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 RaĆ­ces (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.