8 Reasons to Drive to Leadville, Colorado
Explore this charming former mining town’s history and beauty.
While many of its mountainous neighbors are more familiar, Leadville is a Colorado town not to be overlooked. Situated southwest of Denver and about an hour and 45 minutes’ drive away, this former mining town is full of history, entertainment, and sheer Centennial State beauty. The census of full-time residents stays just around 2,700 people, and at an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the state and one of the highest in the country. Along with its high altitude, Leadville boasts a plethora of museums, outdoor recreation activities, and an array of local shops and restaurants that make it worth a drive whether you’re staying for a long weekend or just day-tripping.
Museums and mining history for all history buffs
Because Leadville exists simultaneously in the present and the Old West, it makes a great destination for anyone interested in history—particularly US and mining history. Naturally, the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum is top of the list, displaying almost 70 exhibits and relaying the stories of more than 250 prominent men and women in mining history. Explore some of Leadville’s (and Colorado’s) oldest buildings and learn about their lived-in history at the Tabor Home (home of Horace Tabor, founder of the Tabor Opera House), the Dexter Cabin and Healy House Museum, or the Heritage Museum. Or, take a historic walking tour and get a well-rounded history of Leadville from multiple viewpoints. Those interested particularly in Leadville’s mining history can take guided mine tours—like the Matchless Mine or Hopemore Underground Mine tour—to get a firsthand look into what mining life was like back in the late 1800s.
Visit the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon
One of Leadville’s more well-known draws is the famed Silver Dollar Saloon, which has been in operation since 1879 and is Colorado’s oldest-operating saloon. Many features of the building are original pieces, from the visibility-impeding windbreak at the front exterior to two train-seats-turned-bar-booths, and photos from throughout the saloon’s history cover the walls. Said photos depict some of the saloon’s many visitors, which include noteworthy names like Doc Holiday, Oscar Wilde, and Colorado’s own Unsinkable Molly Brown.
The Saloon is interesting enough to visit on its own as one takes in the old wood and history, but sticking around for a drink and a bite to eat is encouraged. After all, though the menu is not the same as it was in 1879, a recent overhaul by Eric Johns (relative of the original saloon owners) means lunch, dinner, and even brunch by way of pork belly sliders, poutine, banh mi, and elk meatballs over rigatoni (to name a few).
Spend your days by the lake(s)
Just a 15-minute drive south of Leadville has you at one of the most scenic and tranquil spots in Colorado. Twin Lakes is a hugely popular outdoor destination 365 days a year for its clear alpine waters, mountainous backdrop, and plentiful opportunities for fun. Bring the boat, kayak, or SUP board for a day out on the water, and if you’re keen on fishing, definitely bring your poles; the lake is regularly stocked with tons of trout and is a prime fishing spot. Make a trip here in early fall for some of the most spectacular yellow aspens you’ll see in Colorado or bundle up and bring your ice fishing gear once the lake has frozen over in winter. You can also book a boat tour to brush up on more Leadville history or simply take in the scenery from a different perspective. Also a short drive from Leadville is Turquoise Lake, slightly lesser known than its Twin Lakes counterpart but just as rife with activity. Cool off here any number of ways, including windsurfing, but be mindful of the cold water temps. Similarly to Twin Lakes, Turquoise Lake has a myriad of trails extending off its shores that are perfect for summer hikes or winter cross-country skiing.
Hike your heart out
Being nestled at the base of Colorado’s two highest mountain peaks, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, Leadville certainly has bragging rights when it comes to hiking trails. If you’re not quite feeling the haul of a 14er, rest assured there’s a scenic trail waiting that’s perfect for your activity level.
The Mineral Belt Trail is an 11.6-mile paved trail that’s open to adventurers year-round, offering views of the Sawatch mountains, old silver mines, and in the winter, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and fat biking. Alternately, the Timberline Trail is a manageable 2.2 miles and quieter than the Mineral Belt, open to foot traffic only; arrive at the picturesque Timberline Lake and break for water, snacks, or just to rest your feet before heading back out. Looking for a comfortable middle? Turquoise Lake Trail runs parallel to the shores of Turquoise Lake and even has its own dedicated nature trail guide. And for those really looking to put their endurance to the test, the long stretches of the Continental Divide Trail or Colorado Trail mean business—make sure you’re fully equipped, physically prepared, and have memorized your backpack resupply locations.
Attend one of Leadville’s signature events
In addition to the year-round attractions Leadville has to offer, it’s also known quite well for a few eccentric—but beloved—annual events. Perhaps the most notable is the Leadville Boom Days (and mark your calendar, because they’re right around the corner): a weekend-long celebration of the Old West, complete with contests, gunslingers, and burro (donkey) racing, plus all the food and craft vendors you could ask for. Team up with a burro and the necessary mining supplies—including a pick and a gold pan—and pay homage to the miners of the Old West rushing for gold.
Come winter, Leadville is again flooded with event attendees and spectators for its Ski Joring, celebrated annually since 1949 and part of the town’s annual Crystal Carnival. Ski joring is a timed obstacle course competition where teams are made up of a single skier being pulled by a horse and rider over jumps, through rings, and other hurdles constructed within the streets of Leadville. Temps are low but adrenaline is high as onlookers root for their friends, neighbors, or randomly chosen favorites to win.
You can always bring the whole family
One of the wonderful things about Leadville is that there’s plenty to do for every member of the family, whether you’re 2 or 92. Take the kids on an entertaining, panoramic train ride on the Leadville Railroad or feel the thrill and rush of air as you zip line through mountains and forest.
Looking for something a little slower-paced? Halfmoon Packing & Outfitting offers guided horseback riding tours (and horse-drawn wagon rides!) through open fields, forest trails, and at perfect overlooks of Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, and chances are you’ll see a ton of wildlife while you ride.
There’s plenty to eat, drink, and shop Downtown
Though small, Leadville has a surprising amount of shops, restaurants, and bars along its main strip, Harrison Ave. Get your caffeine buzz on at City on a Hill Coffee, followed by lunch at Tennessee Pass Cafe, Cuban coffee and sandwiches at Buchi Cafe Cubano, or some of the best slices in Colorado at High Mountain Pies. Grab dinner at Treeline Kitchen for some green chile Colorado corn bread, blackened cod, or BBQ pork and beans, or visit the hard-to-miss Golden Burro Cafe, an excellent spot for vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free diners (or those looking to dine somewhere sustainably driven).
For a stronger beverage (or celebratory post-14er beer), check out Two Mile Brewing Co. or the more rustic, pub-style Scarlet Tavern and Manhattan Bar Inc.
As for shopping, cheking out Melanzana’s handmade outdoor apparel is certainly a top-of-the-list suggestion, but know that visits here (and the chance to snag the greatest fleece of your life) are by appointment-only. Other notable shops include Elevation Goods, stocked with locally made products, housewares, and plants; the epic, multi-story antique shop that is the Western Hardware Company Limited; and the quaint Alpine Furniture Company and Gift Shop.
Stay at a charming, off-the-grid rental
While many of the nearby accommodations offer that classic, rustic, Old-West-Leadville feel, one lodging option is especially appealing—if you’re willing to sacrifice a few square feet. An array of tiny homes line a side street in Leadville, overlooking some impressive views of Mt. Massive to the west. Small in stature but big in personality, the rentals are great for experimenting if you’re considering the tiny house life or simply make for a charming base camp for your Leadville and surrounding area adventures.