Summit County, known as Colorado’s Playground, is located in the heart of the Colorado Rocky Mountains approximately 75 miles west of Denver on Interstate 70. It encompasses 600 square miles and measures 36 miles North and South and 21 Miles East to West.
The terrain of Summit County is basically mountainous. The highest elevation in Summit County is Grays Peak at 14,270 feet and the lowest is the North end of Green Mountain Reservoir at 7,957 feet. Situated in Summit County are two major reservoirs, Lake Dillon and the Green Mountain Reservoir. On average, 155 inches of snow falls every year and some areas of Summit County get up to 280 inches a year on average. Summit County boasts four major destination ski resorts: Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Keystone, and Copper Mountain. These four ski resorts form the basis for the large tourist base economy.
Historically, Summit County has experienced two boom eras. In 1859 gold was discovered in the Breckenridge area and mining dominated Summit County’s early economic growth. The population was around 10,000 residents. However, by the beginning of World War II, mining had come to a standstill and so with it, Summit County’s economy. The population declined to around 1000 and remained at approximately that level until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the economy again surged, this time with the development of three new ski areas. Again in the 1990’s Summit County’s economy surged with new building and village development at the base of the ski areas including Keystone, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain. Today, Summit County has a very strong economy with high numbers of visitors during both summer and winter seasons.
Summit County Population
Summit County was the fastest growing county in the entire country over the census period of 1970 to 1980. The permanent population increased 232% from 2665 to 8848 over that 10 year period, with an annual population growth in excess of 12.5% per year. Due to the high amenity county with good climate, recreational opportunities, and attractive scenery, Summit County is quite the attractive place to live or buy a second home. From 1980 to 1990, Summit County’s population continued to grow. In 1990 Summit County’s permanent population was 12,881, a 69% increase with an average yearly growth of 8-10%.
Because Summit County is such a high tourism county, it is necessary to consider not only the permanent population, but also the second-home population and peak population. All of these greatly impact Summit County during the winter months. During the 1990 ski season the estimated population was 12,881 permanent residents, 61,310 second home residents or short term residents, and at peak times 91,323 residents. By the year 2010 these numbers exceeded 27,994 permanent residents. Visitation to Colorado ski areas topped 13 million for the first time ever in 2015/2016. Vail Resorts reported more than 5.6 million visits to their four Colorado areas in the 2015/2016 season.
Real Estate and Housing
From 1970 to 1990, the number of real estate units grew from 2,198 to 17,091 units. Of these, only 31% are occupied by permanent resident Summit County. What remains are second homes, tourist lodging, or vacant units. Of the entire housing stock, over 50% are multi family (condo) units. The majority of which are owned and used by second homeowners or rented short term during all seasons by companies such as Keystone Property Management. Because Summit County has such a large second home market, affordable housing becomes very difficult for the permanent resident. In 2004 the median selling price of all housing was $317,000 compared to $26,371 in 1970. Summit County’s rate of appreciation averaged about 17% per year during the 1990’s until the fall of 2001. The housing market leveled off, but once again grew at a decent rate of about 8-10% during 2005.
Since 1975 Summit County has seen considerable growth in lodging construction. In 1975 a mere 159 building permits were issued by Summit County. That number soared to 1,335 in 1981. Most construction is in the condo category. In 1982 almost 80% of all permits were issued for ski vacation condos. Over 90% of Summit County residential and commercial construction can be attributed to the nearby ski areas.
Summit County Lodging
Along with the real estate growth, lodging in Summit County has grown at an amazing rate in recent years. People come from miles around just to experience the Colorado Mountains, and all the things there are to do in Summit County.
A Brief History of Summit County
Summit County has an extensive and exciting history. As early as 1773, trappers penetrated The Colorado Rockies. The Rocky Mountains and Summit County were a trappers paradise. During the same time, and as far back as 4800 BC, Summit County was the home and hunting ground of the free roaming Ute Indians.
Summit County was one of the original seventeen counties set up in 1861 during Colorado’s territorial period. At that time, Summit County was much larger than it is today, stretching from the Continental Divide to the Utah border, and from Fremont County and Hoosier Pass to the Wyoming line. Summit County was later divided into the current seven counties of Grand, Routt, Eagle, Garfield, Moffat, Rio Blanco, and Summit. Clear Creek, Park, Lake, Grand, and Eagle counties all border Summit County.
In 1859, Summit County gained national notoriety with the discovery of gold near Breckenridge. With a party of fourteen, Ruben J. Spalding scaled Hoosier Pass from the South and discovered gold. They were the first white prospectors to cross the divide to Colorado’s Western Slope. General Spencer, one of theoriginal party of fourteen began organizing a town site. His town became Breckenridge, the first permanent town of the Colorado Western Slope. Today, much of the history of the early boom times of Breckenridge are still very prevalent in the area just by walking down main street. The gross majority of buildings in Breckenridge are restored originals from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
The discovery of gold sent thousands of prospectors into Summit County’s mountains. The next prospecting settlements took place along the Swan River and the French Gulch. There were a number of towns located in the area. The prospectors came over Georgia Pass, where today there is a really fun Mountain Bike trail that links to Kenosha Pass off of US Hwy 285.
The rock piles evident in the upper Blue Panning Basin were created by a mining process called dredging. Gold dredging began in 1905 with the development of a dredge by Ben Stanley Revett. The dredge floated on a self-made pond while being secured to the shore by cable and to the river bottom by a spud driven into bedrock. The dredge would scoop up rocks and gravel from the riverbed and after processing the gold, the rocks would be deposited behind the dredge. A total of nine dredges worked the streams in the upper blue valley until 1942. They unearthed an estimated $224,000,000 worth of gold at today’s value.
It was gold that brought prospectors to Summit County’s Snake River area, but in 1863 silver was smelted by John Coley on Glacier Mountain. Montezuma was the most notorious of the towns that sprang up in the area. Like Breckenridge, the surrounding area was dotted with many unnamed settlements that have since gone their way. Today, the town of Montezuma still exists with a few original mining buildings and a general store that is still open for business during the summer months. You can follow Montezuma road up past Keystone to many 4×4 trails in the area including the steep decent down Red Cone Mountain. The drive is easy for most standard 4×4’s, but it is not recommend that you go past the base of Red Cone unless you know what you are doing and have the proper vehicle.
Dillon Colorado has a very unique past. The town was originally located at the confluence of the Ten Mile Creek, Blue River, and the Snake River. The current location of Dillon is it’s fourth. In it’s original location, Dillon became the crossroads for early stagecoach lines and wagon freighters. By 1898, two narrow gauge railroads met and shared a depot. The location of Dillon allowed it to serve not only to the mining community, but also the ranching communities in the lower Blue River Valley. Most of the ranches in the Lower Blue River Valley were acquired under the 1882 Homestead Act. Those pioneering ranch families worked hard to tame the land in that region. Many of the same families still operate ranches in the lower Blue River Valley area today. Dillon was moved to the present location in the 1960’s due to the construction of Lake Dillon by the Denver Water Board. More about the history of Dillon and Lake Dillon is available on the North Shore of Lake Dillon along the bike path and the Dillon Dam Road near the spillway.
Ten Mile Canyon was also full of gold and silver fever. Frisco, located at the edge of the canyon, which now is home to a stretch of I-70, was incorporated in 1880. Today, Frisco is a thriving business community with many of the local government agencies located there. In addition, the Summit County Historical Society is located on Main Street.
Wheeler Flats was another town that sprung up in the Ten Mile Canyon. The primary draw for Wheeler Flats was the vast amount of lumber needed by the local mines and continuing railroad expansion. Several sawmills were required to handle the demand for lumber. Eventually, this site was developed into a ski resort, which now boasts the name Copper Mountain. Today, Copper Mountain is a town and resort all in itself. A just completed development by IntraWest Resorts makes Copper Mountain one of the most modern ski resorts in North America with probably the most amenities concentrated into one area. If visiting during the summer, make sure you take a shot at biking up to the top of Vail pass from Copper Mountain on the 7 miles of bike path. If you feel really adventurous, you can coast all the way down to Vail and attempt to climb back over Vail Pass.
Exploring Summit County
Summit County is a place where dreams still come true. Talk to any local and you’ll soon discover that the spirit of Summit County’s residents is contagious. Both young and old find the fresh clean air and beautiful scenery of Summit County extremely motivating. Local residents as well as visitors usually try to take advantage of every waking moment exploring the many outdoor activities at hand. A word of caution to visitors coming from lower elevations, please consult the section on Altitude sickness.
Fly fisherman have long favored Colorado’s Blue River. The 1-1/2 miles stretch directly below the Dillon Dam offers the catch and release angler exceptional opportunities to catch trophy size Rainbow Trout. The Colorado department of Fisheries releases hatchery brook stock after their useful hatchery years have expired. Many of these fish reach 5-6lb size. Occasionally an exceptionally skilled fisherman lands a trout in the 8-10lb class, a trophy by anyone’s standards.
Much of the surrounding area is owned and managed by the US forest Service. There are virtually hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain bike trails which offer access to Summit County’s back country. Complete details maybe obtained by visiting the forest service ranger Station located at 135 Blue River Parkway in Silverthorne.
If you have the passion to tame the winds and set sail on a nautical adventure then the waters of Lake Dillon is just what you need. With consistent winds, Lake Dillon offers sailors of all experience levels time at the helm to test their seamanship. Sailboat rentals are available at both Dillon and Frisco Marinas.
Gold seekers find Summit County a treat to explore. Occasionally a luck prospector actually brings some of Summit County’s dense gold home. But if panning through slurry material and probing the rocks for that magical glitter don’t stir bits of excitement, then perhaps a trip to one of the many casinos in Central City or Blackhawk might. A brand new highway was just built from Idaho Springs to Central city. The highway is a beautiful drive on the tops of the foothills to the Rockies and should not be missed.
Summit County’s prize possession by far is white gold. Some people call it snow. Hundred of inches of clean white snow magically appear from the heavens to grace the hills of Summit County each year. Through massive development efforts, Summit County can boast four destination ski resorts all within 15 miles of each other. In addition to downhill skiing, there are several high quality Nordic centers throughout the county which offer the back country skier every possible amenity. Also, snowmobiling is quickly gaining recognition among area visitors both rentals and private tours are available.
This is just a sample of what Summit County has to offer and what activities you have to choose from. The sky is literally the limit when you are in Summit County, so make the most of your vacation in Colorado and Summit County.