Breckenridge Colorado: Life at 9,600 Feet

We trade in our flip-flops for hiking boots
with an excursion into the heart of the Rockies…

The town possesses a bracing quality. Distilled up through 9,600 feet above sea level, the air itself is dry in midsummer, crisp and bitingly cold in winter, and often touched with the scent of woodsmoke. Brightly painted Victorian homes, taverns, restaurants, and boutiques populate the grid—many dating back to the late 19th Century. The surrounding mountains reveal granite outcroppings and snow cornices, while moose, black bear, elk, and deer roam the neighborhoods and surrounding national forest.

“If you’re looking to ‘get away from it all,’ this is where you go,” says Mike Durian, a frequent Breckenridge visitor from Boulder.

Since its founding in 1961, the Breckenridge Ski Resort has managed to transform the town into an iconic winter vacation destination. Its intrinsic beauty, topography, and proximity to Denver have been key drivers of Breck’s growing profile as a world-class ski and snowboarding capital. Heading west from Denver International Airport, visitors can be driving through downtown within two hours and soaking in hot tub with epic alpine views from the deck of a mountain

chalet shortly after that. Breck’s five peaks feature miles of groomed green and blue cruisers, along with a legendary ski school, making it a favorite for the beginner. The resort also offers

some of the most extreme terrain—including above treeline chutes and bowls—many of them accessed by the Imperial Express Superchair, the highest chairlift in North America. Topping out at nearly 13,000 feet, it makes Breckenridge a one-of-a-kind destination. “You come for the winters,” Durian says, “and stay for the summers.” The Gold Medal waters of the Blue River run through Upper Blue Basin, offering epic fly-fishing opportunities for several trout species. At the same time, hiking trails lace the Tenmile Range to the west and the Continental Divide to the east—drawing visitors looking to test themselves or just to experience life at a whole new elevation. In despite its preeminence as a year-round vacation destination, Breck’s roots as a mining town still lie at the core of its identity.

Photo Credit: Colorado Historic Society

Photo Credit: Colorado Historic Society

From Mining Town to Vacation Mecca

The story of Breckenridge begins with a lonely prospector working his way up the Blue River in 1859. A glint of yellow on the riverbed, the discovery of gold ore, and an unnamed town was born. Within a few years, the encampment had swelled into a small town of 100 souls, complete with its own stagecoach stop and post office. A narrow-gauge railroad would soon follow, making the trek to and from Denver for thousands of miners. Thirty years after the first discovery of gold, two prospectors named Tom Groves and Harry Lytton pulled a 13.5-pound nugget from the mountains, and a gold rush was on. News of the massive nugget was part of the larger Colorado Gold Rush, which drew thousands to the high alpine. But the extreme environment of Breckenridge, in particular required a special kind of prospector. Summer forest fires were followed by months of unrelenting snowfall with accumulations so deep that the townspeople resorted to digging tunnels to get from home to home. As the industry slowly faded, so did the town, with the population dwindling from 3,000 to fewer than 400 by 1950. Breckenridge appeared to be on its way to becoming one of Colorado’s famed ghost towns. Little did anyone know that the snow itself—not gold—held the key to the town’s future.

A handful of other Colorado mining towns were about to share an extraordinary and yet unforeseeable fate— becoming part of the wave of destinations to gain iconic status. These were towns such as Aspen, Telluride, and Crested Butte—and of course, Breckenridge. A full century after that first nugget was drawn from the Blue River, a ski trail was cut just to the west of town on Peak 8 of the Tenmile Range, followed by the installation of the first ski lift. More trails and lifts would follow, with the resort expanding to the north and south, eventually encompassing the surrounding Peaks 6 through 10. By the 1960s and 1970s, skiing had become nearly as popular in the U.S. as it was in Europe. The ski towns of Colorado flourished, taking on an outsized fame relative to their size. With their dry, light powder, the skiing was arguably better here than in the ski towns of the Alps. But as Breck’s ski industry grew, its heritage as a mining town commensurately diminished. It seemed only a matter of time before it was erased entirely. The locals, most of whom came for the skiing, would make sure this never happened.

The Local Scene

“Breck has an incredibly rich mining history,” says Jake Sklanka, a veteran of 13 Breckenridge winters. “Walking the streets of town, you’re surrounded by it.” Like many Breck locals, Sklanka is a transplant. “I wanted to go to the mountains before getting a real job,” he says. “And I’m still here.” A few years later, he joined the Breckenridge Ski Patrol, widely regarded as one of the most challenging ski patrol venues in North America. “Ski Patrol isn’t a job for everyone,” Sklanka says. “You’re handling explosives in some of the worst conditions imaginable. The wind is whipping. You’re keeping an eye on all of your partners. You’re getting blown around and working up a sweat. Five minutes later, you could be doing CPR. It’s an atmosphere that immediately connects you to the town’s mining past,” he says. “And I love it.” It’s a widely shared appreciation among the locals.

“I would fly out to Breck, spend some time, and get emotional when it came time to leave,” says Becca Spiro, a Breckenridge local since 2014. “I’ve been a vagabond for much of my life. I’ve now lived in Breckenridge longer than anywhere else.”

Like Sklanka, Spiro also joined Breckenridge Ski Patrol when she first moved here, describing the experience as “a job I couldn’t be prouder of.” After two seasons, she decided to start her own business and immerse herself in the community—the Breckenridge Creative Arts, in particular, which seeks to develop Breck into a major destination for artists. The organization receives 80% of its funding from the town, Spiro says. The town also chose to invest in the historic buildings that lined many of the streets. Some were merely in disrepair. Others were on the verge of collapse, teetering under heavy snow loads. In 2011, they began investing millions into preserving the historic mining character of the town. “It’s the town’s way of retelling its past,” Spiro says.