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Leadville Continues to Develop 12-Mile Mineral Belt Trail

The many sites and reminders of Leadville's mining heritage make this a unique historical trail.
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By John Wilkinson

Colorado Map

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the site one of our State Trails funded projects-- the Mineral Belt Trail-- in Leadville, Colorado. The project had been well received by the State Trails Committee over the past few years so I felt that a personal visit was necessary. I knew that it would be a great recreational trail for Leadville but what I was not prepared for was the dose of Colorado history I would get from Mike Conlin-- Trail Guru for Leadville.

photo of biker
Photo by Howard Tritz (click to enlarge)

The loop around Leadville will be 12 miles when completed. Several sections are completed, several in the works and one last long section that will be completed within a year. The trail starts in downtown Leadville, heads downhill to the West, crosses the main highway, goes behind Colorado Mountain College, climbs up to California Gulch, traverses over to the Matchless Mine valley before heading down back into Leadville.

This brief description belies the history and terrain the trail crosses. The section leaving town will be a main artery for the children of Leadville to either walk or ride their bikes to the schools. After crossing Highway 24 by Stringtown, the trail meanders through the pine forest near the Colorado Mountain College's campus. This section of trail is used by the students of CMC's snow maintenance program for field practice. In the winter, this section of trail is groomed giving access to 10 kilometers of nordic skiing-- both classic and skating.

The trail uses a variety of pre-existing beds-- jeep roads, hiking trails and use of a small portion of the 150 miles of railroad beds that have been built in the Leadville area over the past 130 years. Though only a few miles of actual rail exist, the beds are still there and in usable shape.We climbed up over 700 feet of vertical from the lowest point on the trail to the highest along the most complete section. The trail is asphalt for about the first 4 miles. Road base was used for the last few miles to the intersection of California Gulch near the high point. Entering California Gulch, Mike explained to me that we were entering the largest EPA Superfund site in the nation.

Do not be put off by the designation of this area as a Superfund site. A majority of the reclamation work has been done making this a safe passage. What really struck me was the vastness of the mining development in this gulch. One hundred years ago there were 40,000 people living in Leadville, all most associated with the mining. There was a little gold in the hills but most of the mineral content was silver. Leadville, like most of the boom silver mining towns went bust after President William McKinley changed our money standard from Silver to Gold.

Overnight these towns disappeared. They left behind a legacy of mining and all that it took to get the minerals out of the ground. California Gulch is a testament to the miner's determination to strike it rich. From mine shafts 1,800 feet deep (we dropped a rock down the vent tube and the sound of the falling rock disappeared after a few minutes!), to the boilers used to heat the air going into the mines to the crib walls built to use as operating platforms, most evidence of the mining activities is still there to be explored. Even the smell of sulfur permeates the air.

Mike explained that even though the mining companies and the EPA are constantly at odds as to who is responsible for what, they have all contributed time, money and materials to the trail. The EPA even built a section around one of the mine sites. The mining companies have been extremely generous with their equipment and machines including donating 60 inch culvert for one water crossing.

The trail follows the railbed from California Gulch over to Evans Gulch. At one point, the trail will go between two 150 foot tall crib walls just like the trains of 100 years ago. Several bridges will gap missing trestles connecting the different valleys. Evidence of mining is everywhere. Mike kicked up a 100 year old pickax and threw it off the side of the trail. Just one of thousands still lying around, I surmised.

The trail then works its way around to the east before descending into Leadville completing the loop. The entire ride took around 3 hours of which half was easily taken up by history lessons. My suggestion to Mike was that they create a tape recording of the as in museums so that anyone interested in the history could listen as they followed the trail. A big component of the trail will include historic signs indicating the history of the various sites.

When completed, this will be a must do for trail users. Not only will it be a fine recreational trail with climbing, traversing and descending, the historical element will be unique in Colorado. To understand the birth of modern day Colorado, you have to know the history of mining and trains. This trail will tell a big portion of this story. I am as excited to show my friends and family this trail when completed for the historical value as I am for the trail itself.

All the parties involved in the construction of the Mineral Belt Trail need to be commended for their mutual cooperation. Groups that sit across from each other in the courtrooms came together and helped create one of the most interesting trails that Colorado will have to offer!

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The National Trails Training Partnership
American Trails, P.O. Box 491797, Redding, CA 96049-1797 (530) 547-2060 Fax: (530) 547-2035 nrt@americantrails.org www.AmericanTrails.org

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