If you’re like a lot of Front Range residents, you’ve taken the highway exits for Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail, some of the state’s biggest ski resorts. But you might not know much about Leadville, a mountain town with a rich history, some one-of-a-kind gems and uncrowded skiing.
Horace Tabor — the “Silver King” — helped turn Leadville into a booming mining town in the 1870s and later served as the state’s lieutenant governor before losing his fortune in the 1890s silver crash. Several historical structures here still bear his name. And before Molly Brown became “unsinkable” on the Titanic, she lived in Leadville from 1886 until 1894. Leadville also is said to have been a stop for Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
In Leadville, you can immerse yourself in that history, but you can also ski, shop and revel in small-town hospitality. Here are some of the best things to do while you are in town.
Ski at Cooper, the “local’s mountain”
The slopes at Ski Cooper, known fondly as the “local’s mountain,” feature an average of 260 inches of natural snow each year and attract a friendly crowd of skiers and snowboarders. It’s a great spot for families, as lift prices are low and there’s fun for everyone on these 480 acres. Skiers and riders looking for more challenging terrain can catch a ride on a snowcat. Not one for the slopes? Grab a pint at Katie O’Rourke’s Irish Pub while the rest of your party heads down the mountain.
Après-ski where “Doc” Holliday gambled
What makes Leadville so special are the quaint downtown’s hidden gems. One such place is the Silver Dollar Saloon, where it’s said “Doc” Holliday would try his luck at cards when he was in town and play the black piano still sitting at the back of the saloon. Formerly known as the Hymam Saloon, the Silver Dollar features the original bar from the 1880s and the windbreak – which keeps out both the blowing, cold temperatures in winter and prying eyes. It’s said the windbreak kept wives from seeing their husbands on their midday visits back in the day, perhaps saving a few frontier marriages.
Grab a Mellie
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade and didn’t know, Leadville is home to Melanzana, an outdoor apparel company with avid fans. Its popularity has rapidly grown, despite the company only selling its gear, such as the highly sought-after micro-grid hoodies, at one store in this high country town. Melanzana uses only parts and fabric made in the United States. The company’s founders are known for supporting local businesses and providing a sustainable and healthy workplace for staff. The shop is worth a visit while you’re in town — just remember to make an appointment first!
Skiing not your thing? Try tubing!
Not everyone skis or snowboards, but there’s still downhill fun to be had. The Dutch Henry Tubing Hill in Leadville is a great place to zip down a mountainside. Bring your own tube or rent one here and ride the hills to exhaustion.
Ski or snowshoe to a gourmet meal
There are not many places you can hike or ski to in the dead of winter and enjoy a four-course gourmet meal, so don’t pass up the chance to experience the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center and Cookhouse in Leadville. While lunch is a la carte, dinner is a fixed menu. After a pleasant 1-mile hike in, you’re greeted by warm candlelight and a wood stove at the Cookhouse, which sits off-grid at 10,800 feet. The chef provides favorite appetizers and desserts, with a main course of braised elk rack, duck leg confit, or a vegetarian or vegan option.
Get out on the trails to view some of Colorado’s tallest peaks without breaking a sweat by hopping on a sled and letting your new canine companions get a workout. There are several area dog sledding companies to choose from, and some even allow you to drive the team. This is a great way for people of all abilities to get into the outdoors; kids especially love this experience.
Nordic ski, snowshoe, or fat bike
Lake County is home to nearly 100 miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiing. The 12-mile Mineral Belt Trail traverses the old mining district, providing incredible scenery and a look into local history. Most of the trails also are open to snowshoers and fat bikers.
Find some fun on ice skates
Leadville boasts the highest, man-made ice rink in Colorado at Huck Finn Ice Rink. You can rent skates here or bring your own to have fun on the 30,000-square-foot outdoor rink. There’s a warming hut with snacks and hot cocoa, and a fire pit nearby. Skating is dependent on the weather and the rink usually is open December to March.
Head up to the top of Colorado
Topping at 14,433 feet, Mount Elbert is Colorado’s highest peak. In the summer, the north ridge trail is the most common route and can be crowded with hikers, even midweek. There are far fewer hikers in winter. At 14 miles roundtrip, this hike is no easy feat and should always be done with caution and a keen eye on the weather and avalanche conditions. If you make it to the summit, though, the views are endless and unforgettable.
Step back in time
Learn details about stories you first heard in grade school. Leadville is home to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, which shares tales of the hunt for gold and silver in Colorado as well as the story of the nearby Climax mine, the world’s largest resource of molybdenum. You’ll learn about the minerals you encounter every day and what life was like for the area’s pioneers. The Heritage Museum and Gallery, built in 1904 to house the city library, now is home to all sorts of Leadville memorabilia, including mining and 10th Mountain Division artifacts as well as a scale model of the world’s largest palace of ice, built in Leadville in 1896.