In Leadville, Colorado, the highest-elevation city (10,158 feet) in the United States, thousands of endurance athletes gather annually to test their mettle in the legendary “Race Across the Sky.” The race series’ marquis event in August, the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon, has them trail-running over some of the most extreme mountain passes in the Rockies. The route tops out at a lung-busting 12,620 feet on the aptly named Hope Pass. Half of the runners don’t finish, but they keep coming back—the Leadville Trail 100 turns 40 in 2023, and it sells out every year.
Part of the draw is Leadville itself. The Victorian-era mining town is one of the best preserved in the state, with more than 70 registered historic buildings, eight museums, and an unyielding boomtown spirit. Whether you’re coming to Leadville to race or not, here’s how to best experience this singular city.
From boom to bust to basecamp
Located in a high-mountain valley two miles above sea level in central Colorado, Leadville began in the 1860s as a gold-mining camp. In the late 1870s, prospectors discovered what would become one of the world’s largest lead-zinc-silver deposits, transforming the hardscrabble town into a thriving city of 30,000 people by 1880.
In the span of about a decade, three railroads transported more than $82 million worth of silver from Leadville. The city became second only to Denver in opulence, with dozens of high-end hotels, restaurants, theaters, and dance halls.
Colorado’s silver boom ended abruptly in 1893 when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed, and the price of silver collapsed. Leadville’s fortunes subsequently crumbled.
Today, about 2,700 people call Leadville home. The altitudinous town is a popular stop for motorists exploring the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway, as well as for thru-hikers needing to resupply/rest while negotiating the adjacent Continental Divide Trail or Colorado Trail. The cloud-scraping peaks of the state’s two highest mountains, Mount Elbert (14,439 feet) and Mount Massive (14,428 feet), dominate the western horizon, and Leadville serves as a basecamp for summit hikers.
Along with ultra-endurance events, Leadville is best known for pack burro racing. Runners—accompanied by a donkey carrying a pick, shovel, and gold pan in its saddlebags—tackle the dusty, pine tree-lined trails through the former mining district, a National Historic Landmark. “We have a very present history,” says Elsa Tharp, co-founder of FREIGHT, a boutique hotel and event venue in Leadville.
Exploring Cloud City
A visit to Leadville starts at Zero Day Coffee, the nation’s highest-elevation coffee shop. Owner Avery Williamson was working behind the counter on the sunny summer morning that I visited. I sipped my iced matcha steamed with oat milk while tucked into an Adirondack chair on the café’s front lawn beside a woman from Michigan. She was in town to hike a subsection of the Colorado Trail with her family.
She said she’d run into an exhausted Williamson a couple days prior on the trail. It was his day off, and he’d just run about 30 miles over three mountain passes. She’d given him a doughnut and a Coke and was at Zero Day Coffee collecting the free latte he’d promised her in return. “Zero Day,” she explained, “is a thru-hiking term. It means a rest day, so no miles are clocked.”
For more casual visitors to Leadville, there are less extreme options for getting a healthy dose of fresh but thin mountain air. You can rent an electric pedal-assisted bike from E-bike Leadville and tour the scenic Mineral Belt Trail. The non-motorized path loops 11.6 miles through the evergreen forests, aspen groves, and sagebrush meadows surrounding town, including the historic Leadville Mining District. Plan enough time to stop for the trail’s interpretive signs, which explain the pivotal places and people of Leadville’s storied past, like Titanic survivor “Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
Harrison Avenue is the best place for a stroll through Cloud City, with dozens of architecturally distinct commercial buildings and an eclectic mix of saloons, cafés, and boutiques. Grab a historic walking tour map online or at the Visitors Center (809 Harrison Ave.).
Leadville’s most famous building is arguably the Tabor Opera House, which anchors the south end of Harrison Avenue. When it was built in 1879, by local millionaire miner Horace Tabor, the theater was the costliest structure in Colorado. Today it’s considered a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it’s part of the new Colorado Historic Opera Houses Circuit.
I toured the elegant, albeit slightly spooky, institution and got a peek at the musty attic where employees recently discovered a trove of historic stage sets. The Tabor is undergoing a multiyear, $15 million rehabilitation, but you can still run your hand over the original red-velvet seats from a time when luminaries like Oscar Wilde lectured on stage.
Matchless Mine, located about a mile uphill from Harrison Avenue, was one of the richest mines of the 19th century. It produced millions of dollars’ worth of silver for owner Horace Tabor. On a self-guided tour of the well-preserved wooden structures, visitors learn about Tabor’s scandalous second marriage to Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, and Baby Doe’s subsequent journey from society figure to penniless recluse, whose frozen body was discovered in a shack that still stands at the mining site.
Book ahead of time to shop at Melanzana, a 30-year-old outdoor clothing brand. It designs, makes, and sells hoodies exclusively at its Leadville workshop/store on Harrison Avenue. The hoodies are in such high demand (shoppers have been known to fight over sizes and colors) that in 2021, owner/founder Fritz Howard implemented an appointment-only purchasing system. In July 2023, Melanzana was booked until December.
What to know
Eat: Located inside the city’s only Victorian hotel, Mineral 1886 serves up the Benedict ($12), a beef patty smothered in Hollandaise sauce and served on a buttery toasted potato bun with a poached egg and caramelized onions. Golden Burro Cafe is the local favorite for plant-based cuisine, along with smoothies, fresh-pressed juices, and house-made kombucha. Look for the neon sign dating to the restaurant’s diner days in the 1930s.