Mineral Belt Trail recycles old Leadville rail routes

Article by Sharon Chickering

Rail trails – February 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

The name Leadville is synonymous with mining, railroads, and mountains. What better way to showcase the area’s fascinating history than to connect various parts with a multi-purpose trail benefiting local residents as well as tourists? Taking advantage of miles of abandoned railroad beds that linked major mining areas of the last century, a group of Lake County citizens is hard at work developing the 10.2-mile Mineral Belt Trail.

Located on portions of the old Denver & Rio Grande, Colorado & Southern and Colorado Midland Rail lines which extended into the mining district east of town, the trail is readily accessible to downtown areas, yet gives a sense of “secure adventure,” according to resource planner Mike Conlin. One challenge is to create a bicycle-friendly community while working around existing Victorian buildings and historic mining claims.

Ideas for a bike trail first surfaced in 1991 when the Lake County Liaison Group was formed to see how the county could benefit from the Superfund remediation process being mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Although 19th-century mining operations were the source of many of the environmental problems being addressed, the community was interested in preserving its history. A bike trail seemed a natural spin-off.

“It’s exciting,” said Howard Tritz, an original member of the Liaison Group. “We hope (the trail) will preserve the mining heritage of Lake County and show people what we have.”

Following an initial feasibility study sponsored by ASARCO Mining Company in summer 1993, Conlin was hired to develop proposals. Between January 1994 and July 1995, he wrote the Bicycle Trail Master Plan, Mineral Belt Bicycle Trail Plan, Cultural Resource Mitigation Plan and Mineral Belt Trail Construction Plan. The master plan enabled Lake County to receive $104,000 of federal funds through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. In addition, the county received $50,000 toward trail construction from lottery funds through GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund).

Cooperation from such agencies as ASARCO, city and county crews, Resurrection Mining Company, Lake County Sanitation District, Lake County School District, Forest Service, Colorado Mountain College, and crews from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility has resulted in a lower total cost for the project.

According to Conlin, a bicycle trail such as the one in Summit County costs $110,000 or more per mile to construct. With local in-kind contributions the Mineral Belt Trail will only cost about $46,000 per mile.

Because of the local commitment and expertise, Lake County received a Force Account through the State of Colorado allowing county and city crews to do the construction rather than hiring private contractors. That in itself resulted in a 30% cost savings. Although additional monies will be needed, construction is presently funded through 1996. Conlin estimates that the trail will be completed in five years.

Further savings have been realized because all land for the trail has been donated. As Lake County Assessor, Tritz is responsible for securing the necessary easements. After initial surveying, many people discovered, for the first time, exactly where the mining claim they had inherited from Grandpa or Uncle Joe was located.

“We’ve had whole families come up and be really excited to know where their mining claim was,” Tritz said. “They gave us the easement — no problem.” Tritz is excited when he talks about future possibilities of reconstructing some of the old trestles, and signage that will explain various facets of Leadville history, not just that directly related to mining.

Stephanie and Ken Olsen, owners of the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad, were major contributors when they donated 7.1 miles of their roadbed, the original Mineral Belt Railroad, to the county. This was a welcome right-of-way through a complex maze of mining claims.

A trailhead with parking facilities will be located along Highway 24 just south of Leadville city limits. To add variety to straight-as-an-arrow stretches, Conlin has designed sinuous portions. Curves add interest and lead to openings framing views of Mt. Elbert or the Arkansas River Valley. The looped trail will allow visitors to explore the whole length and never retrace their steps, or sample shorter sections from intersecting access roads.

Being built to the highest specifications, the twelve-foot-wide, paved Mineral Belt Trail will meet standards for ADA (Americans with Disability Act) accessibility. Although the trail has a 700-foot vertical rise, grades are suitable for all forms of non-motorized transportation (summer and winter).

This trail is only the beginning of a system of bike/multi-use trails that will eventually, as money and people-power become available, connect Lake County with surrounding counties. The master plan calls for: Turquoise Lake Bikeway (around Turquoise Lake and south to Twin Lakes); Tenth Mountain Bikeway (northwest over Tennessee Pass to Eagle County); Arkansas Valley Bikeway (south along the Arkansas River to Chaffee County); and Blue River Extension Bikeway (northeast over Frmont Pass to Summit County).

Final placement of some portions will depend on the outcome of current talks between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific concerning possible rail merger and subsequent abandonment. If the line through Lake County is abandoned, the railroad bed would likely be available for rails to trails conversion. If some other rail use is found (commuter or tourist trains, for example), alternate routes do exist for placement of the trails.

This is the case with the one portion of the Mineral Belt Trail that cuts through a residential section of Leadville and connects schools, public library, college, museums and hospital. Only time will tell the most feasible course of action.

For a community trying to strengthen outdoor recreational opportunities, construction of the Mineral Belt Trail is a giant step in the right direction. Howard Tritz summed up community enthusiasm when he said: “This is going to be a topnotch trail. I don’t think there’s another to compare to it in the country.”