I remember my first trip to Apex as a child very distinctly- We chugged down the bumpy dirt road in my dad’s old green Chevy pickup to a “neat place” he knew about just up the road. I was a little guy, probably 7 or 8 years old and my entire life at the time was fishing and baseball. Being in the mountains, I assumed Apex must be some place to fish, because, in my mind at the time, the only thing you did in the mountains was fish for trout. We finally reached a wide spot at the end of the road, and I was a little confused- there wasn’t anywhere to fish, just a cluster of falling down shacks and a few old buildings. I couldn’t understand why my dad had driven me up to this place where there were no fish??? I couldn’t understand why anyone would live in the mountains where there wasn’t a good trout stream or pond??? I was a little too young at the time to understand greed and “gold fever” and all those things that make men do strange things and travel to strange places. I wasn’t too upset though, because the tumbledown buildings were pretty interesting to a little kid.
That initial trip to Apex for me must have been sometime in the mid-1980’s. The memory always stuck in my mind for some odd reason, and the swaying, false-fronted building I first saw as a little kid at Apex is probably what got me hooked on the hobby of “ghost towning” today.
I ventured back up to Apex a couple of years ago to see what, if anything, remained of the strange place with nowhere to fish that I remembered as a kid. Although nearly 30 years had passed since that first glimpse of the town, I was happy to see Apex was still, relatively the same.
The old swaying false-fronted building still stands proud, and is listed as “Site #001” in the Gilpin County Historical Society register. A small brass plaque is affixed the front of the precariously fragile old structure recognizing it’s historic significance. Apparently this was one of the Hotels in Apex during the boom years of the 1890’s, but I question that, the building seems a little to small to harbor more than one or two guests.
There is another tall, swayback, rickety building next door to the “hotel”. I can’t find any information on what this building was, but it was most likely a business of some sort. It is heavily overgrown and although a beautiful old building in many aspects, it just doesn’t photograph well. I’ve tried repeatedly to get a good angle on it, but the overgrowth around it, and the dark stained timbers that make up the building just make a good shot difficult…if I actually knew anything about photography I might get a decent image, but I’ve had no luck yet.
It’s hard to imagine that this tiny cluster of cabins used to be a bustling city that served as the “capitol” of the Pine Creek Mining District in the 1890’s. An Idaho Springs newspaper wrote, during the boom years, that Apex boasted over 100 businesses on it’s Main Street and nearly 1,000 residents. Several stage lines ran through Apex daily, as well as daily mail service. The main gold mine in the area assayed at $1,800/ton by 1890’s numbers which today would equate to $110,500/ton! Vintage photographs show Apex had two, possibly three, north-south streets and one major east-west street (modern day Elk Park Road). Apex had several saloons and dance halls, a grocery store, hotels, mining company offices, a post office, a newspaper “The Apex Pine Cone”, and even a school house which still stands today just across the street from the leaning hotel. Apex fell victim to at least two forest fires which ravaged and destroyed much of the original business district, which is why so little of the town remains today when compared to old photographs. Oddly, for a large business center, I have found no record that Apex ever had it’s own cemetery. I assume residents were taken down the hill and buried in one of Central City’s cemeteries.
Apex is mostly abandoned, except for two or three people who have summer cabins in the area, and one extremely colorful year-round resident. If you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to meet the Mayor of Apex, be prepared to spend 15 or 20 minutes listening to all kinds of tall tales and fantastic stories of adventure, intrigue, espionage and the science of radio wave frequencies. I’ve met “The Mayor” twice, and he is a friendly and likable fellow…although I do suspect he may be a little on the insane side. He lives up Elk Park road in the cabin surrounded by snow mobiles in varying stages of decay. The Mayor will greet anyone with a smile and a handshake. He is unique though, and once he starts talking you won’t get a word in edgewise until he’s said his piece, so if you stop to shake hands, make sure you have some time to spare.
Heading up Apex Valley road off of Colorado 119 just past Black Hawk on the way to Nederland, a decent graded dirt road will take you to what’s left of Apex. At the town site the road branches- the left fork (Elk Park Road) will take past a few old cabins and up to “The Mayors” residence, after which the road gets rocky and steep and turns into a 4X4 trail that leads to the mining camps of Nugget, American City and Kingston up on Pile Hill, before dropping down into Mammoth Gulch. By going straight or taking the right fork of Apex Valley Road at the town site you will find the hotel, school house, and the other old structures marking what’s left of Main Street in Apex. The road continues north up Dakota Hill but there isn’t much to see.
My recent snooping around Apex also revealed a second north-south street buried in the trees. Just after you turn left on the Elk Park Road, a sign in the trees says “White Gulch Road” and you can see a couple of old cabins buried in the woods. I do not know if this road is public or private, so approach it with caution if you choose to investigate. I drove up the road once, and there are several foundations and an abandoned cabin or two along it. The road dead ends at gate marked “KEEP OUT” and what looks like a modern small-scale mining operation. My gut tells me it is probably a good idea to stay off this second road in Apex unless someone gives you permission.
Apex has had a strange hold on me ever since my first visit. It’s not my favorite ghost town, and it’s certainly not the most interesting ghost town, but I always find myself in Apex when I’m in the area. When the winter snows begin to melt, Apex is one of the first high-country ghost towns you can access, and each thaw it amazes me that that old leaning false-fronted building has survived another winter without falling down.
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