Colorado, Travels

Colorado Bucket List: Isak Heartstone… and some other Breckenridge highlights

The first time I heard someone mention “the troll” I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about, but a little research quickly uncovered the mystery of this unusual hiking destination. This is one of those silly and cliché and popular bucket list items, but I still feel like it was worth it.

Isak Heartstone is a giant troll built by Danish artist Thomas Dambo in 2018 for a Breckenridge art festival. Dambo specializes in making sculptures out of materials that would otherwise be discarded; there are many of his wooden trolls, as well as other sculptures, in various locations around the world.

Isak sits about 5 minutes down the Illinois Gulch trailhead in the southeast corner of Breckenridge. Note that he has been moved from his original location; if you stumble across a different set of directions, they are outdated.

There is no parking at the trailhead (the nearby lot is for the arena only) but it’s only about a 15 minute walk from downtown, or you can take the free town shuttle. It’s a relatively flat and easy trail, though it’s not maintained in winter. We brought our microspikes just in case but didn’t end up needing them. Isak stands about 15 feet (5 m) tall and he’s very beautiful… which may seem like a strange description for a troll made of recycled pieces of wood. But it’s accurate.

Since we’d braved the terrible I-70 ski traffic to get to Breck, we decided to make the most of our trip and combine a bunch of items from our to-do list into one jam-packed day. We’d begun the day by hiking Mayflower Gulch, which I’d done before but Pat hadn’t, and which I wrote about a while ago… but here’s another photo of it anyway. It’s such a gorgeous winter destination.

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Next, we left our car in the Breck Airport Road free parking lot and took the free shuttle into town for the 30th annual International Snow Sculpture Championships. For this competition, sixteen teams from around the world have 5 days to make their sculptures by hand (no power tools allowed!) out of 20-ton blocks of snow. The sculptures are then displayed in downtown Breckenridge for a few days, where viewing is free and open to the public.

First place went to Team Mexico with their sculpture entitled “Greed,” which depicted the concept that “There is a thin line between wanting more and having enough.” Second place went to Team Great Britain and third to the US-Wisconsin team for their sculpture representing the duality in all of us. The Artist’s Choice award went to the sculpture by Team India, which was one of our personal favorites as well. We also really liked the first and third place winners. The winning sculptures and the Artist’s Choice winner are shown below in order.

Even though there were many sculptures that didn’t receive an award, they were all incredible in their own right. The talent that went into carving these was undeniable, and Pat and I spent some time musing about the amount of practice it  must have taken to reach this level of competition. A few of our other favorites are below.

You can learn more about the festival and see photos of the carving process on their website.

After viewing the sculptures, we made our way to Isak Heartstone. On the way there, we took a few minutes to wander through an outdoor railroad exhibit. Like most of the Colorado mountain towns, Breckenridge got its start as a mining destination; the town was founded by gold miners in the mid-1800s. The narrow gauge High Line Railroad once ran through town, connecting it to the nearby mining towns of Como and Leadville.

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And finally, we wrapped up with a visit to Breckenridge Brewing Company, which is a brewery that’s been on our to-do list for a long time. We’ve enjoyed pretty much every single beer of theirs we’ve ever had so it was exciting to finally see this place in person. We took advantage of their happy hour prices on beers and apps, enjoyed burgers and fries, and hung out for a while to allow traffic to die down before heading back to Denver.

It was largely a futile effort, as traffic never really died down and it took us nearly 3 hours to travel the 90 miles (145 km) back to Denver. Breckenridge is a beautiful place, with a lot of art and history, plus plenty of food, shopping, lodging, and – of course – skiing. While I wouldn’t want to brave the traffic and crowds on a regular basis, it’s definitely a place that warrants a visit. There’s something there for everyone, and don’t forget to say hi to Isak next time you’re in town!


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Breckenridge is located about 80 miles (130 km) west of Denver just off I-70 on CO Highway 9
  • Fees and passes: I-70 is not tolled and there is free parking outside Breck at the Airport Road lot. Public transportation in town is also free, and Isak and the snow sculptures are free too!
  • Hiking: getting to Isak is really more of a walk… he’s about 5 minutes up the Illinois Gulch trailhead and it’s a flat and easy (although snowy in the winter) walk
  • Where to stay: there are tons of lodging options in and around Breck, ranging from rentals to hotels to camping
  • Other: I-70 ski traffic is no joke. It took us 2 hours to get there and almost 3 to get home. Be sure to check the traffic forecast, real-time updates, and the weather prior to setting out. Also be aware that I-70 is under a comprehensive traction law from September to May that applies to all vehicles and is in effect even during good weather; fines for noncompliance are pretty high

6 thoughts on “Colorado Bucket List: Isak Heartstone… and some other Breckenridge highlights”

  1. Love Breck but I haven’t been in winter since I was a little kid. We now love the burgers at Empire Burger and have gone there two summers in a row! Cool wood troll and snow sculptures. How on earth does a person get skilled in snow carving like that? Especially in snowless countries?!

    Liked by 1 person

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