Labor Day week in the high country of Colorado means cool and crisp mornings, warm and sunny afternoons, and emerging signs of fall colors. We were excited for our first overnight getaway since late March, and Breckenridge is a great choice for scenery, hiking, and other outdoor activities, especially in late summer and early autumn.
We got more than we bargained for, however, when summer turned to winter on day 3 of our getaway.
Temperatures stayed on the chilly side for the remainder of our visit, and we saw hints of fall colors on trees and bushes.
Breckenridge, with a full time population around 5,000, is a charming town in the Colorado high country (elevation 9,400 feet), perhaps best known as a downhill skiing mecca. A lesser known fact is that much of the 1989 classic movie and one of our favorites, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, was filmed in and around Breck.
The drive, advertised as 2.5 hours, took nearly twice that long due to heavy holiday weekend traffic. It seems we weren’t the only ones heading to the mountains to get away from it all.
In an effort to stay healthy, we made a few changes to our usual travel routine. Here are some things we didn’t do:
- No eating out, except for one lunch, where we had an entire room to ourselves in the small café.
- No shopping, not even to a grocery store, as we toted all food and beverages for the week from home.
- No public transportation, even though Summit County has an amazing network of free shuttles to take you just about anyplace you need to go.
- No extended chit chats with others. Although the town was crawling with visitors over Labor Day weekend, everyone pretty well kept to their own little groups.
So how did we spend our time? Despite the ups and downs of the weather, we found plenty of fun things to do.
Our plans for extensive hiking were foiled by the unseasonably inclement weather. However, we squeezed in a short hike to Sawmill Reservoir on a picture perfect late summer day.
The Blue River Rec Path was another nice option for close-in exploring. Popular with walkers and cyclists, it’s a paved trail that parallels the Blue River between Breckenridge and Frisco, a distance of about eight miles. I didn’t stay on the pavement, however, because there was an inviting network of dirt paths that meandered near the shoreline on both sides of the river, with an occasional footbridge available for crossing over. Beautiful!
2. Scenic Drive over Boreas Pass
Well, it was supposed to be scenic, but views on this particular day were obscured by smoke from distant wildfires.
The road over Boreas Pass follows the route of a historical narrow gauge railroad that connected Denver to Breckenridge by way of Como and continued on to Leadville. When rail service began in 1882, it was the highest railroad pass in the U.S. at 11,482 feet. More convenient access to Breckenridge led to population growth and boom times for Summit County.
The rail line closed in 1937, and today the 20-mile road is used for recreation – hiking and driving during summer and fall, cross-country skiing during winter and spring.
Visitors can walk around at the top of the pass and learn about the history from information boards. There are also a few old buildings, including two restored but primitive cabins available to rent year round for overnight stays (honestly, not my idea of fun).
3. Exploring Downtown
Unlike Vail and some other Colorado ski towns, Breckenridge has been a real town for more than 150 years, dating back to 1859 when gold was discovered in the Blue River. And like other Western boom towns, Breckenridge has a colorful history that influences its culture and personality today.
Wanting to learn more about those important historical events and people, we signed up for a guided city walking tour on a cold, blustery day when we didn’t want to venture far from the warmth and comfort of our rental condo.
Tour guide Jill provided exactly what we were hoping for during the 90-minute outdoor stroll through the downtown area. Among other interesting personalities, she highlighted the historical contributions of two prominent town residents – Barney Ford and Edwin Carter.
There are local museums dedicated to these men, so we followed up our tour with a visit to both.
Two Local Museums
The Barney Ford House
Barney Ford was an entrepreneur and successful business owner, as well as an early advocate for civil rights in Colorado. He only lived in Breckenridge for eight of his 80 years, but locals have restored the family home and proudly share the remarkable story of his life and accomplishments.
Mr. Ford was born into slavery in 1822, the son of an African-American woman and white plantation owner in the South. After escaping from slavery in 1848, he made his way to Chicago, where he met and married his wife, Julia, who was a free Black woman.
The Fords came to Colorado in 1859 during the Gold Rush, but Barney was not allowed to stake a claim because he was Black. He and Julia settled in Denver instead, where he became a respected and wealthy business entrepreneur in hospitality services – hotels and restaurants.
While living in Denver, Barney became involved in civil rights issues, most notably in efforts to secure voting rights for African-Americans, including efforts to pass the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted Black citizens (actually, men only!) the right to vote.
In recognition of his important contributions to civil rights both at the state and national levels, the State of Colorado honored Mr. Clark’s legacy with a stained glass window located in the state capitol in Denver. The photo below is a small scale replica displayed at the Barney Ford House in Breckenridge.
See this article from Wikipedia for more interesting details about Barney Ford’s life.
Our guided tour of the museum was informative and interesting. The only disappointment (not criticizing, just providing a heads up) was that the house lacks actual furnishings and personal effects that belonged to the Ford family. But it’s worth your time to visit and hear the well-researched and inspirational story that resonated with us in today’s super-charged political environment.
Edwin Carter Discovery Center
Born in New York around 1830, Edwin Carter arrived in Breckenridge as part of the Gold Rush crowd in 1860. Although successful as a miner, he stopped due to the destructive impact on the environment. Fearful that local flora and fauna would become extinct in a matter of years, he decided to collect and preserve animal and bird specimens before they disappeared.
By 1875, he needed a place to display his 3,000 specimens, so he built a log cabin museum that, after being successfully renovated in 2009, is now open to the public.
It’s important to note that during the late 1800s, the best (and only?) way to study and share scientific information about plant and animal diversity was to collect and preserve living samples. For animals, that meant taxidermy, and Mr. Carter was highly regarded for his expertise.
In addition to plant and animal displays, the museum offers educational exhibits and a short video about Edwin Carter’s life.
In 1899, he sold his collection to the Denver Parks Board, who used it to start a museum that today is called the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Another amazing story from Breckenridge!
You may be wondering why I’m talking about a third museum in a section entitled, ‘Two Local Museums.’ The Sawmill Museum was a bonus find, but we didn’t spend much time there.
Located just outside of town on the Boreas Pass Road, the outdoor display opened in 2015 as a self-guided exhibit, featuring an impressive collection of machinery and an equally impressive brochure detailing the role of sawmills in the late 1800s, the purpose of each piece of equipment, and the job responsibilities of sawmill workers.
Unlike sawmills in other parts of the country, those in the Colorado high country were portable. Rather than the logs being transported to a mill, the equipment instead was taken to logging sites. In four days, a crew of 6-8 people could dismantle the apparatus in one location and reassemble it at a new site, ready to go.
The museum would no doubt be fascinating to visitors who have more than a passing interest in historical machinery. For us, it was a pleasant diversion on the way to Boreas Pass.
Forty-Seven Historic Buildings (at least)
Breckenridge’s downtown area was designated a National Register Historic District in 1980, and the town adheres to strict rules for remodeling old buildings to preserve their historic character.
While most were constructed during the Victorian Age, they were smaller and lacked the detailed ornamentation usually associated with architecture from that era. Nearly all of the commercial buildings in the downtown area date back over 100 years, although many were rebuilt at least once in the early years after being destroyed by fire.
Here’s a small sample of historic buildings:
An excellent booklet published by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance called the Main Street Self-Guided Walking Tour describes the history of 47 historically significant buildings. For just $5, you can learn a great deal about the town’s history and get a little exercise while exploring the downtown streets.
An Abundance of Outdoor Art
We didn’t set out to find art in Breckenridge; rather, it found us. There was a surprise encounter at every turn, and we soaked it up. In hindsight, I wish we had spent more time learning about the pieces and where they were located in advance, as we missed more than we saw.
To strengthen and promote its vibrant arts scene, the Town of Breckenridge established Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA) – BreckCreate for short – in 2014, and from what we could tell, it appears to be working.
Here’s a small sample of outdoor art in Breckenridge:
And Flowers Everywhere
Sad to report that the gorgeous annuals didn’t survive the early blast of winter.
4. A Leisurely Drive Home over Loveland Pass
After four days of winter-like weather, the skies cleared, temperatures moderated, and winds abated. It was our departure day, unfortunately, but we made the best of it by driving the longer Loveland Pass route instead of the quicker tunnel option on I-70.
A few sights along the way:
And much too soon, our getaway week came to an end. Hopefully we’ll be back for more at some point.