Leadville, Colorado, situated at an impressive altitude of 10,158 feet, proudly holds the title of the United States’ highest-elevation city. Each year, a multitude of endurance athletes assemble here to undertake the legendary “Race Across the Sky,” an event that tests their determination and grit. The highlight of this racing series is the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon, taking place in August. During this marathon, participants engage in trail-running over some of the most challenging mountain passes within the Rocky Mountains. The route culminates at a lung-exhausting elevation of 12,620 feet, specifically at the aptly named Hope Pass. Notably, about half of the runners do not complete the race, yet this hasn’t deterred their return. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023, the Leadville Trail 100 consistently sells out.
Part of the allure is undoubtedly Leadville itself. As a town from the Victorian era, Leadville boasts exceptional preservation, with over 70 registered historic structures, eight museums, and an unwavering spirit reminiscent of the town’s boomtown origins. Whether visitors come to experience the race or not, there’s a distinctive charm to be encountered in this city.
A Journey through Leadville’s Evolution
Leadville, located in a high-mountain valley at an elevation of two miles above sea level in central Colorado, traces its origins back to the 1860s when it began as a gold-mining camp. In the late 1870s, the discovery of substantial lead-zinc-silver deposits transformed this rugged town into a thriving city, populated by 30,000 individuals by 1880.
In just around a decade, more than $82 million worth of silver was transported from Leadville via three railroads. The city’s prosperity rivaled that of Denver, featuring numerous high-end amenities including hotels, restaurants, theaters, and dance halls.
The silver boom in Colorado abruptly concluded in 1893 due to the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which led to the collapse of silver prices. Consequently, Leadville’s prosperity crumbled.
Today, the city is home to approximately 2,700 residents. Situated at a lofty altitude, Leadville is a favored stop for travelers exploring the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway and for thru-hikers seeking to rest while traversing the adjacent Continental Divide Trail or Colorado Trail. The dominant presence of the state’s two highest peaks, Mount Elbert (14,439 feet) and Mount Massive (14,428 feet), characterizes the western skyline, with Leadville serving as a basecamp for those aiming to conquer these summits.
In addition to hosting ultra-endurance events, Leadville is renowned for its pack burro racing, where runners are accompanied by donkeys carrying mining tools through pine tree-lined trails in the former mining district, now designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Exploring the Enchantment of Cloud City
A visit to Leadville begins at Zero Day Coffee, the highest-elevation coffee shop in the nation. Owner Avery Williamson welcomed me on a sunny summer morning as I enjoyed my iced matcha latte with oat milk while seated in an Adirondack chair on the café’s front lawn. Next to me sat a woman from Michigan, in town with her family for a Colorado Trail hike.
She recounted how she had encountered Williamson a few days earlier on the trail, exhausted from running about 30 miles across three mountain passes on his day off. She had offered him a doughnut and a Coke, and now she was at Zero Day Coffee to collect the free latte he had promised her in return. She explained that “Zero Day” is a term used in thru-hiking, indicating a rest day with no mileage logged.
For those visiting Leadville with less extreme aspirations, there are plenty of alternatives for enjoying the crisp yet thin mountain air. One option is to rent an electric pedal-assisted bike from E-bike Leadville and explore the scenic Mineral Belt Trail. This 11.6-mile non-motorized path winds through evergreen forests, aspen groves, and sagebrush meadows around the town, including the historic Leadville Mining District. Interpretive signs along the trail provide insights into Leadville’s storied past, featuring key places and figures like the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a survivor of the Titanic.
Harrison Avenue offers an ideal avenue for exploring Cloud City, with numerous architecturally distinct commercial buildings, saloons, cafes, and boutiques. Tourists can grab a historic walking tour map online or at the Visitors Center and enjoy a leisurely stroll through this vibrant area.
One of Leadville’s most iconic structures is the Tabor Opera House, constructed in 1879 by Horace Tabor, a local millionaire miner. Although it’s currently undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation, the theater remains a National Treasure according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Its historical significance is further underscored by its inclusion in the new Colorado Historic Opera Houses Circuit.
Heading about a mile uphill from Harrison Avenue, visitors can explore the Matchless Mine, one of the most prosperous mines of the 19th century. This mine produced vast amounts of silver for its owner, Horace Tabor, and serves as a historical site where guests can learn about Tabor’s scandalous second marriage to Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor. Baby Doe’s journey from a prominent society figure to a penniless recluse is told through the well-preserved wooden structures, with the shack where her frozen body was discovered still standing.
For those looking to shop, Melanzana, a 30-year-old outdoor clothing brand, is a must-visit. Their hoodies, created exclusively at their Leadville workshop/store on Harrison Avenue, are highly sought after and have led to an appointment-only purchasing system due to their popularity.
Stay: The recently renovated Colorado and Southern freight depot is home to S.L.umberyard, which offers 13 industrial-chic cabins for accommodation. These cabins, designed to resemble historic miners’ homes, are named after female sex workers from Leadville’s silver boom era, providing a unique connection to the town’s history.
Eat: Mineral 1886, located within the city’s only Victorian hotel, offers the delicious Benedict dish featuring a beef patty smothered in Hollandaise sauce on a toasted potato bun with a poached egg and caramelized onions. Golden Burro Cafe is a local favorite for plant-based cuisine, smoothies, juices, and house-made kombucha, with a neon sign harkening back to the restaurant’s diner days in the 1930s.
Leadville is a captivating destination with a rich history and diverse offerings that cater to both outdoor enthusiasts and those seeking a taste of the past. Whether drawn by endurance events, historical sites, or the allure of the mountains, visitors are sure to find something special in this unique city.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Mountain Town
What is the significance of Leadville, Colorado?
Leadville, Colorado holds the distinction of being the highest-elevation city in the United States, situated at 10,158 feet.
What is the “Race Across the Sky” event?
The “Race Across the Sky” is an annual endurance event in Leadville where athletes participate in the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon, running over challenging mountain passes in the Rockies.
What is the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon?
The Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon is a renowned race that takes place in August, featuring trail-running over extreme mountain passes, including the lung-busting 12,620-feet Hope Pass.
What draws visitors to Leadville besides the races?
Leadville’s Victorian-era charm, well-preserved historic buildings, museums, and its identity as a former mining town contribute to its allure.
What is the historical significance of Leadville?
Leadville originated as a gold-mining camp in the 1860s and later became a thriving city of 30,000 residents due to silver mining. Its boom period and subsequent decline offer a glimpse into Colorado’s history.
What outdoor activities can visitors enjoy in Leadville?
Visitors can explore the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway, hike the Continental Divide Trail, engage in pack burro racing, and summit nearby peaks like Mount Elbert and Mount Massive.
What are some notable landmarks in Leadville?
The Tabor Opera House, a Victorian theater, and the Matchless Mine, associated with Horace Tabor and “Baby Doe,” offer insights into Leadville’s history.
What culinary and shopping experiences are available?
Leadville offers diverse dining options, including historic hotels like Mineral 1886, and unique shopping, such as Melanzana’s sought-after hoodies.
Is there lodging in Leadville?
S.L.umberyard offers accommodation in industrial-chic cabins, while Leadville’s altitude and mountain charm make it a popular base for travelers.
What’s the significance of “Zero Day” at Zero Day Coffee?
“Zero Day” is a term in thru-hiking referring to a rest day. Zero Day Coffee, the highest-elevation coffee shop, is a hub for hikers, offering a unique connection to the hiking community.