Welcome to another installment of our “Trail Town” series of articles. At 10,152 feet, Leadville, Colorado claims the distinction as the highest incorporated city in the United States. Known for its natural scenic beauty, hardy locals and rugged four-season alpine recreation, Leadville also boasts a storied history.
Leadville was not always named after lead, or Pb on the periodic table of the elements. It was first named California Gulch, after a nearby area where gold was discovered in 1860. It was named Boughton after the shelters that sprung up made of tree boughs. Cloud City was next, because of the way clouds often hang over the town. Other names followed – Harrison, after the owner of the first smelter. And Slabtown, because of the temporary houses built on slabs. Later, it was called Silver City.
In 1878, Horace Tabor, one of the country’s most illustrious silver magnates — who literally made a mint in Leadville — named the town after the lead ore in the area. That’s when a post office was established and Leadville became the official name.
The gold rush of 1860 was responsible for swelling the population to 10,000. By 1866, in just six years, Colorado’s gold boom had quickly depleted the area’s gold deposits. A second boom resulted – this time with prospectors mining silver. Between 1879 and 1893, silver reigned. Fifty-nine boarding houses, 120 saloons, 36 brothels and Tabor’s own swanky opera house served the prospectors who swarmed Leadville, intent on striking it rich.
During the 19th century, Leadville was the second most populous city in Colorado after Denver, and was the first proposed capital of the state. Well-known characters of the time are part of Leadville’s history. Doc Holliday lived in Leadville for about five years in the 1880s, and frequented a bar now called the Silver Dollar Saloon right on Harrison, Leadville’s main drag. Molly Brown, of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” fame, survived the sinking of the Titanic. She moved to Leadville at age 18 and worked in a local store until she met and married miner Jim Brown, who ultimately acquired millions for his part in the production of a substantial ore seam.
That all came to an end when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893 and silver prices dropped. The mining district continued producing silver, lead, zinc and copper. In 1914, the Climax mine began producing molybdenum ore and became the world’s largest molybdenum mine by 1924. The mine has closed and reopened several times since then.
Camp Hale, located 16 miles north of town, became the base of the 10th Mountain Division, training up to 15,000 soldiers in winter warfare during World War II, and inspiring the founders of over 60 ski areas throughout the U.S. In Colorado, Arapahoe Basin, Aspen, Breckenridge, Loveland, Ski Cooper, Steamboat, Vail and Winter Park all have ties to the 10th Mountain and were key in establishing skiing in the state. Many other veterans became leaders in the ski industry.
The town and 67 nearby mines received historic designation in 1961 because of Leadville’s many historical structures and sites constructed during the silver mining days. It’s no surprise that Leadville is the location for the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, a place that traces the origins of this small town with deep roots.
In 2020, nearly 3,000 people live in Leadville. The town has evolved from the mining camp it once was to a diverse community that takes advantage of its spectacular surroundings. Recreation and hospitality are driving economic factors, with skiing at nearby Ski Cooper and close by, Copper Mountain and Vail. Leadville is known as a world-class mountain bike, ultra-running and snowshoe-racing mecca.
Colorado Mountain College Leadville is one of 11 CMC campuses and learning locations located throughout the state’s Rocky Mountain region. Founded in 1965, the college offers over 125 certificates and degrees and is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. The U.S. Department of Education has ranked Colorado Mountain College among the country’s most affordable public colleges offering bachelor’s degrees.
At CMC Leadville, in addition to dozens of academic programs, the campus offers instruction in ski area operations, avalanche science and natural resource management. The sanctioned CMC cross-country running team is headquartered in Leadville – all of which contributed to the college being named “Top Adventure College” following a readers’ poll from Elevation Outdoors magazine in 2018 and 2019.
Leadville has an elaborate trail system of running, biking and skiing trails outlined on the Colorado Mountain Club Leadville Running website. The Mineral Belt Trail loop opened in 2000 as a national recreation trail for cyclists, hikers, adaptive athletes and cross-country skiers. At over 11 miles, it loops through Leadville, California Gulch and other parts of Lake County.
The start and finish line of the Leadville Race Series’ Silver Rush 50 courses are located at the base of Dutch Henry Hill, just a stone’s throw from CMC Leadville.
The extensive Timberline Trail System was built and is maintained by Leadville’s Cloud City Wheelers bicycling club. All of the trails within the Timberline Trail System are named, measured and clearly marked, making it easy to explore and combine distances on the fly.
Other Lake County trails can be accessed by drives between 15 and 60 minutes, including:
- The Colorado Trail – Segments 9, 10 and 11 between Tennessee Pass and Twin Lakes.
- Halfmoon Creek Road – Access to 14ers Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, Colorado’s highest peak, and their surrounding subpeaks.
- The Leadville Trail 100 race courses – Hope Pass, The Boulevard and all points in between Mosquito Pass, County Roads 1, 2 & 3, and the vast network of dirt roads and paths in the historic mining district.
- The National Fish Hatchery – Alternate access to the Mount Massive Wilderness Area, with a small-yet-informative nature trail.
- The Turquoise Lake Trail – A scenic 6.4 miles (one-way) along the shores of one of Colorado’s largest glacial lakes.
Parking & Transit:
This is living at 10,000-plus feet, so there aren’t a lot of parking regulations. Watch for two-hour parking signs in town, and don’t park in driveways or where no-parking signs are posted. Otherwise, courteous parking at trailheads and other locales is appreciated.
Public transit is limited in Leadville. The Summit Stage out of nearby Summit County provides a commuter link between Leadville and Summit County (Frisco, Breckenridge, Silverthorne and Dillon). The Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority (Eco Transit) buses run morning and evening along U.S. 24 between Vail and Leadville.
For the first time, Colorado Mountain College Leadville and the Lake County Tourism Panel are hosting the 2020 Dion Snowshoes U.S. National Snowshoe Championships Feb. 28-March 1, 2020, on the CMC campus’s groomed cross country skiing trails. This is the 20th year for the races, and Leadville, the college and the community are preparing for a stellar experience for all. Both championship and open events are being held throughout the weekend. Recreational racers are also invited to test their mettle in the rare air, with a 5k and a 10k relay. Little runners can have a go at the Kids’ Kilo.
The Leadville Race Series began in 1983 with 45 runners making the epic 100-mile trek through rugged Rocky Mountain terrain. The race has grown by leaps and bounds since then, now encompassing races not only in Leadville but from California to New York. Ultra runners and cyclists now take part in myriad races the series produces, including several in Leadville listed below.
A number of running races are scheduled this year:
- June 6, 2020 – Turquoise Lake 20K
- June 7, 2020 – Fish Hatchery 5K
- June 13, 2020 – Leadville Trail Marathon and Heavy Half
- July 4, 2020 – Leadville Firecracker 5K (Road Race)
- July 11, 2020 – Leadville Silver Rush 50 Mile Trail Run
- Aug. 9, 2020 – Boom Days Pack Burro Race
- Aug. 16, 2020 – Leadville Trail 10K
- Aug. 22, 2020 – Leadville Trail 100 Mile Trail Run
The Leadville Loppet is an annual cross country ski race that’s a fundraiser for the Mineral Belt Trail. It has a variety of race distances for the whole family, from a 44K to a 1k. In 2020, the race is being held February 15.
City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso: 508 Harrison Ave., Leadville, 719-486-0797 – This is the place to get organically grown and fairly traded coffees from all over the world. Coffee, lattes, cappuccinos and the like are served, plus legendary breakfast burritos. Pastries are baked fresh daily, and fresh sandwiches and soups hit the spot at lunchtime.
Silver Llama – Cookies with Altitude: 615 Harrison Ave., Leadville, 719-486-1026 – Enjoy cookies galore, plus breakfast and lunch. Savor breakfast and lunch bowls, breakfast sandwiches and stuffed biscuits, breakfast burritos, sandwiches, soups and more.
In Leadville and nearby Twin Lakes, you’ll find locally owned eateries serving up Mexican specialties, pizza, prime rib, Chinese cuisine and even Cuban food. Find inventive American cuisine with locally sourced and organic ingredients at Treeline Kitchen and Tennessee Pass Café. (And while you’re there, don’t pass on the Brussels sprouts appetizer served with honey sriracha sauce.)
Beer & Libations:
While Leadville has far fewer than 120 bars today, there are several saloons well worth a stop after a long run, including these:
- The Manhattan: 618 Harrison Ave., Leadville, 719-486-2880 – The Manhattan’s neon sign can be seen from space, so it’s not hard to find. The bar and restaurant serves steak and cheese burritos, Philly cheesesteaks, corn dogs, hot pork rinds and more.
- Silver Dollar Saloon: 315 Harrison Ave., Leadville, 719-486-9914 – If you’re into Old West history, you need to make a stop here. As you walk in, check out the charm and old wood character of the building. The walls at the legendary Silver Dollar Saloon are filled with many memories of the past, from pictures of people and places to the last rope used in a local hanging. Doc Holliday, Oscar Wilde and many others have wet their whistles here. Lunch and dinner served, plus a wide variety of beers and cocktails.
- Periodic Brewing: 115 E. 7th St., Leadville, 719-486-8144 – This startup beer brewery opened in the fall of 2015. The brewery-taproom operation is a family-oriented location that encourages people to stop by, enjoy a beer and relax with friends. The menu is tasty but small, so patrons are welcome to bring food in from other Leadville restaurants.
Locals love Leadville, as is evidenced by the new sign at Triangle Park at the entrance to town. And they’re welcoming to visitors who share the same enthusiasm for the rarefied air and laid-back mountain town vibe. When you’re in Leadville and Twin Lakes, remember to slow down on the roads, engage in a neighborly way, and treat the town, the trails and backcountry with the same respect and reverence as the people who live here do. Brush up on Leave No Trace principles. Lots of Coloradans say that Leadville is the Last Best Place. We’re betting you will agree.
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