During the peak of Aspen’s silver boom, the world’s largest silver nugget was mined out of Smuggler Mountain’s shadowy innards. The nugget had a weight of 2,054 pounds and was estimated to have a consistency of 93 percent pure silver. Unfortunately for the prospectors, the silver jackpot occurred a year too late; the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed by Congress in 1893, significantly diminishing the value of the precious metal. The mine closed in 1918, ending the town’s silver era and ushering in a pre-skiing period known as “The Quiet Years.”
Along with Red Mountain and Ajax, Smuggler Mountain dominates the panorama of towering peaks in downtown Aspen. The mountain’s base and the former mineshaft are easily within walking distance from Main Street, making it an optimum hike for those seeking an morning or afternoon sojourn in the hills. On a sunny bluebird day the mountain boasts spectacular birds eye vistas of Aspen’s quaint sprawl, the slopes on Ajax, the various snowcapped peaks of the Elk Mountains, and Roaring Fork valley at large.Though the climb is steep, the hike is relative short. From the parking area near the base, the hike to Smuggler’s no frills observation nest is about one and a half miles. At this point, the trail forks with the scenic Hunter Creek Cutoff, leading down to Hunter Creek and the Lenado Glutch at the base of Red Mountain.
Technically, the trail up Smuggler Mountain isn’t a trail; it’s a fully accessible dirt road that switchbacks through slopes of aspen groves and shrubby high altitude brush to the top of the mountain. For over a century, Smuggler Mountain Road has been heavily used. The road is an old mining road connecting the Smuggler Mine with a lesser-known silver mine on the top of the mountain, referred to by prospectors as the Iowa mine. The Iowa mine is about 2 miles away from the base and the turnoff is marked a closed gate near the observation deck. Brilliant, cloudless days and warmer temperatures will liter the road with white-knuckled mountain bikers, spandex-sporting housewives power-walking in designer fitness attire, dog walkers with iPods stuffed into their ears, and lackadaisical sight seers strolling at no particular pace, fully prepared to sop up sunshine from the summit.
Smuggler Road gradually levels out near the observation perch, making for pleasant strolling before the climbing resumes. The road continues for another 1500-foot vertical ascent to Smuggler’s Peak. However, before the peak the path takes hikers past the Benedict Hut, a gorgeous backcountry shelter maintained at an elevation of 11,000 feet by the 10th Mountain Hut Division. In the summer, the hut is closed; however, it is a popular turn around point for hikers and backpackers. In the winter, intrepid backcountry and cross-country skiers reserve the quirky secluded cabin to spend a comfortable evening in the warmth before descending down Smuggler Road on skis at the break of dawn. The hut is within immediate proximity to a high alpine meadow and Warren Lakes, a small and swampy natural lake.
A hike to the top of Smuggler is an excellent way for first time visitors to Aspen to orientate with the town from a dizzying vantage point without the help of a lift or gondola. The trail is heavily used from April to October, so don’t expect the solace of a Thoreauvian immersion in the wilderness. Yet, this lack of solitude is exactly why Smuggler Mountain is an invigorating experience; a hiker can be on the top of the mountain, enthralled and hypnotized by the breathtaking view at one moment, and back to The Hotel Jerome in a little under an hour. Even though the Smuggler’s internal bowels of silver are not worth a premium price, the hike is a bountiful treasure in itself.