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The town of Tin Cup. Photo by Shauna Farnell
Adventure

The Part-Time Ghost Town of Tin Cup Is Still an Outdoor Mecca

The former mining area and inspiration behind a Colorado-born brown liquor remains a recreation paradise.

When Jess Graber first came across Tin Cup during a Boy Scout camping trip in 1962, the area surrounding the old mining town in Gunnison County seemed magical.

“It was the promised land,” he says, describing the landscape’s wildflower-filled meadows in the summer, flame-colored aspen groves in the fall, rugged peaks, scented pines, and streams teeming with trout. “It’s what made me fall in love with Colorado.”

After college, Graber, who grew up in Missouri, headed straight for the Rocky Mountains, where he spent time as a volunteer firefighter, rodeo rider, and skijorer. He would also go on to found Stranahan’s, Colorado’s first official whiskey that catapulted the Centennial State’s craft spirit craze, as well as Tincup whiskey, which drew its name from the town that inspired his love of Colorado.

He’ll tell you that the whiskey, as well as Tin Cup the town, were so named because the area’s original gold miners kept tin cups in their pockets to collect the smallest particles of gold that would otherwise get lost in the fabric of their clothes. They’d saddle up to one of Tin Cup’s saloons, dump their cups of gold dust out on the bar, and refill the cups with the whiskey they’d drink all night long.

But that’s not totally accurate.

According to Gunnison County historian Duane Vandenbusche, the miners used leather pouches to collect their gold dust.“It’d be hard to carry that stuff in a tin cup,” says Vandenbusche, who is celebrating his 60th year as a history professor at Western Colorado University in Gunnison and included an entire chapter on Tin Cup in his book, Around the Gunnison Country. “When they went into a bar, they’d take out a pinch of gold, and that’s how they’d pay for their drinks. At the end of the day, when the barkeeps would sweep—or mine—the floor, there would usually be a couple of flakes to find.”

Vandenbusche says that Tin Cup, founded in 1879 and originally incorporated in 1880 as Virginia City, landed its moniker after prospector Jim Taylor dipped a tin cup into Willow Creek—one of the area’s many streams—for a drink of water and noticed gold flakes shimmering off of the creek bed.

In 1881, the town’s population crescendoed at about 1,500, with 2,500 more residing in the surrounding outskirts of Taylor Park. Tin Cup was a vibrant—and often violent—mini-metropolis with five grocery stores, four hotels, a slaughterhouse, and about a dozen saloons.

Today, about 75 people live in Tin Cup, but only in the summer. The dirt road to reach town (an eight-mile drive off of Cottonwood Pass CO Road 209), is not even maintained in the winter. Destroyed by weathering, heavy snow, and fires over the last 135 years, there are no longer any hotels, grocery stores, or saloons in Tin Cup. There is, however, a cemetery and Town Hall, which occasionally hosts church services and square dances.

But the area is still, as it was when Graber first came upon it 50-plus years ago, a hidden paradise for outdoor recreation. Here are some of the year-round options for exploring the area around one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets.

Seasonal Access

Taylor Park has become a hub for ATVs and dirt bikes, the vehicles’ buzz intermittently slicing through the otherwise serene oasis of pines, streams, meadows, and mining remnants.

In winter, Cottonwood Pass is closed to through motor traffic but presents a boundless playground for backcountry touring. Tin Cup becomes a ghost town in the colder months, save for those willing to reach it by snowmobile or touring skis.

Camping

Dispersed camping abounds on the national forest and BLM land that surrounds Tin Cup. Here are some of the best developed campgrounds (most of which are open through the summer and early fall) within 20 miles of the old mining town:

Hike and Bike

Some of the most exhilarating hikes include the aspen-strewn Summersville Trail and South Lottis Creek, which is also open to mountain bikes and passes through Union Park before descending into Tin Cup.

The Continental Divide Trail runs from Tin Cup Pass to the top of Cottonwood Pass. From the Cottonwood Pass summit, you can also reach what is arguably Colorado’s most accessible 13er, Turner Peak (13,240 feet).

Once a popular mountain biking area, Tin Cup Pass has been overrun by motorized vehicles, but savvy bikepackers and backpackers venture along the relatively smooth Cumberland Pass, accessed from Tin Cup, which branches off to a handful of unmarked trails.

Mountain bikers should not miss Doctor Park, best ridden as a loop starting in Taylor River Canyon and up the picturesque (but washboarded) Spring Creek Road.

Stay

The Taylor River Lodge, located in the Taylor River Canyon, is a swanky-meets-rustic resort that is traditionally open May through October and offers exclusive guided adventures, along with fly-fishing, rock climbing, hiking, biking, skiing, and backcountry tours.

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