Leadville is the highest incorporated town in America and a mecca for outdoor adventure. Located near the headwaters of the Arkansas River, Leadville is surrounded by lakes, mountains, high-elevation plains, and four-season outdoor fun. Whether it’s dipping your toes into the area’s mining history, tackling a nearby 14er, or checking out skijoring, Leadville’s got something for everyone with a yearning for outdoor exploration.
Table of Contents:
Article Navigation: Click on any of the listed items in the table of contents below to jump to that section of the article. Similarly, clicking on any large, white section header will jump you back to the Table of Contents.
- A Note About High Elevation
- Unique History
- The 10th Mountain Division
- Local Adventure Vibe
- Food and Drink
- Best Places to Stay
- Hiking/Backpacking/Colorado Trail (CDT)
- Other Summer Outdoor Activities
- Resort Skiing
- Other Winter Outdoor Activities
A Note About High Elevation
Leadville is the highest town in America with a post office. The highest town without a post office is the town of Alma, south of Breckenridge, at ~10,500 ft. Being this high up means that elevation concerns should be at the forefront of any visitor’s mind. Watch for the signs of altitude sickness and know how to react to them. Most cases go away with fluids or getting to lower elevations. However, life-threatening complications like HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) can occur if left untreated.
To understand Leadville, you have to understand the mining history of Colorado. Leadville was, at one point in time, the most happening place in Colorado. The history of the town is tied to the gold and silver boom, which created multimillionaire Horace Tabor. The Tabor Opera House is still an attraction on the main street.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Leadville was known as one of the most lawless towns in the west. The first marshal was run out of town after less than a week, and his replacement was shot a few weeks later. A fearless gunslinger from Denver known as Mart Duggan came in and restored order by 1880. However, as is typical in the American West, he also met his end with a bullet in 1888, presumably from an enemy he made while the town’s marshal.
The famous Buffalo Bill died in Leadville in 1880 from pneumonia. A few years later, soon after the fight at the O.K. Corral, Doc Holliday moved to Leadville. The “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” who survived the H.M.S. Titanic disaster, also spent time in Leadville in the late 1800s. Meyer Guggenheim, a member of one of the richest families in the world, mined and smelted in Leadville for a time as well.
If you were interested in the west from the 1870s-early 1890s, you knew about Leadville.
After the Panic of 1893, Horace Tabor lost nearly all of his wealth, once estimated at 10 million USD, and Leadville fell into a rough time. However, abundant natural resources in the area led to a small additional gold rush and an increase in lead and zinc mining. Molybdenum, used to harden steel, was mined at the Climax site just south of town and led to a period of good fortune up until 1981 when the market dropped. The mine reopened in 2008 with roughly thirty years of production life.
Local Adventure Vibe
Leadville was a rough and tumble western town, and a large part of the town’s culture revolves around that shared history. You can drink at saloons and see plenty of examples of old mining equipment around town. Cowboy hats are common here, and the residents are hardy folks. You kind of have to be; it’s winter for half the year.
In the last few decades, the town has turned increasingly to outdoor recreation and tourism as major draws. The pivot makes sense; Leadville is in direct sight of Mount Massive, the second highest 14er in the state; Mt. Elbert (the tallest) is nearby, and you can easily get to Mt. Sherman (another 14er) on the opposite side of town. There are also the Twin lakes and Turquoise Lake for easy water access, along with a slew of outdoor fitness throughout the year.
The short but beautiful summer months are when the town balloons in size with many tourism offerings, festivals, and the iconic Leadville 100 race series. Winter is cold and often windy but can provide absolutely epic recreational opportunities for backcountry skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers.
The Tenth Mountain Division
The tenth mountain division of the US army was a seminal force in the region. Their influence on winter recreation in Colorado is well documented. Since many of their installations and influences dot the region around Leadville, it’s worth taking a second to talk about them.
The division was born in 1941 during World War II. Allied generals had seen how effective Finland’s winter resistance to the Soviet Union was in 1939, along with the Greek resistance in the Albanian Alps, and decided to give mountaineering warfare a go. The tenth built a base camp at Camp Hale just south of Leadville.
While there, soldiers trained in mountain warfare, including ski warfare. The division was used twice in World War II but earned all of its clout during the second engagement. On February 18, 1945, soldiers from the tenth roped up and climbed Riva Ridge, securing it from the Germans on the supposedly impenetrable Gothic Line of defense. They then had to weather ferocious counterattacks for days until the ridge was finally secured on the 25th.
Two significant locations around Leadville were used by the tenth; Camp Hale and Ski Cooper. Mega resort Vail was created by members of the 10th mountain division after the war. There are also a series of well-kept backcountry ski huts in the region built to honor the ski training the troops went through.
Food and Drink
If you’re staying in the region or just passing through, you’ll find something worth eating in Leadville.
- Treeline Kitchen: Serves classic American plates and has a large cocktail selection.
- Casa Blanca Restaurant: A restaurant serving up delicious New Mexican dishes.
- High Mountain Pies: The best pizza joint in town.
- Café Cubano: Delicious Cuban Café experience with tasty bites and Cuban coffee.
- Pastime Saloon: A saloon that’s been around since the notorious wild west days of Leadville.
- Casa Sanchez: Another great new Mexican-inspired restaurant.
- Silver Dollar Saloon: Fantastic food offerings and drinks, coupled with rich Leadville history.
Best Places to Stay in Town
- Delaware Hotel: A historic Hotel built in the late 1800s. It’s going through a revival due to new ownership in 2021.
- Columbine Inn & Suites: Convenient lodging just north of the main town, easy access to multiple adventures.
- Inn The Clouds Hostel & Inn: The highest elevation hostel in the US, with good rates.
- Tiny House Leadville: A unique way to stay in Leadville with quite a few options.
Many established campgrounds in the area have fees attached to them; dispersed camping is usually free.
Camp Hale Area
Twin Lakes Area (South)
- Parry Peak Campground
- Twin Peaks Campground
- Twin Lakes North: Lakeview Campground has a nice setup, and higher on the hill along County Road 24, before you get to Mt. Elbert Forebay, there are dispersed sites with great views.
Turquoise Lake (West)
- Baby Doe Campground
- Tabor Campground
- May Queen
- Father Dyer Campground
- Printer Boy Campground
- Silver Dollar Campground
- Matchless Campground
Due to its high elevation, Leadville attracts all sorts of athletes looking to push themselves. Add to that the distinctly western feel of the town, and you get a surprisingly diverse calendar of events, festivals, and things to do around town.
- Skijoring/Crystal Carnival Weekend: Every March, the Crystal Carnival weekend rolls into town, and you can witness what’s known as skijoring. This unusual sport involves a cowboy on horseback, pulling a skier via rope as they barrel down the main street in town. Oh, and the main street has a ton of jumps and rings that the skier or rider needs to collect. It’s wild.
- Leadville 100 Race Series: A 100-mile race at high altitude where the best of the best are tested. The race starts and ends in Leadville. There are bike and running versions, along with additional marathons and other events throughout the year.
- Leadville Scenic Train: Take to the mountains on a scenic railroad that provides stellar views of numerous mountains and tackles the Continental Divide.
- Top of the Rockies Zip Line: Ever wanted to zipline? Now’s your chance with the top of the Rockies, located just to the north of Leadville.
- DogSledding: This high up, you can get some dogsledding in! Both Alpine Adventures and Winterhawk Dogsled Adventures are close to Leadville.
Hiking/Backpacking/Colorado Trail (CDT)
Fancy a hike? Check out the stellar options below, each guaranteed to scratch that mountain itch.
- Massive: Leadville sits in plain view of Mt. Massive, the second tallest mountain in Colorado and a bear of a climb, gaining 3,950 ft. in less than 4 miles via the shortest route. (Out and back distance: ~7 miles)
- Elbert: The tallest in the state and easily accessible as it sits just to the south of massive. The standard route gains a whopping 4,700 ft. and has an out-and-back distance of roughly 9.5 miles.
- Sherman: This 14er is actually closer to Leadville than all others but sits behind the town and is almost completely out of sight. The standard route approaches from the east, but Leadville has easy access to the West Slopes, a 4.5-mile jaunt that gains 2150 ft.
- La Plata Peak: Located on the eastern side of Independence Pass, La Plata is the fifth-highest mountain in the state and a great outing. Like all 14ers, the stats are nothing to laugh at, with 4,500 ft. of gain and a total distance of 9.25 miles.
Independence Pass/Twin Lakes
- Independence Lake and Lost Man Lake: This hike on the west side of Independence Pass hits two picturesque lakes, and the trailhead is accessible via paved roads in the summer.
- Ridgeline Trail to Igloo Peak: A ridgeline trail with stupendous views that heads south from Independence Pass.
- Interlaken Trail: An easy stroll along the shore of Twin lakes that takes you to an old historic site with old buildings called Interlaken.
Turquoise Lake Area
- Windsor Lake: A short but steep hike to a lake near the edge of treeline. The area is popular for hiking, camping, and especially fishing.
- Native Lake Trail: Close to Windsor Lake, this trail heads south through heavy forests, crosses an alpine pass, and dips down to Native Lake. It’s best done as an out and back.
- Timberline Lake Trail: Located near the west end of Turquoise Lake and quite close to May Queen campground, this 5.5-mile out-and-back hike leads to a beautiful lake a few hundred feet below treeline.
Tennessee Pass Area
- Tennessee Pass to Camp Hale on the Colorado Trail: This easy section of the CDT heads north from Tennessee Pass for 6.53 miles on a mostly gentle, downhill trajectory until reaching Camp Hale. It’s best as a car positioning hike, or an out and back, although that will push the mileage up to around 13. You can also choose to hike south from Camp Hale to get more elevation gain.
- Colorado Trail to Timberline Lake (Segment 9): From Tennessee pass, you can head west and south on segment 9, which ends near Timberline Lake and the shores of Turquoise Lake. Car positioning is possible, which would make the hike a little over 13 miles. An out-and-back adventure pushes it to more than 26 miles.
Fremont Pass Area
- Mayflower Gulch: A popular area with rolling inclines, meadows, and views a plenty. This is a great spot for hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and climbing.
- Fremont Pass Recreational Pathway: This one’s still under construction, but eventually, you’ll be able to use a paved recreation path that connects Copper Mountain to Leadville.
Colorado Trail & CDT
The CDT (Continental Divide Trail) is one of the three most famous long trails in the US, alongside the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and AT (Appalachian Trail). The trail overlaps with a good portion of the Colorado Trail, another regional highlight that takes in a large part of mountainous Colorado.
Near Leadville, the CDT runs from south to north, taking on the eastern slopes of the Sawatch Range. Many sections are great for trail running and mountain biking. Parts of the trail double as the route for the Leadville 100 race series. Both Twin Lakes and the western edge of Turquoise Lake are passed.
As the trail wraps to the north of town, it takes a jaunt along the Continental Divide in a northeast direction. This section skirts the alpine near Galena Mountain and Moser Lake. You also travel close to Uncle Bud’s Cabin, a 10th mountain backcountry hut. Eventually, the trail curves more eastward, getting close to Ski Cooper.
From there, the trail arcs back northwards, heading toward the Camp Hale area.
Area access to Continental Divide Trail (CDT) & Colorado Trail (CT):
- Willis Gulch Trailhead (CDT)
- Twin Lakes Interlaken Trailhead (CT)
- Elbert East Ridge Trailhead (CT & CDT)
- Massive/Elbert Trailhead Parking Lot (CDT & CT)
- Timberline Creek Trailhead (CDT & CT)
- Wurtz Ditch Road (CDT & CT)
- Tennessee Pass (CDT & CT)
Other Summer Outdoor Activities
Although the season is short, and it’s not uncommon to get snow almost any time of the year, the warmer months offer up almost unlimited outdoor adventure. In this section, you’ll find details on rock climbing, trail running, mountain biking, off-roading, and water sports.
Rock climbing in the area gets overshadowed by winter recreation, 14er hiking, and camping, but there are still some stellar areas to discover. Check out an evolving list of area routes here.
- Colorado Trail: Segment 9 from Tennessee Pass to Timberline Lake.
- Colorado Trail: Segment 8. Tennessee Pass to Camp Hale, or the entire 25-mile section, which will take you all the way to Copper Mountain along I-70.
- Mineral Belt Trail: An 11.6-mile paved trail around Leadville with access to the Timberline Trail system and numerous other regional add-ons.
- Colorado Trail: Segment 8
- Winter Ridge: Only open with enough snow, but perfect for Fat Bike riding.
- Timberline Trail system: In addition to winter ridge, the whole Timberline Trail system is great for mountain biking and is only a few minutes from downtown Leadville.
- Hagerman Pass Road: A dirt road connection between the Leadville Area and Basalt. The road is best during the summer and closes down with heavy snowfall.
- Weston Pass Road: An easy dirt road over a high pass between Leadville and the Fairplay area, great for scenic driving. AWD and 4WD are recommended.
- Mosquito Pass Road: A scenic pass that isn’t too difficult but should still only be attempted by AWD or 4WD vehicles.
- Halfmoon Gulch: This is considered a challenging route, especially once you get beyond the trailheads for Massive and Elbert. 4WD and higher clearance vehicles are highly recommended.
- Turquoise Lake: This heavily visited lake is perfect for Fishing, Camping, Nature Viewing, and boating. Both motorized and non-motorized boats can launch from the Matchless Boating Site.
- Twin Lakes: These two connected lakes allow fishing, boating (motorized and non-motorized), and swimming.
- Windsor Lake: Located to the west of Turquoise Lake, this smaller lake offers superlative fishing during the summer months. Expect others; the shoreline is popular.
- Arkansas River: The upper parts of the Arkansas River provide ample fishing opportunities, especially for those interested in fly fishing.
Leadville is close to a few great ski options for lapable winter fun.
Ski Cooper is one of the oldest active ski resorts in Colorado, getting its start back in 1942 to support the 10th mountain division of the US army.
- Total acreage: 480
- Base Elevation: 10,500 ft.
- Top Elevation: 11,700 ft.
- Vertical: 1,200 ft.
- Number of runs: 64
- Beginner runs: 31% (~20 runs)
- Intermediate runs: 35% (~22 runs)
- Expert runs: 34% (~22 runs)
Another creation of the 10th Mountain division, Vail is one of the largest ski resorts in North America (4th) and part of one of the largest ski companies in the world.
- Total Acreage: 5,317 acres
- Base Elevation: 8,120 ft.
- Top Elevation: 11,570 ft.
- Vertical: 3,450 ft.
- Number of runs: 195
- Beginner runs: 18% (~35 runs)
- Intermediate runs: 29% (~57 runs)
- Expert runs: 53% (~103 runs)
Copper Mountain Ski Resort
Situated in Summit County, just north of Leadville, Copper Mountain is easy to access over Fremont Pass and only 30 minutes outside of town. The mountain has a great mix of terrain.
- Total Acreage: 2,057
- Base elevation: 9,712 ft.
- Top elevation: 12,441 ft.
- Vertical: 2,738 ft.
- Number of runs: 140
- Beginner runs: 21% (~29)
- Intermediate runs: 25% (~35)
- Expert runs: 36% (~50)
A little farther down the Arkansas Valley, Monarch is a family-friendly mountain with some superb cat skiing and glades. It’s situated on the Continental Divide between the Gunnison River Watershed and Arkansas and, like Cooper, sees less traffic than the I-70 resorts.
- Total Acreage: 800
- Base Elevation: 10,790 ft.
- Top Elevation: 11,952 ft.
- Vertical: 1,162 ft.
- Number of runs: 67
- Beginner runs: 15
- Intermediate runs: 19
- Expert runs: 8
Outdoor Activities in the Winter
Ski resort skiing and riding can get expensive and crowded; if you’re looking to buck the winter crowds, check out some of the stellar options below.
Backcountry Huts (Backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, etc.)
There are many backcountry huts and yurt locations near Leadville. Staying in one can unlock boundless winter adventure potential. The winter recreation possibilities are numerous but staying in a winter hut requires awareness of the weather and avalanche danger and demands heightened preparedness from all involved.
- 10th Mountain Huts: The Skinner Hut, Uncle Bud’s Hut, The 10th Mountain Division Hut, Vance’s Cabin, The Continental Divide Cabin, Point Breeze Cabin, Emmelyn Hut, The Sangree M. Froelicher Hut
- Leadville Backcountry Huts: Marceline and Emma Yurts
Despite Leadville’s height, the upper Arkansas River valley is fairly flat, leading to a great set of cross-country ski options.
- Leadville Twin Lakes: A great regional resource for Nordic rentals, trails, and winter activities.
- Mount Massive Cross-Country Ski: 16km of skate and classic trails with a small clubhouse that has rentals.
- Tennessee Pass Nordic Center: 27 km of groomed trails, and wide skate lanes.
- Cooper Loop: A loop trail around the ski activities at Ski cooper. Follow all posted signs and stay on marked trails to avoid straying into the ski resort. Here’s a map of the loop.
- Tennessee Pass Area: On the west side of the pass, you have the CDT and access to backcountry huts. On the east side is Ski Cooper and its magnificent Chicago Ridge, which is skiable via snowcat.
- Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area: Most commonly accessed via Vail pass, other access points closer to Leadville, Like Camp Hale, make it a great area to get into the backcountry. Motorized winter equipment is used here, so be prepared to share the trail with snowmobiles.
- The backcountry huts: There are tons of ski lines accessible from the various backcountry huts in the area. In many cases, they offer the best way to get a ton of skiing in.
- Mayflower Gulch Area: Just north of Fremont Pass and the Climax mine, this gulch is home to quite a few trails, backcountry ski lines, and mining history.
- Cooper Loop: A loop trail around the ski activities at Ski cooper. Follow all posted signs and stay on marked trails to avoid straying into the ski resort. Here’s a map of the loop.
Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area: The western side of the recreation area is open to mechanized travel. You can access it from Vail Pass, Red Cliff, or Camp Hale.
Popular snowmobiling trails near town:
- East Tennessee Trail
- Slide Lake Trails
- Trails and roads around Turquoise Lake and Halfmoon Gulch Trail
- Timberline Trail System
White Mountain Snowmobile Tours
Elk Mountain Snowmobile and utvadventures
Leadville, armed with its outlaw wild west history and unparalleled access to recreational opportunities, might be one of the best basecamps for adventure in the high country. Summer, winter, or anything in between, the area beckons to mountain souls for its variety, elevation, and scenery.