1970s … or late 1800s, for that matter.
Those tickets were to one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen (the Swell Season at Planet Bluegrass, for what it’s worth), and the adventure introduced me to an off-the-beaten path Colorado town that became one of my all-time favorites – even after my last visit there, when I covered the aftermath of the devastating Fourmile Canyon fire, and the community’s resilience.
A Google search of Gold Hill reveals that some folks out there think it’s a ghost town, but outside of the historic cemetery, this town 11 miles west of Boulder remains very much alive.
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The oldest permanent mining camp in Colorado also has some musical history
The story of Gold Hill begins in Nebraska. But not the Nebraska that you’re thinking of.
Instead, after gold was first discovered in January 1859, this area became “Mountain District No. 1 at mining district in Nebraska” – the first such territory. And, the good news is the gold led to a population boom courtesy of hundreds of folks seeking their fortune – making it the first permanent mining camp in what we now call Colorado.
Of course, any economy built around finite resources has booms and busts, and the population seriously declined after an 1860 fire. The economy picked up again in 1872, when miners found tellurium in the area, and the population reached 1,000.
But, the population of the town dwindled again as mining declined at the turn of the century, and it wasn’t until what’s now the Bluebird Lodge opened that the tourism industry began to discover this oasis tucked just west of Boulder and east of Nederland.
Now, the population lingers at around 200 people living in cabins along a grid of steep dirt roads. Joan Few, the curator at the Gold Hill Museum, said the town might be small, but it attracts all kinds of characters.
“There are a lot of retired academics, a lot of artists, a lot of musicians,” she said. “We have everything from builders to contractors to teachers. It’s just a broad gamut.”
One of Gold Hill's claims to fame is its concerts at the Gold Hill Inn. Back in the 1960s, the Dillards – an influential brother bluegrass duo – started regularly playing at the historic wooden structure.
Stephen Stills (a founding member of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) lived in a cabin just outside Gold Hill. In fact, he posed for the cover of his first solo album there on Sept. 20, 1970 – the morning he learned that Jimi Hendrix had died.
Stills was known for driving around Gold Hill in his Mercedes van, as well as volunteering for the local fire department. He also liked the town so much that he named his publishing company after it.
“Many of us are up here because we love the quiet, we love the wild animals, we love the views, we love the scenery,” Few said.
What’s a good view if you don’t earn it?
Part of Gold Hill’s isolation stems from how hard it can be to get there. There are two options: either take Sunshine Canyon Road up from Boulder, or take a left up Lickskillet Road from Lefthand Canyon. Both options can be an adventure, but the latter is especially famous.
It’s widely quoted that the mile-long Lickskillet Road is the steepest county road in the U.S. At this point though, there’s no way to actually verify that.
“We do believe it’s our steepest maintained road,” Boulder County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Carrie Haverfield wrote in an email. “… we can’t confirm that it’s the steepest county road in the U.S. We’ve heard that rumor too.”
Nevertheless, Haverfield could confirm the grade reaches between 16 to 18 percent. And this has made it something of a prize for the endurance athletes who flock to Boulder like a moth looking for a lamp.
Kyle Pietari, an ultrarunner who lives in Denver, has the fastest known time running down Lickskillet, clocking a sub-four-minute-mile during an attempt that’s gotten thousands of views on YouTube.
“I would say that my hamstrings were never more sore at any time in my life than after Lickskillet,” Pietari wrote. “Even more sore than they are after a 100-miler, and my arms, and abs and core muscles were really sore as well.”
The uphill, meanwhile, once attracted a “beer mile” involving some of the most well-known endurance athletes in the world.
A tiny Main Street with more to explore than you’d think
Walmart isn’t the only place that sells everything from paper towels to coffee to survival gear. For that, look no father than the Gold Hill Store, which occupies a creaking, decades-old structure that’s something of a meeting place for the town’s dozens of residents.
Here, you can get both coffee and booze, as well as peruse multiple books about the town’s history … and buy a Bear Grylls survival knife, if that’s something you need.
This is the only place in town that’s open during the day.
At night though, the Gold Hill Inn and Bluebird Lodge come alive, with dinners Wednesday through Saturday and concerts during the summer. This venue, which hasn’t changed much since the family first purchased it in the 1960s, attracts big regional acts like the Strangebyrds and the Bonnie and the Clydes.
Just down the street is the historic Gold Hill School. Open since 1873, it’s the oldest continually-operated public school in the state.
This two-room schoolhouse serves grades K-5 and relies in part on private funding to stay afloat thanks to its size and rural location.
Just up the street from this is the Gold Hill Museum, which was recently recognized as one of the best in the state. It’s open starting Memorial Day weekend.
At the other side of the town is the Gold Hill Cemetery, which has graves as old as the town itself against a backdrop of Colorado’s Front Range.
Many people pass through Gold Hill on their way to the Switzerland Trailhead, which zigzags along the peaks outside of Boulder and is hugely popular with mountain hikers and off-roaders.
Living in Gold Hill
Dozens of homes near the town were destroyed during the Fourmile Canyon Fire, and evidence of the devastation remains, even almost a decade later.
Since this is Boulder County, don’t expect moving into the area to be particularly cheap … unless you manage to snag one of the historic homes in the town (a cursory lap revealed that none appeared to be for sale).
On Zillow, property within 15 miles ranges from $4.75 million mountain mansions to a $675,000 home with a big lot in Fourmile Canyon.
Rentals are rare, but also available. A look at Craigslist revealed a four-bedroom home for $2,200 a month – which isn’t bad compared to the prices of the distant homes in Boulder you can see just down the hill, but a world away.
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