Leadville’s Hoop Forest: A Magical Mystery!
By Kathy Bedell, © Leadville Today
Look, up in the sky! Look, there, in those tree branches. What are those? And how did they get way up there?!
Welcome to Leadville’s mystical Hoop Forest. Located just outside the city limits, this portion of the woods, where barrel rings seem to perform a high trapeze act among the lodge pole branches, has fondly been re-named the “Hoop Forest.”
It may not be a tourist attraction that many residents would share with a visiting hiker, however Leadville Today went out to investigate this unique, little-known place in the forest.
Back in the day, before ground transportation and overnight delivery, things were primarily transported to Leadville by rail. In fact, it was freight, not passengers, that made Leadville railroads profitable. And a lot of that freight was transported in wooden barrels.
These watertight, keg-shaped containers were able to withstand the stress of traveling across country by rail and could be easily rolled and stacked with little friction, once they reached their final destination.
Often times, folks think whisky or wine when it comes to these wooden barrels. But, all sorts of foods and goods were stored and transported in these containers. Fish, meats, and some vegetables were dried, salted, then stored and transported. Fragile items such as eggs would be packed in them, among layers of straw to keep them cooler and in one piece.
They were also good at keeping out the vermin. Which was important, because these containers were often buried in the ground, acting as refrigeration units. The barrels were often “re-purposed,” cut in half to serve as a cradle for a child, to water livestock, or as a large mixing bowl. No doubt, it was a barrel bonanza, back in the day.
But once a barrel had seen its last ride down the rails, and was no longer of use as a storage container, it was most likely taken apart, with any salvageable wood used for cooking or heating.
But what about those hoops, the rings that held the wood together? Many old barrel rings were left behind in stacks, piled high around what was then a fledgling lodge pole pine. It’s these series of trees huddled together in a small patch of woods on the edge of town, that make up Leadville’s mystical Hoop Forest.
Way up in the branches of 50-60 ft lodge pole pines are nearly 100 (and counting) old barrel hoops, clinging and swinging as if performing some elaborate trapeze act. The rusty circular fasteners seem to blend into the dark branches of the pines. Others sit at the base of a centurion tree, as if its trunk simply stepped into the center of the hoop just yesterday.
So how did those hoops get way up into the trees? And what about the ones lying on the forest floor encircling the trunk of a 60 foot pine tree?
Like most mysteries, there are a few theories. The first has a lot to do with location. The Hoop Forest sits on the edge of town, not too far from an old train stop where the barrels came off freight cars by the hundreds. Many of these barrels were unloaded right there at the scene. The goods unpacked from the barrels were then placed onto the shopkeeper’s wagon and transported into Leadville.
Like any shipping and receiving center, that part of the forest also became a “dump” for the containers of the day: wooden barrels with hoops. The good barrels were re-used; the broken containers, left to sit and rot in the woods.
Another theory is that the site is an old whiskey or brew operation. That would account for the sheer number of hoops still hanging in the trees, as it’s hard not to image there were hundreds, if not thousands, stored there at some point. Either guess is as good as the next, because it’s really the “how” they got up there – some nearly 50 feet off the ground – that begs the question.
When you look up, way up into the tree tops and see the old rusty hoops, entangled in the centurion’s branches, you can imagine their journey. They started out resting on a low branch, and begin being lifted up, up, up by the growing tree, foot by foot, reaching higher, ever higher into the sky, year after year.
You can imagine their long, cold winters, blowing about in the freezing weather. How many hoops started out on the journey? How many made it through the winter, still intact in the boughs of those evergreens come springtime?
Clearly, the hoop remnants on the forest floor indicate that some may have fallen from the tree along the way, or perhaps, never got to take the journey in the first place. But the hoops that survived, the ones that remain in the treetops, are just one more reminder of Leadville’s history and the folks who made it! Are YOU tough enough to hang?
All things considered, there’s really no better place for the Hoop Forest than Leadville! Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to come across it one day.
Writer’s Note: Where is the Hoop Forest? Well, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you; I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Some locals may be familiar with where this unique forest feature lives, but for the others, the only clue I can offer, is a quick video shot which may offer a hint – if you’re good at scenic bearings!
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Leadville’s Magical Hoop Forest