Highest Elevation Town in the United States

Occasionally I’m asked where I find ideas for the Twelve Mile Circle. There’s no simple answer. Sometimes I’ll notice an odd fact listed on a website or through a news source. Sometimes I’ll get curious when I see a strange query in my index files referred to me by a search engine. Sometimes I’ll be inspired by other geo-oddity aficionados. That’s the case today.

The Basement Geographer wrote recently about "La Rinconada: Bottoming Out at the Top of the World." This is a gold mining town in the Peruvian Andes at At 5,100 metres (16,700 feet) above sea level. The 50,000 people who live there in harsh conditions occupy a city with the highest altitude in the world. You should visit that article if you haven’t already seen it. The Basement Geographer is on the very short list of 12MC "must read" sites.

This inspired me to consider the town in the United States with a similar distinction on a national level. A lot of sources consider that to be Leadville, Colorado.

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Leadville has a rather impressive elevation. It’s not on the same scale as La Rinconada although it’s still rather impressive at 3,094 m (10,152 ft). Colorado law classifies Leadville as a Statutory City and it has a population of greater that 2,500.

Leadville trumpets a number of "highest" this-and-that distinctions for the United States: highest airport; highest golf course; highest hospital; highest college; and so forth. You get the idea. Leadville is rather proud of its distinction and calls itself the "The Two Mile High City." That’s an obvious taunt aimed squarely at a much more famous Colorado location, Denver, the Mile High City. Two miles would be 10,560 feet, which Leadville is not. Leadville seems to suffer from a slightly inflated altitude ego. That’s like people boasting that they’re 6 feet tall when they’re really only 5’11”.

Does Leadville really have the highest elevation? Well, it is indeed the highest city. However it is NOT the highest incorporated place in the United States. That honor goes to Alma, Colorado. Sort of. It’s complicated.

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Alma isn’t considered a city by Colorado law. Rather it’s a "statutory town" with a couple of hundred residents. It does sit at an elevation of 3,224 m (10,578 feet) according to the town of Alma government, which makes it a bit higher that Leadville. That’s serious elevation. I visited Rocky Mountain National Park a few years ago, albeit at a little higher elevation, and I started getting loopy from a lack of oxygen. Alma actually does pass the two-mile altitude barrier.

There are also a couple of locations that have annexed adjoining ski resorts (Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico and Winter Park, Colorado). Personally I discount those. Nobody lives on the slopes. That’s cheating. If that’s allowable then maybe Talkeetna, Alaska (my visit) could annex a thin tendril to the top of Denali and end the US competition altogether.

City? Town? Location of inhabitants? What qualifies as large enough to claim the elevation prize? My vote goes to Alma.

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Incidentally I noticed that Leadville and Alma practically adjoin each other. They are separated by a single mountain. Yet, it would take almost an hour and a half to drive between them. It’s not pertinent to the article, just something interesting that happens to involve the two highest inhabited areas of the United States.

The United States doesn’t do very well on this competition considering its size. The best it can manage is 19th place. It doesn’t even have the highest altitude town in North America. Mexico beats the USA handily with 11th place at Raíces (3,531 m / 11,919 ft).

With apologies to the significant Canadian 12MC audience, Canada doesn’t seem to do particularly well at all. Canada scores only 74th place with a tepid showing at Lake Louise, Alberta (1,534 m / 5,033 ft), which frankly surprises me. There isn’t any other Canadian town with a higher elevation? That doesn’t feel right. I hope someone can prove otherwise.

9 Replies to “Highest Elevation Town in the United States”

  1. I note that if one were looking strictly at proportions, Leadville’s claim of being the Two Mile High City is actually akin to someone 5’9.2″ claiming to be 6′.

  2. Yes, Lake Louise is number one in Canada. Indeed, Canada doesn’t place very highly at all, and that’s simply to do with the fact that there are no unglaciated high-altitude plateaus in western Canada in which you can build a settlement (compare with Colorado and Wyoming, which are essentially formed from one giant high-altitude plateau). Instead, settlements are built at valley bottom.
    That said, it makes our mountains look that much more impressive because the valleys are incised so deeply. For example, the village I live in is surrounded by mountains ranging from 7,000 to 11,000 feet in elevation, but at valley bottom the village itself is a mere 1,200 feet above sea level, so that the mountains tower above you even though they’re only average elevation by British Columbia standards. There are small high-altitude plateaus in southeast Yukon and northwest BC where if they were at lower latitudes you could build communities, but being that far north they’re completely glaciated and thus impossible to build on.

    (Must-read status! Thank you very much, Tom! I have to say the response to the La Rinconada article has been unprecedented.)

  3. If you take the ville out of Leadville you get Lead as in Lead, SD. But don’t make the mistake of pronouncing it as ‘Led’. It’s pronounced ‘Leed’ and is apparently a reference to ore outcroppings that may lead to larger deposits.

  4. I have driven through Leadville and Alma and nearby Fairplay which is just under 10,000 feet. I was not aware of Alma’s status. I can confirm they are all way up there. Thank goodness for a turbocharged car versus the wheezers I was stuck behind.

    I visited them in two separate Augusts and it was cold both times. IIRC, it was 45 and raining at Alma/Fairplay. This Houston-area resident can’t imagine being there in January.

    The Basement Geographer is also on my short list along with 12MC. Great work!

  5. The route from Leadville (Lead as in the metal, which was mined there, as well as silver, gold, and currently molybdenum) to Alma can be made in just 16 miles in a motorized vehicle (Jeep Trail) over Mosquito Pass. It is the highest pass in the US that allows motorized vehicles. (http://staythetrail.org/maps/viewtrail.php?trail_id=60). It is also the route that the mail to Leadville from Breckenridge used to take, either on foot or with skis.

    Fairplay is just south of Alma (5 miles), and is the setting for the TV show “South Park”. When you drive into Alma, you’ll see that the (few) people living there are aware of their designation as the highest town in the US. (http://www.southparkchamber.com/townprofiles/images/TownOfAlma_logo_small.png)

    Leadville has an interesting winter event called Skijoring (http://www.leadvilleskijoring.us/). Leadville is also home to a number of railroads, one of which just caused a sinkhole on a major highway. (http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_21045053/giant-sinkhole-u-s-24-near-leadville-determined) The railroad has an interesting history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Gorge_Route_Railroad) and part of it (through the Royal Gorge) still operates as a tourist rail line.

  6. There’s an ultramarathon in Leadville known as the Leadville 100. According to Wikipedia, it’s 50 miles long, starting at 10,200 ft and ascending to altitudes as high as 12,620 ft. Apparently more than half of those who start the race drop out. Quite a race, I’d say.

  7. My brothers both lived in Alma for a couple years in the early eighties while working in the mine. Since they were from Texas everybody called ’em Tex and Rex. We visited them in their rooming house above the bar, and walked along the S Platte River. It’s a lovely little town.
    They used to have a pack-burro race called Get Your Ass Up the Pass; don’t know if they still do that or not….

  8. You might find it interesting that Mr. Louis Crandall (during his Gutenberg Press tour) claims that Provo, UT claims the title of town with the highest elevation. According to him, Provo incorporated one of the mountain peaks that he wanted to build a ski resort on, but the money dried up and the resort never materialized.
    http://crandallmuseum.org/ (the museum link)
    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/600124184/Resorts-that-didnt-quite-make-it.html?pg=all (story about Heritage Mountain Ski Resort)

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