Leadville’s Magical Hoop Forest: Secrets of the Woods
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Welcome to the mystical Hoop Forest in Leadville, Colorado. Located just outside the city limits, in Lake County, this portion of the woods, where barrel rings seem to perform a high trapeze act in the lodgepole pine branches, has fondly been re-named “The Hoop Forest” by locals.
And while it may not be a tourist attraction many residents would share with a visiting hiker, Leadville Today went out to investigate this unique, little-known place in the forest.
Back in the day, before ground transportation and overnight delivery, things were primarily transported to Leadville by rail. In fact, it was freight, not passengers that made the Leadville railroads money. And a lot of that freight was transported in wooden barrels. These watertight, keg-shaped containers were able to withstand the stress of traveling across country by rail and could be easily rolled and stacked with little friction, once they reached their final destination.
Many times, folks think whiskey or wine when it comes to the wooden barrel. But, all sorts of foods and goods were stored and transported in these containers. Fish, meats and some vegetables were dried and salted then stored and transported. Fragile items such as eggs would be packed in them among layers of straw to keep them cooler as well as to keep them from breaking. And they were good at keeping out the vermin, which was important because the barrels were often buried in the ground, acting as refrigeration units. The barrels were often cut in half and “re-purposed,” serving as a cradle for a child, to feed or water livestock, or as a large mixing bowl for any number of reasons. Yep, it was a barrel bonanza back in the day.
But once a barrel had seen its last ride down the rails, and was no longer of use as a storage container, it was most likely taken apart, with any salvageable wood used for cooking or heating.
So whatever happened to the hoops, the rings that hold the wood together? Many of those old barrel rings were left behind, in stacks, piled high around what was then a fledging lodgepole pine, only three feet tall. It’s these series of trees huddled together in a small patch of woods on the edge of town that make up Leadville’s mystical Hoop Forest. Way up in the branches of 50-60 ft lodgepole pines are nearly 100 (and counting) old barrel hoops, clinging and swinging as if in some elaborate trapeze act. The rusty circular fasteners seem to blend into the dark branches of the pines. Others sit at the base of a centurion tree as if its trunk simply stepped into the center of the hoop just yesterday.
So how did those hoops get way up into the trees? And what about the ones lying on the forest floor encircling the trunk of a 60 foot pine tree?
Like most mysteries, there are a few theories. The first has a lot to do with location. The Hoop Forest sits on the edge of town, not too far from an old train stop where the barrels came off freight cars by the hundreds. Many of these barrels were unloaded right there at the scene rather than hauling the heavy containers into town. The goods unpacked from the barrels were then placed into the shop keep’s wagon and transported into Leadville. Like any shipping and receiving center, that part of the forest also became a “dump” for the containers of the day: wooden barrels with hoops. The good barrels were re-used, the broken containers, let to sit and rot in the woods.
Another theory is that the site is an old whiskey or brew operation. That would account for the sheer number of hoops still hanging in the trees, as it’s hard not to image there were hundreds if not thousands stored there at some point. Either guess is as good as the other because it’s really the “how” they got up – some nearly 50 feet off the ground – into the trees that provides the mystic.
Because when you look up, way up into the tree tops and see the old rusty hoops, entangled in the centurion’s branches, you can imagine their journey. They started out resting on a small, low branch, and began being lifted up by the growing tree, foot by foot, reaching higher up into the sky, year after year.
You imagine their long, cold winters, blowing about in the freezing weather. How many hoops started out on the journey? How made it through the winter, still intact in the boughs of those evergreens come springtime? Clearly, the hoop remnants on the forest floor are a testament that some may have fallen along the way, or perhaps never got to take flight in the first place. But the hoops that survived, the ones that that remain in the treetops, are a reminder of Leadville’s history and the folks (and hoops!) who made it!
All things considered, I guess there’s really no better place for The Hoop Forest to live but In The ‘Ville!
Writer’s Note: Where is the Hoop Forest? Well, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you; I’ve been sworn to secrecy. It was a requirement for this story. Some locals may be familiar with where this unique forest feature lives, but for others, the only clue I can provide, is a quick video shot which may provide a hint – if you’re good at scenic bearings! To that end, if you have an interesting tale for Leadville Today to investigate, please feel free to contact us via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.