Mount Elbert

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 9.3 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous +
Elevation: 10,050 - 14,433 feet
Elevation gain: 4,614 feet
Cellphone: 0-3 bars
Time: 7 hrs.
Trailhead: Mt. Elbert
Fee: none
Attractions: Highest point in Colorado




Mount Elbert (14,433) is the highest point in the state of Colorado and the highest point of the Rocky Mountains in North America. It is located just west of Leadville, Colorado in the San Isabel National Forest. There are three main routes that lead to the summit of Mount Elbert, the northeast ridge, east ridge and southeast ridge. This post follows the northeast ridge which is considered the classic route. Whichever route you pick getting to the highest point in Colorado requires a good deal of effort. The satisfaction that hikers get from the accomplishment is a well deserved reward that they can enjoy for a lifetime.




To get to the trailhead drive south out of Leadville and turn west onto Colorado 300. Continue west for 0.7 miles and turn left onto County Road 11. Follow CR 11 for 1.2 miles and turn right at the Halfmoon Creek sign staying on CR 11. The road heads toward Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive with the pavement lasting for almost 1 mile before becoming a washboardy dirt road that leads to the trailhead after another 4 miles or so. There are several campgrounds along the road as well as several primitive camping spots. Camping isn't allowed at the trailheads. On weekends the trailheads fill up quickly. It is advisable to arrive early to find a place to park and to get off of the mountain before afternoon thunderstorms occur.


The trail leaves the parking area and meets up with the Colorado Trail in less than a quarter mile. After taking a left on the Colorado trail the route crosses a branch of Elbert Creek and begins climbing through the trees. Switchbacks aid the trail with its quick gains in elevation.


Besides the switchbacks there are several long straight stretches of trail that angle sharply up the side of the mountain. The Colorado trail reaches a highpoint at 10,600 feet where it begins descending a little as it continues south.


At th 1.28 mile point, where the elevation is now 10,555 feet, the Mt. Elbert trail branches off on the right.


As the Mount Elbert trail leaves the Colorado trail behind it is like a hike in the park with widely spaced evergreens, that allow penetrating views of the forest, lining the way.


The easiness of the trail soon gives way to a much steeper climb where the trail becomes much rougher.


Around the 3 mile point the trail passes the 11,900 foot elevation mark and leaves the protection of the forest behind. If lightning generating thunderstorms are anywhere in the area it would be best not to continue up the mountain.


After the trail leaves the treeline behind it is all pretty much an unrelenting uphill climb where the trail varies between steep and steeper. There are some very long straight stretches of trail as well as a few switchbacks.


At the 3.88 mile point the trail reaches the  13,021 foot mark. In just over 3/4 of a mile the trail gained 1,100 feet of elevation.


A look at the profile tells most of the story in one glance.


At an elevation of 13,348 feet and 4.13 miles from the trailhead the first of Mount Elbert's false summits, looking like the promised land, teases the hopeful hikers upward. Those that have done their homework before setting foot on the mountain should be anticipating the false summits but even they might be wondering whether the little bump in the ridge that they just passed was one of them or not.


As the trail nears the upper portion of the first false summit the conditions of the trail deteriorate with loose scree and talus making it harder to find good footing. The poor trail conditions are greatly magnified on the trip back down the mountain causing the main route to be braided with numerous branches, none of which are much better than the rest. The trail is actually going to sidestep the highpoint in this picture by traversing around its right side and coming out on the ridge just past it.


At the 4.44 mile point the trail has made its way around the first false summit and the elevation is near the  13,900 foot level. From here the second false summit, which looks a little easier, comes into view. The trail is rocky but it isn't as steep as the last bit of trail was. This is not the time to give up because the hardest part was getting to this spot.


The elevation is 14,319 feet as the trail passes by the second false summit and the final assault to the summit comes into view. This is a good time to mention that it can snow up here, and does, during any month of the year. Plan on the exposed ridges being very windy. Always carry gloves, headgear (like a balaclava) and a wind resistant coat. If it is less than 60F at the trailhead be sure to also bring a good thermal layer. The pictures for this post were taken in mid September and as you can see most of the people look like they are on a winter hike.


From the highest point in Colorado you can take in the views and see how many of the states other 14ers you can count. The peak in the distance with snow on it, just to the left of the summit, is La Plata Peak (14,336). To the west on a clear day you can see all of the 14ers in the Elk Mountains around Aspen (Maroon Bells, Pyramid, Castle, Snowmass and Capitol). Several of the Collegiate Peaks are also visible but you kind of have to have a map or have already climbed them to know which ones are which. The big hulk of a mountain just to the north of Mount Elbert is Mount Massive (14,421). It is the second highest peak in Colorado.


Here is a picture looking back down the trail for a little different perspective. The slideshow should sum the trail up pretty well but BE CAREFUL. Even though Mount Elbert is rated as a Class I trail, a rating that we don't happen to agree with, it can be very dangerous hiking down the steep scree covered sections.


Mount Elbert has become a very busy trail. Many hikers choose the mountain as their first 14er because it is the highest point in Colorado. A large number of them fail to make it to the summit. A better way to approach climbing 14ers for the first time is to start with one that is a little easier so you can get a feel for the altitude and get in shape for the more challenging peaks. Mount Sherman, just east of Leadville, is a good 14ner to do first especially if you hike the west route. After that you can try another 14ner like Quandary and then go for the likes of Mount Elbert. That advice doesn't apply to the young and studly of course. Back in 1995 my wife and I hiked Mount Elbert with one of our daughters that was 8 at the time and our youngest son that was 5. However you decide to summit Mount Elbert, prepare well and have a great time. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.