The tour buses and guide books are full of ways to get there. The real beauty of the mountains, I believe is tucked away deeper, in hard to reach places. I live in one of those places.
The town of Leadville is about 2 1/2 hours driving (weather pending) distance from Denver. It is easy enough to catch a bus from Denver to Copper Mountain Ski Resort but the remaining distance is best travelled by car.
Hitch-hiking is still popular and reasonably safe but at this altitude (3,000 m/10,000 ft) the winter months of freezing temperatures can extend for 9 months out of the year and you would be wise to dress appropriately while waiting on the roadside. For best results, I recommend a rental car (preferably with four wheel drive in the winter).
The beauty of this location is the unpopulated heart of the Rocky Mountains. Surrounding the town on all sides are the tallest peaks in the State. There aren’t any polished hotels or shopping malls. There isn’t a Walmart or McDonald’s in sight.
There is only hiking, biking, skiing and nearby white water kayaking/rafting and climbing to name just a few outdoor pursuits. The town itself is a bit run down and impoverished which keeps the rich developers away. It is a unique place for those who know.
The best place to meet quality people and pick their brains about hikes where you seldom see another human are at a handful of quiet businesses. The outdoor clothing company where workers toil at sewing machines just behind the counter called Melanzana. There is a bike shop, Cycles of Life, and a coffee shop, Provin’ Grounds, and the Tennessee Pass Cafe, all good places to meet outdoorsy folks.
Beware the bars particularly if you are female. The harsh weather and lack of shopping malls limits the mountains to an abundant supply of men. While this may seem favourable to women there is a saying in Alaska that I believe applies here too…. “while the odds are good (for a woman), the goods are odd as well”
The Forest Service has an office in the south of town and it’s is a great place to get maps and straight forward advice. There is a cheap backpacking lodge, the Leadville Hostel and my friends own the Leadville Inn bed & breakfast where you can bring your dogs and stay the night.
Ask folks about the Mineral Belt Trail that loops the town. It’s good for cross country skiing or biking and has awesome views of the surrounding peaks. Turquoise Lake (PDF) has a similar trail and offers great views but can get busy in the summer months.
Some favourite hikes of mine are Windsor Lake, a steep uphill 1 hour jaunt to a wilderness area with postcard photo quality shots in every direction. Twin Lakes has tons of trails and the best fall foliage I’ve seen which are easily accessible by car. Mayflower Gulch in nearby Summit County is another popular and stunning hike/ski. Chaulk Falls is spectacularly frozen in the winter and gorgeous in the spring.
The headwater for the Arkansas River is here and the fly fishing is excellent and so is the rafting/kayaking. For beginners, book a rafting trip down Brown’s Canyon. For those without small kids and seeking adventure try the “Numbers” section (my personal favorite in a kayak).
For those that like intense thrills get to the Pine Creek section that starts in the town of Granite. The Arkansas River’s crystal blue water has a bit for everyone but make sure you’re here for it’s short season between late May and mid-August as it’s dam controlled and the tap is shut off early.
The local Leadville airport is the highest elevation field in North America and offers scenic flights and flight training. The strong winds and heavy snows can be limiting but the views from above are worth the wait.
The altitude here is worth mentioning twice. At 3,000m/10,000ft a person can easily experience altitude sickness. It strikes indiscriminately, whether healthy or not, young or old. If you’ve never walked around at these heights you can become light headed, easily winded, have difficulty sleeping and experience nausea.
I recommend you exercise and drink lots of water and avoid caffeine and alcohol before and during your trip. With more than 300 days of sunshine in Colorado, it’s worth the efforts!
These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many more hidden spots in this State but I’m not willing to give them all away. Enjoy the exploration and don’t forget your camera.
This travel diary has been written by Backwoods Ben. Ben is a very busy man. When he’s not exploring the wilderness around his hometown in Colorado he’s working in an ambulance crew at the local hospital on 24 hr shifts, participating in his local search and rescue team or taking lessons to eventually get a commercial pilots license!
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution