When gold was discovered in Central City, Colo., in 1859, it transformed a pine-forested area tucked in the mountains into one of the West’s fanciest cities. Known early in its history as “the richest square mile on Earth,” it was home to an opulent opera house and one of the most luxurious hotels in the West.
While Colorado’s gold rush has come and gone, Central City today is a fantastic and affordable destination. You can catch a show in its iconic opera house, stroll its beautiful historic downtown, peruse art galleries, hike on trails that follow ore tram lines and even roll the dice in its casinos housed in storied historic buildings.
“You’re just a 45-minute drive from Union Station in Denver, but you feel like you’ve arrived at a completely different destination,” says Central City Mayor Jeremy Fey who moved to Central City in 2017 but spent his childhood visiting the town. Fey and his brother Tyler Fey have revived the Central Jazz Festival that takes place the first weekend of June and originally ran in the 1970s through the early 1990s.
You can experience Central City’s storied mining history in a number of ways, including panning for gold and using a hammer and chisel to try to get gold from a gold-ore vein at the Hidee Gold Mine. The best part? You get to keep a sample of whatever you chisel or uncover panning.
Afterwards, head to the Teller House, once touted as the most lavish hotel between Chicago and San Francisco, for amazing food at JKQ BBQ. Order the smoked kielbasa, a pulled pork sandwich with tater tots or try the green chile mac and cheese. Note: During this COVID-19 era, JKQ BBQ is only open for reservation-only events.
Then, explore Central City’s streets lined with gorgeous buildings from the 1800s and early 1900s. You’ll discover art galleries and boutiques that are stocked with Colorado-made artworks and crafts. There are also six casinos, three of which are locally owned.
For an insider’s look back into the past, go on a guided tour of the town with the Gilpin History Museum and Tour Office. If you show up on a weekend, you may even get a tour from Fey himself who’s passionate about the town’s history. His favorite tour to lead is through the Thomas House, which was built in 1867, nine years before Colorado officially became a state.
“It’s literally frozen in time since the family left it to the historical society in the 1920s,” Fey says. “It’s such a wonderful capsule of time.”
Along the way, you’ll tour the legendary Central City Opera House built in 1878. Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlab designed the stone-based structure and San Francisco artist John C. Massman painted the stunning trompe l’oeil murals inside. You can still see shows here today, making it the fifth oldest professional opera company operating in the country. Over the years, audiences have enjoyed operas, plays, movies, boxing matches and even political rallies inside its 550-seat theater.
When you’re ready to hit the trails, OHV enthusiasts can ride on a number of incredible trails in the area that stretch all the way to St. Mary's Glacier. Close to town, the Yankee Hill OHV Road is rated moderate and is accessible by taking Eureka Street until it turns to gravel. Then follow Forest Road 176.1 to 739.1 and then north to 175.3.
The town also has trails for hikers that are tied to the town’s gold rush. You can walk on a really interesting network of abandoned tramways that used to help move ore. They are level and suitable for all sorts of hiking abilities, Fey says. Plus, the views are beautiful. While the trails are not signed, you can ask a local how to access them.
“When you come to town, it’s not only state and territory history but it’s human history,” Fey says. “Our nickname is the “richest square mile on Earth,” but it’s not just a cute name. “More gold came out of here than anywhere else in the world from 1859-62.”
Hot tip for parking. There are two free lots to park your car while you stroll around town. The Big T Lot is across from City Hall that is located at 141 Nevada St., and the Century Parking Garage is at 111 Lawrence St.
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