Winter Trails Await in Leadville Today
“Are you from here?” the woman asked laying open the guidebook in her left hand entitled: Colorado’s Quiet Winter Trails. The skier, who was a first-time visitor to the Leadville National Fish Hatchery’s Trail System, turned out to be a twenty-something Copper Mountain employee who was looking to get away from the crowds over the hill.
Sound familiar? It should, as more and more people are “discovering” Leadville, especially nearby neighbors looking to escape the massive crowds taking over their favorite trails a bit closer to home. It’s a be-careful-what-you-ask-for message after years of Summit and Eagle Counties’ aggressive tourism marketing which rolled out the welcome mat for any travelers who could make it through the Eisenhower Tunnel, leading to increased congestion on their roads and trails.
In fact, there’s little question that some of that foot and wheeled traffic has spilled over into Lake County’s more popular and notable winter recreation areas. The visitor numbers are growing right along with every inch of fresh snow. Fortunately, there are still plenty of wide-open spaces and little-known trails for locals and neighbors to get out on. You might not be the ONLY person you see on the trails anymore, but there’s still enough elbow room and secret treasures for everyone to enjoy.
In this Winter Trails segment, Leadville Today heads downstream a bit, just past the Little Red Schoolhouse and Saturday’s Mercantile off Highway 24 South. The turnoff to CO Highway 300 is just past these two notable landmarks, which will take you straight out to the base of Colorado’s two highest peaks and the home of the Leadville National Fish Hatchery (LNFH).
The LNFH was established in 1889 and is the second oldest of the 70 hatcheries in the National Fish Hatchery System. It is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The hatchery grounds occupy 3,072 acres of subalpine forest and the facility was established by President Benjamin Harrison for the purpose of increasing the supply of fish for inland waters.
During the summertime, this federal facility is alive with young fish from the hatchery, a variety of budding flora and fauna exploding in color along the trails, and filled with warmer-weather visitors from around the world. It’s also the portal to the Mount Massive Wilderness Area which affords hikers a gateway to Colorado’s two highest peaks: Mt Elbert and Mt. Massive. In August, as race season sees its peak with the Leadville Race Series 100-mile races, the fish hatchery is on full display as tens of thousands will likely pass by its entryway in pursuit of a belt buckle trophy.
But in the wintertime, it’s different. During the colder months as the area puts on its winter whites, there comes a peace and quiet. So it’s no wonder that this sacred, special place found a page in a book entitled: Quiet Winter Trails. And fortunately for that Copper Mountain employee, the fish hatchery’s Manager Ed Stege was working (without pay during the government shutdown) and available to help with a quick review of the trails before she ventured out for some forest tranquility. LT tagged along on the lesson and can relay the following intel on the Winter Trails at the Leadville National Fish Hatchery.
There are a couple of parking areas. The first is at the entry to the Nature Trail which is to your immediate left as you turn into the LNFH entrance. The second parking area is up further on the left just past the historic hatchery building at the trailhead signs.
Once parked, head over to the information kiosk located outside, and therefore available for reference whether the government is shut down or not! Here, visitors can find copies of the LNFH Trail System maps. They are FREE, but please note the donation tube located at the kiosk to help The Friends of the Leadville National Fish Hatchery defray the printing costs of these invaluable guides to the area for users in all seasons! Readers can also access the Leadville Trail Maps HERE in digital format (Page One) and Page Two.
It’s important to note that this area is for non-motorized enjoyment only. The trails range in classification from easiest to difficult with some “most difficult” trails once winter recreationalists cross over into the adjacent designated wilderness area. While all ski and snowshoe trails are marked with the standard blue diamond signs, Stege did make note during his instruction that a bit deeper into the trails, some of those markings are missing and have been replaced by directionals etched/carved into the trees at certain junctions. All the more reason to make sure that every backcountry user brings “The 10+ Essentials” which includes first and foremost a MAP!
Some of these winter trails, like the easy one-mile Nature Trail loop are well- suited for snowshoers. While other opportunities on the Rock Creek Loop (2.45 miles), Kearney Park Loop (5 miles) or the more challenging Highline Trail at 8.73 miles with a 2,470” elevation gain, are suitable for skiers, shoers, and skinners. These three trails also intersect with the Colorado Trail in the Mt. Massive Wilderness Area, offering different routes to hike a loop starting and ending at the hatchery.
Setting off from the trailhead, winter users can access the service road which winds its way up towards lofty Mt. Elbert. Stege encourages skiers and snow-shoers to utilize the established tracks just to the right along the plowed roadway. Eventually, this road leads to the Evergreen Lakes area, which provides a number of choices. It’s also another example of the area’s historic significance to Colorado and the world. Did you know that the historic Evergreen Lakes Hotel was the place where the Unsinkable Molly and JJ Brown choose to take in their Honeymoon breakfast? Once you see the view from the hotel ruins, you can understand why. Visitors can read that full story on the expansive plaque at the site.
In the same area is a beautiful Pavilion (compliments of The Friends) with a picnic area off to the south end of the lake. A summertime hotspot for everything from Rocky Mountain weddings to family reunions, this recreation area stays somewhat active during the colder months, and usually includes a Winter Fun Day presented by The Friends sometime in February.
From the Evergreen Lakes area, the LNFH trail system map is your best guide, so pay attention to the topographical outlay and difficulty ranges. Remember, your point of entry is over 10,000 feet, where the weather and conditions can change in a matter of minutes. Plan accordingly and let someone know what your route and expected return time will be.
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What’s New at the Leadville Fish Hatchery for 2020
According to a recent press release distributed by the Friends of the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, the group will be undertaking a project to replace the existing glass block windows in the Hatchery Building with modern double pane glass windows that will mimic the look of the original 1890 windows. This is the last step in restoring this historic building’s exterior to its former glory.
Over the past several years the roof, front porch, and front door have been refurbished to come as near as possible to their original appearance. The final step is to replace the glass block windows and doors. In the 1960s, the original windows and French entry doors leading from the front porch to the superintendent’s offices were replaced with glass block. This not only cut down on the light reaching the interior of the building but also destroyed the building’s original appearance.
This refurbishment will resolve these 2 issues, thus enhancing visitors’ experiences to historic Leadville. The project will replace 16 windows, 3 French doors (non-operational) and 4 sidelights. Several of the smaller windows in the rear of the building will remain glass blocks as they are behind mechanical equipment. We estimate that the project will cost $95,000. The Friends currently have raised $70,000. We need to raise an additional $25,000 to fully fund this project. Phoenix Window Restoration has been selected to do the work.
Ed Stege, the hatchery project leader, has worked during his tenure to restore the exterior appearance of this historic working building. The building is currently in use to preserve the genetic diversity of Colorado’s state fish, by housing and spawning Greenback cutthroat trout, once thought to be extinct. The Friends would very much like to complete the window project before Ed retires in a year and a half. The window replacement project will put the finishing touches on refurbishing the exterior of the hatchery building.
Please support the Friends and all the people and organizations that use the hatchery and its grounds with your generous contributions to the Friends Window Replacement Fund. Donations may be made to the Friends P.O. Box or electronically through our website: Friends of the Leadville National Fish Hatchery, P.O. Box 1194, Leadville, CO 80461.
The Leadville Fish Hatchery in Summer
During the summertime, the Leadville National Fish Hatchery is alive with young fish from the hatchery, a variety of budding flora and fauna exploding in color along the trails, and filled with warmer-weather visitors from around the world. It’s also the portal to the Mount Massive Wilderness Area which affords hikers a gateway to Colorado’s two highest peaks: Mt Elbert and Mt. Massive. In August, as race season sees its peak with the Leadville Race Series 100-mile races, the fish hatchery is on full display as tens of thousands will likely pass by its entryway in pursuit of a belt buckle trophy. And should you be a fan of the winged creatures that only come out at night, then don’t miss out on Bat-Palooza at the Fish Hatchery. The LNFH is truly a place for all seasons! Try them all.