Rocky Mountain High(est)
Tackling Mount Elbert, Colorado's Highest 14'erby Adam Chase
Hike to the summit of Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest mountain and the second highest point in the continental U.S., and experience the inspiration of the majestic views below.
Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest mountain, stands at a hypoxic 14,433 feet.
There are few things in life where the goal is obvious and the reward of achieving it instantly gratifying. Ascending Mount Elbert, all 14,433 feet of it, is one of those rare things. Celebrate life by climbing to the highest point in the Rocky Mountains and know that the only people above you are either in an airplane or thousands of miles away.
Getting an early start on this full-day excursion is the trick that will afford you the time to enjoy the abundant wildlife and alpine fauna. A jump on the day allows you to maintain a moderate pace for the approximately nine-mile round-trip hike without jeopardizing safety. Early birds will be able to summit, appreciate their time on top of the world, and still manage to get far enough into their descent by noon, thereby avoiding the threat of frequent afternoon lightning storms.
An ideal way to get an early jump is to car camp near one of the two trailheads that are recommended for climbing Mount Elbert. Worry not about a 3 A.M. awakening that is the dread of those who drive from the Front Range to the base of Elbert so that they are able to embark at a decent hour. Instead, you can sleep soundly in the cool mountain air while at the same time helping your body acclimatize to the thin air. This strategy allows you to wake up at a more reasonable hour and to start your hike knowing the weather conditions so that you can better anticipate the chances of rain, snow, or a perfect weather day.
This time of year, Mt. Elbert is more likely to look like this. Ski touring options abound.
North Mount Elbert route:
Starting at the Halfmoon Campground/North Mount Elbert trailhead, and follow the Colorado Trail south for 1.3 miles. The Colorado Trail is an added bonus to both routes up Mount Elbert. The Colorado Trail is always a pleasure and a treat and, in the case of both routes, it offers a relaxed, wooded start to the trip and provides a healthy warm-up before the real ascending begins.
Before the Colorado Trail crosses Box Creek, turn to the west on an unmarked but well-maintained trail that climbs rather steeply for a mile to timberline, at about 12,000 feet. The trail then continues above tree line to the top of Mount Elbert's northeast ridge, which you follow to the summit.
Twin Lakes route:
From the Twin Lakes trailhead, follow what at that point is a four-wheel-drive road west. The road soon turns north and west again past some little ponds, all within about a mile at which point you come to a junction where there is a sign marked for Mount Elbert. There, turn south and go about 250 meters to the end of the road, where it turns into to an unmarked trail. Follow the trail to a junction with another trail (probably not marked) where you turn north and climb northwest for about 300 meters, crossing the Colorado Trail and climbing west on the steep Mount Elbert Trail. Follow that trail past timberline, where it will turn northwest to reach Elbert's east ridge at 12,380 feet. Head up the east ridge to 13,700 feet, where the trail takes a turn to the south and the switchbacks up southeast-facing slopes until it joins up with the North Route 100 meters east of the summit.
Moderate to difficult, depending upon fitness level and adaptability to altitude. The primary difficulty associated with the ascent of Mount Elbert is the altitude. Nonetheless, the climb of more than 4,000 feet from the starting point of just below 10,000 or 10,300, depending on where you park and which trail you choose, to 14,433 in less than five miles certainly requires a strong set of legs and lungs. The conditions in July and August tend to be the best and it is unlikely that the trail will have any obstacles other than a few snowdrifts and fallen trees.
The Twin Lakes trailhead is 22 miles southwest of Leadville at the base of Independence Pass. Take Highway 24 south from Leadville for 14 miles until you come to a three-way intersection. Take a right turn on Highway 82 takes you about a mile up to Lake View Campground, where there are 59 sites with a fee. Call (800) 280-CAMP to reserve a site. From there, follow the dirt road north and west about 3 miles up, where it gets rugged and crosses another dirt road. Park on the side of the road at about 3.5 miles and you will see the trailhead. No permit or fee is required. If you try to drive further, you won't get very far because the road peters out.
Rules and Contacts:
The campsites must be reserved and the fee paid to the National Forest Service. Leadville District Office of San Isabel National Forest (719) 486-0752 or 486-0749