Leadville, CO – Skijoring, Mining, High Mountain Passes, and Breathtaking Views

Or blame the shortness of breath on the altitude 🙂

We passed through Leadville on my very first ColoRADical Road Trip with a dear friend and randomly heard of skijoring and Leadville Ultra 100 series of races. Leadville holds a special place in my heart as I unexpectedly returned here for my birthday next year with a VERY special person. Imagine my excitement when same friend from first road trip found out we would be passing by Leadville 1.5 years later exactly on the day when skijoring competition was held!!! (Aka – the most fun one can have on skis or horseback :-)) Hell yes, we were going to stop by and watch the race!

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Favorite rider/skier father/son duo (Jeff/Jason Dahl) – PC: Getty Images

Sitting at >10,000ft, Leadville is the highest incorporated mountain town in the US. Founded in 1877 by mine owners Horace Tabor and August Meyer at the start of the Colorado Silver Mining Boom, by the late 19th century it was the second most populous city in Colorado. As the population boomed, by 1878 Leadville had the reputation as one of the most lawless towns in the West. (No wonder it has such a strong appeal to me, I was an outlaw for sure in a past life, roaming between South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah :-))

After the fall of the price of silver in the early 1900s, Leadville’s economy and population dwindled until World World II when Camp Hale became the training grounds for the 10th Mountain Division and Leadville was the adjacent town that supported the troops. Now, similar to other former mining towns in Colorado, Leadville’s economy is supported primarily by summer and winter tourism in the great outdoors and tours of the region’s rich mining history. The town’s altitude and rugged terrain attract a number of ultra racing events, such as the Leadville Trail 100 series of races and it is often used as a base for altitude training for runners and mountain bikers.

Skijoring

The first report of a person being pulled on wooden boards by an animal was recorded by a Persian historian thousands of years ago in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. For hundreds of years, Laplanders have been harnessing reindeer and strapping on skis to travel across vast snowy expanses and skijoring is now popular in all of Scandinavia.

In the mid 1940’s, skijoring found its way to North America. When World War II ended, men from the 10th Mountain Division returned home. There were no ski resorts / lifts back then, so they had their cowboy friends attach a long rope to their saddle, and then they held on as the horse was ridden at high speeds down a long straight line. Thus, American skijoring races were born.

True to its past, Leadville, Colorado is the host of the oldest skijoring event in the US and the competition has been held down its main street since 1949. Other states in the US that have skijoring races are Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. (No wonder my heart belongs in the Wild West 🙂

Camp Hale and 10th Mountain Division

Camp Hale is the World War II training site of American ski troops who broke through German lines high in the Italian mountains and freed northern Italy, sustaining some of the largest US casualties in the war. After the war, veterans of the 10th Mountain Division returned to Colorado and founded the resorts of Ski Cooper and Vail. Another veteran created Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, enabling cross country skiers, snowshoers, and hikers to trek through the backcountry from hut to hut.

The concrete foundations of some buildings are still visible at Camp Hale, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When you visit, remember the 15,000 men who learned skiing and mountaineering here and whose motto was “Climb to glory.”

High Mountain Passes and Breathtaking Views

The area around Leadville, Twin Lakes, Turquoise Lake and the headwaters of the Arkansas River is so beautiful that you can spend days wandering around, driving on high mountain passes (if you can 🙂 more on that below), and enjoying scenic views without doing a single “organized” activity (or meeting another human for that matter…on the other hand wildlife is plentiful :-)).

Just like Crested Butte uses the word #crestitude for the endurance you need to do outdoor activities there, Leadville asks you if you are #leadvilletough when you wish to explore the great outdoors at the Top of the Rockies. The area is very high in altitude, views are plentiful, oxygen is sparse, and the terrain is very rugged 🙂

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Coming from I70, the 10,424-foot Tennessee Pass takes you from Minturn to Leadville and is your first taste of Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway. Stop by the side of the road to take a picture of Gilman, a ghost mining town perched on a cliff that was booming in the early 1900s and is now declared a toxic site :-(.

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Take a scenic turn and explore the dirt roads around Turquoise Lake, or stop by Red Cliffs (another mining town that STILL functions :-)). Tennessee Pass dissects Camp Hale grounds and I strongly recommend you dedicate a day to a snowmobile or dog sledding tour there in winter or try your luck at ATV-ing or Jeeping in summer. (Reservations needed WAY in advance!)

Independence Pass (12,095ft summit) connects Twin Lakes and Aspen and features spectacular views and hairpin turns. Open during the summer months ONLY, with one-lane parts and vertical drops at places, Independence Pass is the second pass on your list and definitely worth your time. It is surrounded on all sides by 13,000ft peaks, has a number of hikes that start from popular turn offs, you can stop and paddle scenic Twin Lakes on your way up, and explore beautiful river swimming holes on the Aspen side.

Both passes are part of the Top of the Rockies National Scenic and Historic Byway, which with altitudes rarely below 9,000 feet, is worthy of its name. Last but not least, if you are “Leadville tough” and you have a rugged 4×4 high-clearance vehicle, try your luck at Mosquito Pass – aka “Highway of Frozen Death”. You don’t need to be crazy to drive that road but it helps 🙂 (Watch the YouTube video of that drive above :-)).

Easier things to do for the NOT so “Leadville Tough” 🙂

Feed the fish at Leadville National Fish Hatchery which was built in 1889 and is the second-oldest hatchery in the US. Take a self guided tour of the fish production process or walk the hatchery’s scenic one-mile nature trail. The trail connects with a network of paths that pass lakes and streams, wind through pines, and can lead you deep into the Mt. Massive Wilderness if you so desire.

Drive (and fish) around Turquoise Lake. While you might think Turquoise Lake is named for its blue waters, this fresh glacial lake once hosted a turquoise mine. You can still visit the remains of the mine (if your vehicle can handle the road :-)) or you can explore all the opportunities for outdoor fun around the lake.

  • Mountain bike along the 12-mile single track that runs along the lakeshore
  • Ride the paved road that encircles the lake and climbs to vantage points overlooking Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive
  • Fat bike same road in winter, groomed regularly as part of Leadville’s trail system

Paddle Twin Lakes or take a short lake-shore trip to Interlaken. Deep in the Colorado high country, discover two large, picture-perfect, sparkling glacial lakes reflecting some of the nation’s highest peaks. If you feel adventurous, get up early to hike (errr, more like a climb…) Mt. Elbert (14,433ft), Colorado’s highest peak. Or choose a hike or mountain bike ride on the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail. For a scenic workout, make the climb up Hope Pass that is part of the famed Leadville Race Series 100-mile trail run. (See, even for the “leisurly” activities, one needs to be “coloRADICAL” to survive :-))

Leadville Mining

Last but not least, explore the remains of the famous silver mining industry that put Leadville and Colorado on the map!

Your first and easiest option is to follow the Mineral Belt Trail. You can see the tops of the towering mountains and remnants of 1880s silver mines, on a PAVED, 11.6 mile loop around town. Did you know the Guggenheims made their fortune in Leadville?

Your second option is to explore the Route of the Silver Kings – a self guided driving tour with 12 stops on manageable DIRT roads. Pick up a map from the Visitors Center.

Hopemore Mine Tour is a special treat for the NOT claustrophobic. Descent 600ft deep into the shaft of an old underground mine, be lowered by an original cage, and get taught the tricks of the trade by an old time miner! Let him WOW you!

(PC: Google Images)

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