Happy (Winter) Trails in Leadville, Part Three
The MBT – Winter Fun for You and Me!
The MBT, that’s what the locals call it. But even more formally, Leadville’s Mineral Belt Trail (MBT) has gained a reputation across Colorado as the cool little trail in Leadville that nobody knows about. Ironically, this year the MBT marks nineteen years, and while parts of it are showing some wear and tear, it is still hands-down the most widely-used, non-motorized recreation area in Lake County.
Dedicated on July 29, 2000, the MBT loops the city of Leadville, traveling through aspen groves, conifer forests, wildflower meadows, and open vista sage parks. The Mineral Belt Trail is an 11.6 mile all-season, ADA accessible route with numerous trailheads and access points. Approximately six miles of this trail meanders through the historic Leadville Mining District. It offers unsurpassed views of the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges. If you live in Leadville Today and use this trail regularly, you understand how spoiled you are as you walk, ride or ski for miles and often times, never see anyone else along the way.
Of course, pathways like this don’t just happen, and they certainly don’t take care of themselves once they are set in hard rock! So for the third segment in the Happy (Winter) Trails in Leadville series, Leadville Today brings readers the story of the MBT. This recreational loop came together at a point in Lake County ’s most recent “bust” cycle. But perhaps most importantly, it stands as a daily reminder that when people come together for a common-good goal, the magic still happens in America’s highest city.
It was during the Mineral Belt Trail’s Annual Phyllis Hakala Fall Colors Tour some years ago that Leadville Today rode along with one of the MBT’s founding members and Leadville native-son Howard Tritz. As the once-a-year motorized tour of senior citizens and mobility challenged passengers took in the quaking aspen’s showcase, Tritz recalled the story of how it all got started. This is the story of Leadville’s Mineral Belt Trail.
Tritz’s opens his story in 1991. By now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had firmly entrenched itself into the Leadville landscape and had designated Lake County as a Superfund site. For long-timers who can remember some of those hostile public meetings that needed a deputy present, or can recall the “no vacancy” hospitality this small mountain community showed to federal agents who could not find a hotel room or anyone to serve them a meal at a local restaurant, it was a rough chapter in Leadville’s recent history.
But, as Tritz’s continues with the story, there was a group that realized they might be able to leverage the EPA’s presence in town and maybe they could get something out of them while they were here. And so, as is the standard operating procedure, a group was formed, calling themselves the Leadville and Lake County Liaison Committee (LLCLC).
While some of the humorous details of Tritz’s tale will have to save for another day, the long and short of the story is that the committee took the top two ideas solicited from the community about what was important to them and created the Mineral Belt Trail.
“Preserving the mining district garnered the most votes by far,” recalled Tritz. “And building a bicycle trail came in at a close second.” It seemed nearly everyone came to an agreement to develop something that would showcase and preserve the unique mining heritage of the district while providing recreational benefits to the community and its visitors.
The mere fact that something actually materialized from a community survey is an accomplishment in itself. The fact that the construction of the trail began so quickly in the spring of 1995, and actually opened five years later at the end of July 2000 is a triumph.
The plan, in the beginning, was to compile a list of abandoned rail lines which could possibly be utilized for pedestrian and biking trails. A major portion of the Mineral Belt Trail is on the Colorado and Southern Mineral Belt Line. This rail line was built in 1898 and abandoned in 1937. It winds through the famous Leadville Mining District passing through well known old mines such as the Little Pittsburg, Robert E. Lee, Robert Emmet, Wolftone, and Tabor’s Matchless Mine. In 1987 the fee simple ownership of this line was transferred from Burlington Northern to Ken and Stephanie Olson, founders of the popular tourist train in Leadville. The Olson’s generously donated this rail line for the development of a bicycle/pedestrian trail.
But the spirit of cooperation didn’t end there. Groups that had sat across from each other in courtrooms formed an alliance that helped create one of the most interesting trails in Colorado! City and county authorities, private landowners, local civic and historic organizations, and state and federal agencies; all these participants and many more put aside their differences in order to make this project happen. With very few exceptions, where parcels of land were exchanged, easements to allow construction of the trail were all donated to Lake County.
Today, Mineral Belt Trail is one of the highest paved trails in Colorado. This self-guided tour takes users through some of the richest silver and gold strikes in Leadville’s Historic Mining District. The trail’s inclines and declines mimic the full circle of mining, from the early discoveries, through the boom and bust periods, and up to the current Superfund cleanup. Presently, efforts are underway to secure its National Recreational Trail status, as well as a Congressional designation as a National Historic Trail.
There are several access points to the Mineral Belt Trail. The first is from Ice Palace Park, located behind the National Mining Museum. If you’re coming into town from the north off Highway 91, take a right onto E. 11th Street, at the corner of the liquor store and marijuana dispensary facility. Take that short block and the parking area will be directly in front of you. MBT users can also access the trail from the Lake County Community Park, located at W. 6th and McWethy Streets. Head west at the light in downtown Leadville, traveling for several blocks until you see the park at the “T” intersection where there is plenty of FREE parking. And finally, the most used access point can be found at the base of Dutch Henri Hill at the corner of Highway 24 south and McWethy Drive, look for the Cloud City Ski Club sign.
While the MBT is still owned by Lake County, all of its management and operating decisions are made by the Mineral Belt Trail Committee which is a non-profit that acts in an advisory capacity to the Board of County Commissioners. In fact, other than routine maintenance which shows up under the Public Works’ budget, the county has no other financial or staff obligation to one of the most used recreational facilities in Leadville Today. Which leaves the MBT on its own when it comes to fundraising. So if you are a regular user and would like to contribute to the MBT, mail your donation to The Mineral Belt Trail, PO Box 666, Leadville, Co 80461. Or sign up for the 2019 Leadville Loppet Ski Race (see below).
Did you miss the other segments in the Leadville Today Leadville Winter Trails series? You’re in luck because you can find them here:
- Part One: Leadville Winter Trails – The Eastside/Mosquito Pass trails and Turquoise Lake to the west.
- Part Two: Leadville Winter Trails – The Leadville National Fish Hatchery Trails.
Leadville Loppet Raises Funds for MBT
Fortunately, this group also knows how to have a good time when passing the hat for funds, and their main event is just around the corner. On Saturday, Feb.16 the Mineral Belt Trail Committee will host its 16th Annual Leadville Loppet. This is a cross country skiing race involving 5K, 10K and 22K sprints through the Colorado Mountain College and the Mineral Belt Trails. Funds derived from the participants’ entry fees are used for the care and maintenance of the trail.
The Leadville Loppet has two classes: Nordic and freestyle. The race course starts and ends at the base of Dutch Henri Hill off of HWY 24 South of Leadville. From there skiers glide through a rolling, forested network of trails, leading racers on to the MBT, where climbs and descends await. The tracks follow along abandoned rail grades left behind from Leadville’s mining era, offering a passing history lesson to the skinny skiers. It’s a one-of-a-kind course which should be laden (and groomed) with fresh snow.
The Loppet has also been added to the list of American Birkebeiner qualifiers! Skiers will be able to utilize results from either the 22 or 44 km race for improving their wave placement for the Birkie or Korte. More details on that can be found HERE.
Registration is currently open online for classic and freestyle 44K, 22K, & 10K distances, plus a 5K and 1K fun race, where costumes are encouraged! If you plan on joining the fun this year, be sure to register in the next week, as the price goes up February 1.
But whether you are putting in some training laps for the Loppet, or just getting out on the MBT for a Sunday outing, this Leadville Winter Trail offers everything you need to enjoy the colder season at 10,152 feet. It’s also a true testament to the pioneering spirit, honoring the unique mining heritage of the district while providing recreational benefits to the community and its visitors. Make sure it’s on your list of Happy (Winter) Trails in Leadville!
Other Stories from the (Mineral Belt) Trail
Over the years, Leadville Today has shared many little known, never-before-published stories about Leadville’s beloved Mineral Belt Trail. It’s a special place that has been built and developed over time. Many people, groups and businesses have been part of creating this non-motorized pathway which loops around America’s highest city like a great big hug. If you’re interested in learning more, please see the LINKS below.