Whenever she’s hosting friends or family at her Breckenridge home, Elisabeth Lawrence takes them out to a place in the woods, a place of disturbed earth, dug-up piles all around from more than a century ago.
She takes them to a pond, where rests the Reiling Dredge. It was one of those that did the digging, one of those fueling the area’s gold boom of the late 1800s.
It might not look like much now, a skeleton of splintered, rotting timber. But to Lawrence, the dredge is special.
“I think it shows a different side of Summit County, a different side of Breckenridge,” the county commissioner said. “Like, this is really who we are. This was the Colorado pioneer spirit.”
The Colorado spirit today is still gritty in a way — in the way hiking and biking long, hard miles is gritty, or straining ourselves along sheer rock faces is gritty, or charging through rollicking whitewater is gritty. We are ambitious still, the mountains still our inspiration. They call to us not so much for gold anymore, but for something equally, inexplicably precious in our souls.
Of course, we have luxuries now that the miners didn’t have. Luxuries such as Gore-Tex, for example. Or a craft beer at the end of the trail. Or any number of gourmet eateries. Or any number of overnight accommodations in which to rest our weary bones.
All of that can be found in Breckenridge, just one example of Colorado’s economic transformation from mining to tourism.
Where once people rushed for riches, now they rush for adventure. Since the pandemic, they’ve come in numbers like never before — at least not since that first rush.
This isn’t the Wild West of whiskey-swilling prospectors and gunslingers anymore, but it’s still the Wild West in other ways. The streets of our most historic towns are packed, and the surrounding hills are deluged as well, as in times of yore.
It is a transformation we aim to capture in this magazine, serving as a glimpse into the bustling past and a guide to destinations bustling now.
It is a transformation that’s been detailed in an exhibit in Breckenridge, showcasing the town’s grimy beginnings and glitzy, resort present. Along with the dredge, Lawrence has been directing visitors to that.
When she views it, “my mouth hangs open, stunned,” she said. She’s stunned looking at those black-and-white photos of Breckenridge’s first boom. She’s stunned when she looks out to the town now.
“I would certainly say busier now,” Lawrence said. “It was very busy then, but people were so spread out; they were at their claims.”
Spreading out — a plight for many outdoorsy Coloradans finding their once-quiet places widely discovered.
It was a plight referenced in an announcement heading into the summer: The U.S. Forest Service ranger districts in Salida and Leadville sought input regarding potential changes to camping in the vicinity. To observers, it signaled changes that have been enacted at popular grounds all around the state. Reservations are now required for many sites once free to grab.
“The growing desire for public land use brings increased pressure on forest resources, an uptick in user conflicts and a rise in human-caused wildfire occurrences,” Salida Ranger District recreation program manager Ben Lara said in a news release.
Amid drought and a string of record blazes over the past decade, onlookers expect another summer of campfire bans. “Unfortunate,” said Jeffrey Larson, mayor of Creede, the once-mighty silver epicenter now a sightseeing gateway to the San Juan Mountains.
But Larson understands the restrictions. “The world has changed,” he said.
In many more ways than one.
In Leadville, where some of Colorado’s first millionaires were made at the mines, now some of the boldest runners and cyclists flock for an iconic, 100-mile race. Heading into the summer, that too was being scrutinized by the Forest Service. With a visitation surge during the pandemic, a study was “to see if those extra people on top of the event were causing issues that we weren’t aware of,” the ranger district’s permit coordinator said.
Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest summit, is another draw around Leadville. During the pandemic wave, the trailhead parking lot for fellow fourteener Quandary Peak became subject to reservations, following an overall trend that started at Rocky Mountain National Park. Reservations are expected to continue this summer at Quandary, previously estimated to attract up to 50,000 hikers a year.
Yes, the world has changed. Look closely, though, and you’ll find reminders of the past.
Look, for example, to tiny San Luis. It’s considered Colorado’s oldest town, still proudly maintaining the Spanish influences that built it. In the surrounding San Luis Valley, the possibilities are endless: boating and fishing along Rio Grande River; hiking and biking the trails around Del Norte; soaking in numerous hot springs; exploring North America’s tallest sand dunes.
And yet, the valley tends to be overlooked, said one who grew up there, Conor Hall. He’s the first-year director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.
“There’s places like that all around the state,” he said, offering another example in Moffat County. To the surprise of many, the northwest corner of the state is home to wild horses, sweeping terrain for off-roading and rugged, river-cut canyons, including those encompassing Dinosaur National Monument.
“Their market forces are closing down, the extractive economy that has been up there,” Hall said. “So we want to see if there’s a way to kind of buttress some of those jobs from that economy with the (outdoor recreation) economy. ... If we’re able to do it well and really fortify those local economies, then I think we will also be able to take some stress off some of our more well-known communities.”
Communities such as Aspen, another one of those that went from mining to tourism.
Glimpses into the old days are there, too. Just belly up to the bar at 133-year-old Hotel Jerome and listen for the ghosts of silver seekers.
Likely, you’re there for the modern spoils — the apres eats, shops, concerts and festivals that come with a view.
Summer in town is “really magical,” said Skippy Mesirow, who initially came for skiing. “The phrase you always hear is, ‘Come for winter and stay for summer,’ and it’s just so true.”
On City Council, Mesirow’s focus has been that of many counterparts in mountain towns all around Colorado: the housing crisis. Where poor immigrants from around the globe came to make it in mining, now the places they built seem reserved for the well-off.
Officials have taken a closer look at codes aimed at preserving the Victorian, scenic nature of their towns — codes aimed at preventing high-rise apartments, for example. Those are codes prolonging the crisis, some say.
“Where do you put density, height if you will, that is not gonna change the character of the community?” said Todd Brown, longtime member of Telluride’s museum board and town council.
It’ll take compromise around Breckenridge, Lawrence said.
“What keeps people wanting to come here is the specialness of it,” she said, “and if we just keep developing, we’re going to lose that.”
It’s something she might contemplate on a visit to the Reiling Dredge. It’s a quiet place there in the woods, a place where it’s easy to reflect and imagine the people who came not so long ago.
“Little did they know what it would turn into,” Lawrence said.
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