Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 13.4 miles (round trip)
Elevations: 4,380 ft. gain/loss
Mount Massive Trailhead (start): 10,060 ft.
Mount Massive: 14,421 ft.
Trail: The trail is well maintained for the first 6.1 miles, but just below the summit it becomes very rocky and somewhat confusing.
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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As you may already know, Mount Massive is the second highest peak in the Colorado Rockies. At one time it was thought to be the highest peak, but a later survey determined that the nearby Mount Elbert was slightly higher. Mount Massive, however, will always reign supreme in one respect. As its name suggests, the sheer volume of the mountain is far larger than any other fourteener in Colorado. The huge massif contains some 300 acres of land above the 14,000-foot level, including two other nearby peaks, South Massive and North Massive that rise to 14,132 feet and 14,340 feet respectively. The other two peaks are not officially classified as stand-alone fourteeners, however, because the connecting saddles between them and the main summit are not quite 300 feet lower in elevation, as tradition demands.
From the parking area the trail enters an open forest of lodgepole pine and immediately starts climbing through the trees along a fairly moderate grade. Within 200 feet you will cross the boundary of the Mount Massive Wilderness Area, and soon all of the sounds of civilization will be behind you. You may notice that all the trees seem to be about the same size along certain segments of the trail. In the late 1800s and early 1900s this area was heavily logged by both lumberjacks and miners looking for fuel for their steam boilers. A hundred years later the forest seems to be recovering nicely, but it is still rare to see a tree more than a foot in diameter. 1.8 miles from the trailhead the trail passes by one of the old mining claims. Watch for the old prospectorís broken-down cabin just below the right side of the path. The roof has caved in now and the dwelling has been reduced to not much more than a disorganized pile of logs,
After 3.4 miles the trail comes to a fork where the Colorado Trail continues straight ahead and the Mount Massive Trail turns off to the left. The first half of the trail climbs only gradually, gaining just 1,200 feet over the 3.4 miles to the trail junction, but beyond the junction it starts climbing at a faster rate. Also you will notice that by the time you reach the junction the trees are somewhat smaller and the species have changed from lodgepole pine to Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.
0.7 miles from the junction, at an elevation of about 11,800 feet, the trail crosses timberline and continues climbing upward at a steady rate of about 1,200 feet/mile. Soon you will see the south summit of Massive directly in front of you and the main summit on the far right. For the next 2.0 miles the trail climbs relentlessly westward until it finally reaches the saddle between the two peaks.
Once you reach the saddle you must turn north along a much more primitive trail for the last 0.6 mile. This part of the trail can be confusing. The ridge is extremely rocky, and the trail is vague with many false spurs diverging from the main route. The easiest way stays high near the crest of the ridge. You will cross a false summit just 200 yards before reaching the top of Mount Massive, then the trail looses 50 feet of elevation and climbs back to the main summit.
Several landmarks stand out as you survey mountains below, including Mount Elbert, Coloradoís highest peak. The higher summit is just 5 miles away on the south side of Halfmoon Creek. From this perspective Massive appears to be the higher of the two, but Elbert wins by a scant 12 feet. On most days Leadville and Turquoise Lake are clearly visible to the east, and to the west you can look directly down onto the North Halfmoon Lakes at the head of North Halfmoon Creek.
North Halfmoon Trail
If you have a shuttle car or donít mind 2.5 miles of road walking you might want to consider returning to the Mount Massive Trailhead via a different route. Look carefully when you return to the saddle that connects Mount Massive to its south summit and you will see a primitive trail that turns right for an abrupt descent down the southwest side of the saddle. This hiker-made trail is extremely steep-it looses 2,700 feet in only 1.1 miles-and it is not well defined. The trail ultimately intersects the North Halfmoon Trail on the east side of North Halfmoon Creek, then follows the creek for another 3.1 miles to North Halfmoon Trailhead.
The North Halfmoon Trailhead is located on Forest Road 11 just 2.5 miles beyond the Mount Massive Trailhead. This segment of road is very rough, however, and you will need a 4WD vehicle if you intend to drive on it. Just before the road crosses North Halfmoon Creek you will see a sign on the right marking the trailhead and parking area where you should leave your shuttle car.
The distance from the summit of Mount Massive to the North Halfmoon Trailhead is only 3.1 miles, compared to 6.7 miles to the Mount Massive Trailhead. Even if you have to road walk the last 2.5 miles between the two trailheads it is still 1.1 miles shorter to return via the North Halfmoon Trail.
For several years an organization called the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has been involved in building a proper trail from North Halfmoon Creek to the top of Mount Massive, and when they finish their work this alternative route will probably be the most popular way to climb the mountain. As this book goes to press, however, the trail is still far from complete.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Mount Massive Trail
Aspen, Independence Pass (Trails Illustrated, map #127)
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