The Western heritage of Leadville, Colorado has withstood the test of time and lures families with mining museums, historic architecture and abundant outdoor recreation.
Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in North America at 10,430 feet, was recently named one of the “Top Ten Western Towns” by True West magazine. Once one of the West’s richest and wildest mining boom towns — with over $5 billion worth of gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper and molybdenum extracted from the surrounding mountainsides — much of Leadville's colorful past is preserved in its abundance of Victorian architecture.
Add to that an average of 310 days of sunshine each year with summer temperatures rarely exceeding 80°F, and it’s no wonder that Men’s Journal called it one of the top 20 “Dream Towns in America” and Runner’s World described it as a “Trailway to Heaven.” While athletes can pursue high-altitude training there, most passersby won't be able to appreciate more than the classic Wild West architecture.
However, the region has attracted notable settlers in recent years. The High Mountain Institute, for example, is a small educational program founded in the mid-1990s "in the spirit of combining best-of-class wilderness education with traditional academics." In fact, the HMI works with teens in a variety of year-round programs that vary from two weeks to four months in length and has a formidable reputation for their academic success.
Mosey Down Leadville Streets with a Storied Past
This town of 3,000 friendly and proud citizens began preserving its rich past in the 1890s. You can stroll about Leadville's 70 square blocks of National Historic Landmark District any time of the year, though there’s more happening in the summer. The Mineral Belt Trail, a 12.5-mile, all-season, no-motor route, meanders approximately six miles through the Historical District and offers spectacular mountain views and numerous access points. Maps and brochures are available at the Visitor Center (719/486-0487, 800/LEADVILLE) at 809 Harrison Avenue, the town's main street.
While you're moseying along Harrison, don’t miss a glimpse inside the Silver Dollar Saloon, the historic Delaware Hotel and several interesting stores. Next to the Silver Dollar (famous for its spicy chili) is Manuelita's, a taco parlor that famlies favor for its tiny stuffed soft tacos served with a variety of kid-pleasing fillings.
Also along this stretch of Harrison you'll find several small antique stores crammed with collectibles, and then Western Hardware Antiques (719/486-2213) at #431. A former hardware store as its name implies, Western is now a two-story antiques mall whose various vendors offer everything from linen dishtowels to tin toys to stuffed grizzly bears. Quite a fun place to distract all ages and share tales of childhoods past.
Local Leadville Landmarks
Tabor Opera House (719/486-8409) was built in 1879. It retains its original facade, many original fixtures and painted scenery, and is currently being slowly restored. Among the many celebrities who spoke or performed there were Houdini, Susan B. Anthony, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, the Flora Dora Girls and Sousa’s Marine Band. There are tours every day except Sunday from May 30th to October 1st.
The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum (719/486-1229), open daily in summer and from Monday through Friday in winter, is Smithsonian-class, with impressive displays of minerals and artifacts, plus a walk-through replica of an underground mine. The Matchless Mine and Baby Doe Tabor Museum, open daily in summer (call 719/486-4918 for winter hours), is only 1.25 miles east.
The Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad Company (719/486-3936, 866/386-3936) offers a secluded and scenic 2.5-hour train tour through the mountains from its 1896 depot, late May through early October, twice daily in summer and on September weekends.
Leadville is an Easy Distance to the Rockies
Among the many outdoor activities the immediate area offers are climbing Colorado’s highest peaks, mountain biking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, whitewater kayaking or rafting, boating on Turquoise Lake, hiking and camping, and even golf Mt. Massive Golf Course (719/486-2176).
There are seven ski areas, including some with miles of scenic cross-country courses within an hour’s drive. Ski Cooper (719/486-2277), open mid-November to late March on the training site of World War II's storied 10th Mountain Division, boasts of having “skiing the way it used to be.”
Twin Lakes, a half-hour south of town, is Colorado’s largest glacial lake, surrounded by mountains, including the state’s highest, Mt. Elbert. It's a great place for fishing, hiking, biking and boating, and the gateway along the Colorado Trail (in summer) to Independence Pass and Aspen.
Trip Planning Details for a Leadville Holiday
There’s a variety of accommodations to lay your head down, including quaint bed and breakfasts, lodges, and camp grounds (call 888-LEADVILLE or check the Leadville Tourist Office for details).
However, the place to stay for the most authentic experience is the historic Delaware Hotel (800/748-2004), which turned 125 in 2012. You can't miss its brown brick facade in the middle of town, on the main street. Past guests have included Carrie Nation, “Baby Doe” Tabor and Doc Holliday, so the The Delaware is celebrating its big year, all year, with Victorian teas, storytelling, a Molly Brown weekend, reenactment of a gunfight, hotel tours and more. We know you’ll find yourself transported back comfortably into a colorful past.
The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association (970/925-5775) has 29 remote mountain huts with basic accommodations for 16-20 from less than $30 per night (children 12 and under pay half-price), which would make pleasant stops for extended summer hikes. (They’re so popular for hut-to-hut skiing that the lottery for next winter’s lodging closed in February though there are occasionally last minute cancellations.)
You can find child care to suit most needs through Early Childhood Resource and Referral (970/513-1017).
Leadville is a little over a hundred miles southwest of Denver, less than two hours from Denver International Airport by shuttle van with Colorado Mountain Express (970-926-9800), though to sightsee you'll really want to rent a car. There’s also limited air service to Eagle Airport, about 65 miles (1.5 hours) west.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.