Along the top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway sits North America’s highest incorporated city, Leadville, Colorado. At a lofty perch of 10,430 feet, this legendary frontier mining town is positioned in a valley surrounded by stunning snow-capped peaks. Leadville is famous for its heritage, its two-mile-high athletic events, and its annual 310 days of sunshine. The town also boasts seventy square blocks of gorgeous Victorian architecture, a plethora of antique stores, and a host of bizarre traditions. But just as Leadville could not remain a thriving mining town, nor will it likely remain as it is today.
In early March, spectators from all over descend upon — or rather, ascend to — this sleepy town to watch “ski joring,” an event that involves horses running at full gallop pulling audacious skiers who attempt to go over a series of jumps. Summer hosts Boom Days, an annual tribute to those who made Leadville what it is today, with pack burro races up nearby Mosquito Pass and back to town.
During its peak, Leadville was home to over 30,000 residents (it currently has 2,617) and at one time was slated to be the capital of Colorado. Geologists claim the Leadville Mining District contains the largest pockets of precious ores in North America. The Climax Molybdenum Mine, which employed over 3,500 during its peak years, closed down in the mid-1980s. Touted as the last truly untouched mining town of the 1880s boom period, Leadville has successfully avoided the destruction of its priceless structures through a number of innovative preservation policies.
Development and tourism projects keep the town afloat, but as Leadville gains popularity, many residents believe it may be impossible to keep it from becoming a huge resort like Vail, with expensive condominiums and architectural controls.
Residents of Leadville have already successfully rejected a prison, a machine gun factory, a Christian camp, and a proposed $50 million ranch with luxury housing for three thousand — bigger than the town itself. Also at risk of changing are Leadville’s unique traditions like ski joring, which is already attended by thousands of people who crowd onto the town’s main street every year.
The Denver Post has called Leadville “the last best place,” but it remains to be seen how long residents of Leadville will successfully resist those who aim to turn the town into a posh resort. For anyone wanting to visit Leadville — home to more heritage tourist opportunities than any other city in Colorado and more historic museums and historical sites per capita than any other city in the U.S. — the time to visit the “City Above the Clouds” is now.
Part of a NileGuide Special Report: 25 Destinations to See Before They Change Forever.