Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 8.8 miles (round trip)
Elevations: 4,400 ft. gain/loss
Mount Elbert Trailhead (start): 10,040 ft.
Mount Elbert: 14,440 ft.
Trail: Well marked, easy to follow
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from November through early July.
Vicinity: Near Leadville
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Mount Elbert is not the most scenic fourteener in Colorado, but it can certainly hold its own-and it does happen to be the highest mountain in the state! The peak was named in 1871 after Samuel Elbert, the territorial governor of Colorado, and it was first climbed 3 years later by members of the Hayden Survey Expedition. At that time no one realized that Mount Elbert was the highest peak in Colorado. That honor was mistakenly bestowed upon Pikes Peak and later upon Mount Massive. We now know, however, that the stately Mount Elbert is not only the highest peak in Colorado, but it is the second loftiest summit outside Alaska in the entire United States. Only Mount Whitney in California is higher.
There are three separate trails leading to the top of Mount Elbert, from the north, south, and east, and on a clear summer day you can usually see people ascending the peak from all three directions. Each of the routes has its own merits, but the most popular trail begins at Halfmoon Creek and climbs the mountain’s northeast ridge. That is the route I will describe here. Halfmoon Creek is an easy 11-mile drive from Leadville, and there is a nice Forest Service campground just 100 yards from the trailhead. As an added bonus, the trail up Mount Elbert is located only 0.5 mile from the Mount Massive Trailhead, so it is possible to stay at the campground and hike up Colorado’s two highest peaks on successive days. Occasionally someone will climb both peaks on the same day, but unless you are in superb physical condition I wouldn’t recommend that.
The trail starts out by ambling along a very gentle grade through the lodgepole pines in a southwesterly direction. Less than five minutes from the parking area you will come to a junction where the route joins the Colorado Trail, a 471-mile-long footpath that runs from Denver to Durango. You will be following the Colorado Trail for the next 1.0 mile to another well-marked trail junction where the Mount Elbert Trail departs on the right. Here is where the climb really begins. The elevation gain to this point is only 460 feet, leaving nearly 4,000 feet of climbing for the last 3.2 miles of trail.
After leaving the Colorado Trail the path turns west and climbs to the crest of the northeast ridge, a long, sloping ramp of granite with Elbert Creek running below its north side and Box Creek to the south. The top of the ridge is almost obstacle-free and provides a perfect platform for a trail. There are no serious outcroppings of rock along the way, and the trail requires only a minimum of switchbacks to negotiate the grade. Nevertheless the climb is unrelenting. Every step is up.
The trail passes above timberline about 1.3 miles from the Colorado Trail junction, and after that the climb is more interesting. You will probably see other climbers far to the left inching there way up the east ridge from the Twin Lakes Trailhead on the mountain’s east side. That trail also follows the crest of the ridge, and you can often see distant hikers on it silhouetted against the eastern sky like so many ants crawling back up their anthill. The Twin Lakes are also clearly visible in the Arkansas River Valley far below.
The mountain levels out slightly near the top, so you won’t be able to see the true summit until you are almost there. But when you pass 14,300 feet and see a congregation of tired-looking people standing around 200 yards ahead you will know that you are about to join the highest group of people east of California.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Mount Elbert Trail
Aspen, Independence Pass (Trails Illustrated, map #127)
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