In 1859 gold was discovered in California Gulch near the future town of Leadville. Thus began the long and entwined history of Leadville and the mining industry. The gold rush in the 1860s was short-lived because the placer mining was not profitable due to large amounts of black sand which mixed with the gold. In 1874 it was discovered that this black sand was actually a lead crystal that contained a large amount of silver. At this time silver was used as the standard of U.S. currency and the price was high. During the 1880s and 1890s, silver mining boomed and Leadville became the second most-populous city in Colorado. When the gold standard was established in 1893, silver crashed and Leadville suffered. Mining continued, however, and in the early 20th century it was lead and zinc, then later molybdenum that drove the economy of the area. The last mine closed in the 1980s, but the legacy of environmental degradation remained in the form of polluted water and soil. Now the clean up is mostly done, and Leadville is trying to develop a tourist-based economy. One major component of that effort is the Mineral Belt Trail.
Combining much natural beauty and a fascinating journey through Leadville’s mining past, the Mineral Belt Trail is a wonderful way to spend a few hours. The nominal starting point is in the town near the southern edge on Highway 24. The trail is used by bicyclists, roller bladers, walkers, skateboarders, and cross-country skiers in the winter. As a bike trail, it is very well-configured. The starting point is also the low point of the trail, so traveling the loop either clockwise or counter-clockwise means the first half is a climb and the last half is a free-fall. The best way to take it is clockwise, since most of the few dozen informative displays and artifacts are on the first half going in this direction, providing great excuses for stopping to rest a bit during the climb. The first part of the trail goes through the outskirts of town, then it proceeds through the old railroad district before finally climbing up to the historic mining district. The views of the town below and the mountains to the west are phenomenal, and the remaining mining structures, tailing piles and other infrastructure are a living outdoor museum. The second half of the ride is a constant but manageable downhill run that is a pleasure due to the great condition of the paved trail surface and the constant curves as it descends to the town below. Bikes are available to rent in town if you don’t have your own, and the trail, while a bit challenging, is not difficult for people in good condition.