About this Itinerary
The Mineral Belt Trail is an 11.6-mile loop through the historic mining town of Leadville, Colorado. This paved, high-elevation (10,000+ feet) trail offers spectacular views of the Sawatch and Mosquito mountains while it loops among conifer forests, aspen groves and meadows. Scenic beauty, recreation and history are seamlessly combined to provide visitors with a rich and diverse experience of the cultural and geological heritage of this Rocky Mountain region.
The Mineral Belt Trail occupies the right-of-way of three rail lines that served Leadville at the turn of the 20th century and offers access to the Leadville National Historic Landmark District and the Leadville Mining District. Interpretive signs and markers chronicle the early mineral exploration, the development of the smelting industry, the building of the rail systems to service the mines and the colorful characters that passed through Colorado’s mining country in search of wealth.
The riding on the trail is smooth though some recreationalists experience difficulty due to the high altitude. Allow time to acclimate before heading off. This is a high alpine environment so be prepared for the possibility of quickly changing weather conditions and the intensity of the sun; bring sunscreen, plenty of water and dress in layers. In winter, the Mineral Belt Trail is groomed for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter biking. For those not up for the making the tour via non-motorized means, a van provides access in September and is a popular sight-seeing excursion for seniors. The entire trail is ADA accessible.
Leadville can be reached by automobile or by flying into the Denver International Airport (124 miles) or the Eagle County Regional Airport (63 miles). Cycles of Life in downtown Leadville will equip you with bikes for the ride and the town offers restaurants, antique stores and museums for plenty of off-trail exploration and enjoyment.
Determining where to unpack your bags during your stay may be the hardest choice to make as there is a diverse range of options. Numerous designated campgrounds are located in the surrounding national forests as well as at Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake, and an RV park is within walking-distance to downtown. The Leadville Hostel is the place to meet and swap stories with fellow travelers and McGinnis Cottage Inn calls to those who prefer the Victorian elegance of late-1800s architecture. Finally, though getting here requires a committed effort, the adventurous will want to at least know about the yurt accommodations at Tennessee Pass (nine miles northwest of Leadville).
Before the ride, stock up on water and make sure to have a good breakfast or lunch in your belly. A couple possibilities for caffeine and calories are Cookies with Altitude, serving baked goods, sandwiches and salads and City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso, a local coffee roaster and bakery.
The trailhead, parking and mile marker 0 begin off US Hwy 24 west of College Road. It is also possible to park and access the trail from town and at Poverty Flats. If beginning at the trailhead and cycling the loop in a clockwise direction, you will turn right onto Elm Street briefly and find the trail again to your left before reaching the next intersection (McWethy Drive). Look for the remains of the Stringtown smelters, closed since the early 1960s.
Winding through town, anticipate several road crossings. You pass a school, hospital and cemeteries within your first mile, skirting around the town’s western edge. A quick side trip down James Street will bring you to the cemeteries where you may recognize the names of several of Leadville’s infamous citizens. Crossing Harrison Avenue, the National Mining Hall of Fame and Healy House & Dexter Cabin are a few blocks to your right. In less than 200 yards, you come to a major road crossing (Poplar Street) and busy highway, so please take care and know that cars won’t necessarily see or stop for you. The trail traverses a short on-road stretch (E. 12th Street, left on Alder Street) before you head away from town and into the natural beauty surrounding the trail.
Just beyond MM 2 is Poverty Flats, a high alpine meadow where weary pioneers once left behind possessions that they could no longer carry with them on their journey through this harsh terrain. The trail begins to gradually climb. Look for tracks from the old railroad line and keep an eye out for historical markers. Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad ran the High Line from Leadville to the summit of Fremont Pass (elevation 11,318 ft.) and to Climax Mine, a Molybdenum mine. Freight trains serviced the mine until 1986. Read about the Ibex rail extension and the Little Jonny Mine that made “Leadville Jonny Brown” and his wife (the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”) exceedingly wealthy.
The skyline begins to include views of the Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges as well as the beautiful water of Turquoise Lake. Take time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the meadows, aspen groves and subalpine forests that make up the surrounding landscape. You may well encounter wildlife during your ride as you are in the habitat of elk, black bear, deer, coyote, bobcats and numerous birds and small mammals. It wouldn’t hurt to become familiar with backcountry bear tips, on the off-chance of encountering an ursine trail companion.
You pass by a series of mines, including mines in Evans Gulch, Matchless and Tip Top Mines. Envision men, horses and pack burros hauling materials to these mines over the passes of the high-mountain ranges. At the site of Matchless Mine, you can read about Silver King Horace Tabor and the nearby cabin where the frozen corpse of his trophy bride, “Baby Doe,” was found after Horace lost his vast mining fortune. As you cycle through the Leadville Mining district you may see evidence of the environmental destruction of the early mining operations. Many of the mines are now Superfund sites and the Mineral Belt Trail is a result of community efforts to mitigate impacts to historic and cultural resources from cleanup of the California Gulch Superfund.
By the time you get to the Greenback Crib Wall, the result of a confrontation between two railroads, you will have gained 590 feet in elevation and traveled about 4.5 miles; the trail peaks just beyond mile 5, at the Iron Hill aspen grove, where the elevation reaches 10,652 ft. You gradually descend for the next six miles; there are still markers to read so be ready to brake during the decline.
Continuing through California Gulch, imagine the City of Gold that once straddled the valley’s creek and echoes bouncing off the mountain walls as thousands of miners shoveled or picked in their search for ore. At Georgia Gulch you learn why the locals called this area “Slaughterhouse Gulch” and eventually you will enter a densely forested segment for the last two miles of this rail-trail. Recreationalists are graced with glimpses of the majestic Mt. Elbert (Colorado’s highest peak at 14,433 ft.) and will travel, for a stretch, on the grade of the Colorado Midland Railroad, Crystal Lakes Extension. When the vistas begin to open up again, you are nearly at the trail’s end.
Back in town and thinking about food or drinks? High Mountain Pies is a popular place for pizza and there are plenty of other restaurants, bars and eateries to choose from.
The area around Leadville is filled with a tangle of rail branches that once serviced the mines. In 1880, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway opened the first branch to Leadville; the Colorado & Southern Railway line is still operating today as the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad, a tourist rail line offering a scenic 2.5-hour journey across the Arkansas River Valley. With panoramic views of Freemont Pass and Colorado’s two tallest peaks, Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert, this is another spectacular way to experience the area’s beauty as well as learn about the railroad’s legacy.
Mining in the area started in the mid-1800s when placer gold was discovered in California Gulch, a ravine near modern-day Leadville. The gold rush was brief, however, as heavy black sand hampered the mining process. It turned out that this mud-like sand was really a lead ore that was rich in silver and the boom would eventually begin again, but this time with a silver gleam. By 1880, Leadville (briefly called “Cloud City”) was a massive silver camp with a population of over 40,000.
As you might imagine, the promise of riches drew more than miners: entrepreneurs, gamblers, outlaws, and ladies of the evening flocked to Leadville. The escapades from those times have informed movies and books and are filled with figures such as Horace Tabor, Oscar Wilde, Doc Holliday and the Unsinkable Molly Brown. You can see evidence to these legends when strolling through Leadville’s historic district. The opera house, saloon, churches and homes all have a story to tell (there are 70-square blocks featuring more than fifty 19th-century buildings). A map of the historical walking tour is available at the local chamber of commerce.
If descending down a 600-foot vertical mine shaft is more your style, the Hopemore Mine give tours during the summer months. There are eight museums in town as well, so those with erudite-leanings will want to plan accordingly.
If you are really keen on celebrating the Wild West, come to Leadville the first weekend in August during their Boom Days Festival; you might run into gunslingers, burros or be asked to show-off your mining skills so be prepared.