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Hiking in Leadville: Hagerman Tunnel, Douglass City ghost town, Opal Lake, more

This sign is at the start of the trail
This sign is at the start of the trail
Deb Stanley

The Hagerman Tunnel Trail is a great trail for hikers looking for a fairly easy hike with lakes, a ghost town and railroad history.

Opal Lake, below Hagerman Tunnel, Leadville
Deb Stanley

The hike starts at the Hagerman Tunnel trailhead (directions below). You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you see a sign that says Colorado Midland Centennial Trail. The sign here explains that Colorado Midland Railway had less than 350 miles of track and never made any money.

When the Hagerman Tunnel was built in 1887 it was the highest railroad tunnel in the country. And while the trains and trestles are gone, there are lots of remnants from the railroad’s past for visitors to see.

The trail starts on a single-person wide, dirt path through the trees and a meadow before turning left on to the old railroad grade. The trail goes through some spots where the railroad bed was blasted through rock. Because you’re hiking an old railroad bed, the trail isn’t very steep. And I especially enjoyed the views of the mountain cirque in the distance. At one point along the trail you may spot a parking lot/trailhead below you, that's the trailhead for Windsor and Native lakes that you passed on the drive up.

You’ll hike on the old railroad bed about 1.4 miles when you suddenly come to a big dropoff. Just before the dropoff, you may notice a steep trail to your right. For now, go to the dropoff. Several books and hiking blogs say this was the spot of the old Hagerman Trestle. It was 1,110-feet long and 84-feet high. Now, the only remnants are some wood logs below. While you can hike a trail near where the old trestle ran, for now, let’s backtrack a short distance to that steep trail.

The steep trail is the “shortcut” or “cutoff” trail to Douglass City. Hike about a quarter mile and 100 feet of elevation gain, up to a four-way trail split. While there’s a pond here, this is not Douglass City yet. This is where the railroad bed crosses the “shortcut” trail. When we visited in 2014, there was a trail sign here with an arrow, but it was hard to read. Stay on the shortcut trail and a short distance away you’ll start seeing the remnants of old buildings.

The first few buildings are just a couple logs high, but you can see some of the outline of how big they were. Then you’ll arrive at the Douglass City sign. Read the whole thing -- it’s pretty funny. It says Douglass City was built to house the Italian construction workers who built the Colorado Midland Railway in this area. The sign says Douglass City was a one street “city” with eight saloons, a dance hall and a lot of tents. The sign says the ladies of the evening who worked up here were too jaded to work in Leadville. The sign also explains that Douglass City was the scene of drinking, shooting, fighting, knifing and other innocent pleasures. Their words, not mine.

As you continue past Douglass City, you’ll likely spot a few more log structures. Maybe more of those eight saloons.

Soon the trail turns through a rocky, avalanche path and you should get your first glimpse of Opal Lake. At Opal Lake, on the right side of the trail, you’ll likely spot a tall pole with metal pieces on it. On the left side of the trail, on the ground, you may see bricks and remnants of some structure, The book, “Colorado: A Guide to Colorado's Greatest Hiking Adventures” by Maryann Gaug says there was a steam boiler here that provided power to build the Hagerman Tunnel.

From the lake, the trail climbs a steep grade back up to the railroad bed. At the top, turn left and walk over to the entrance of the Hagerman Tunnel. Along the way, you’ll pass a sign that explains this is the east portal of the Hagerman Tunnel. The tunnel is 2,161-feet long, 18-feet wide and was built at 11,530-feet above sea level.

The tunnel was only used for about three years before it was replaced by a tunnel by the Windsor/Native Lakes trailhead.

There is a cut in the rock where you can hike to the Hagerman Tunnel entrance and still see some railroad ties embedded in the ground. However, you can see the signs of rock fall here and it could happen again, so it’s best to view the tunnel entrance from a distance. However, if you want to see what’s in the tunnel look at the attached slideshow. You’ll see there’s likely 2-4 feet of ice in the entrance way. The ice is there year round. When we were there, there was a large crack throughout the ice, meaning it could crack under anyone walking inside the tunnel.

After seeing the tunnel, turn around and hike back on the railroad grade. However, while you can turn off back by at Opal Lake and retrace your steps for a 5.2-mile hike, I recommend bypassing the Opal Lake turnoff and staying on the railroad bed. From the tunnel, the railroad bed continues through several more rock cuts and around several bends about 0.85 miles to Hagerman Lake. Along the way, you may notice piles of timber on the side of the railroad bed. I think this is the remnants of the 13 snowsheds that were along the tracks.

Continue hiking the railroad bed through more rocks cuts. Suddenly, you'll come to another dropoff like we saw before Douglass City. This was the site of another railroad trestle. Once again, you’ll have to drop down a steep trail and follow the path of the old railroad trestle to its other end to pick up the railroad bed path again. Once you’re back on it, it’s not too far a hike back to that trail split we saw earlier with the unreadable sign, near Douglass City. At this point, you can turn and take the shortcut trail for a hike of about 6.2-miles.

However, there is one more option. You can continue on the railroad grade, going through a few more rock cuts and out to the other side of that long trestle we saw this morning before turning on the shortcut trail. When you get to the missing trestle, you’ll have to drop down in the valley, follow the trestle's path as best you can and come back up on the other side to get back on the trail. Note, as we dropped down, we heard a loud cascade to our right. If you hear it, it is worth the extra steps to go exploring and see the series of cascades over there.

Back at the trestle spot, one warning, there is not much of a trail here, so you’ll have to have a good sense of direction to find the other end and return to the main trail.

Details: The hike to the tunnel and back via the shortcut trail is about 5.2 miles. Adding on the Hagerman Lake loop creates a hike of 6.2 miles. Adding on the last bit of railroad bed/trestle creates a hike of about 7 miles. The elevation gain is about 600 feet with the climb to the tunnel and all the ups and downs going around the old trestle spots.

In the area, don't miss North Halfmoon Lakes. Find more great hikes across Colorado in this list of 200+ hikes across the state. Don't miss any of my trip reports, sign up for an email alert by clicking on subscribe at the top of this page and follow me on Facebook.

Directions: From Leadville, go south on Highway 24. Turn right on McWethy Road, across from the entrance to Colorado Mountain College. Take McWethy Road about 3.1 miles to where it turns into County Road 4. Stay on County Road 4 another mile as it reaches the Tourquoise Lake Dam and goes around the lake. About 7.5 miles from Highway 24, veer left at a Y in the road onto a dirt road. From here, it’s about 4.6 miles to the trailhead. Do not park at the Windsor/Native lakes trailhead about 3.6 miles down the dirt road.

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