The Mount Elbert Hike: A Colorado Mountain for Relative Beginners

The Mount Elbert Hike: A Colorado Mountain for Relative Beginners. Mountains rising in the fog with pine trees below; Leadville, Colorado.

Hikers travel to these mountains to reach the summits or “bag a 14'er”

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

Colorado has a total of 54 mountains that reach peaks of at least 14,000 feet in elevation. Any type of mountain climbing can be dangerous, but several of these mountains are relatively easy to hike. Hikers of many ages travel to these various mountains to reach the summits in what is known as “bagging a 14'er.” One such 14'er is Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in the North American Rocky Mountains and highest point in the state of Colorado.

Mt. Elbert: Highest Elevation in the North American Rockies

Cars parked along road with visitors gazing above clouds at Pikes Peak, Colorado.

Mount Elbert features the highest peak in the North American Rocky Mountains. Despite its high elevation of 14,433 feet above sea level, Mount Elbert is a relatively easy mountain to climb and is a good peak for beginners to try.

Mountain Rating System

Snow-covered mountain with pine trees at base; Leadville, Colorado.

Mountain peaks receive ratings based on the difficulty of hiking or climbing them. The ratings focus heavily on whether a climber will face exposure while climbing. In this sense, exposure refers to whether the climber could encounter a condition that would cause the climber to fall, resulting in injury or death. A hiker on a mountain rated Class 1 would not encounter any exposure along the main route taken. By comparison, a climber will encounter moderate to serious exposure along paths of Class 3 or Class 4 mountains. The most dangerous mountains are rated Class 5, and these require technical expertise to climb.

Inclement Weather

Car driving down freeway as storm system sets in; Colorado.

Of course, those who climb any mountain should remain cautious at all times. Lightning is always a danger no matter what the mountain is, so any climber should use extreme care to pay attention to changes in weather patterns, especially afternoon thunderstorms. The high altitude can also cause sickness and even death, so hikers should always pay attention to their bodies. Headaches and swelling may be signs of more serious problems. Many hikers start to feel the conditions take their toll after the hiker passes the timber line, which is the area above which trees can no longer grow because of the thin oxygen.

Hiking Mt. Elbert: Which Route to Take

View from atop mountain looking out over valley below; Colorado.

Mount Elbert is located in the Sawatch Range in San Isabel National Forest about 10 miles from the town of Leadville, which has several lodging options.

The standard route to get there is to take U.S. 24 to Colorado 300, left on Lake County Road 11 toward Halfmoon Creek, then right onto a dirt road which you'll follow for 5 miles before reaching the parking lot. The most popular route to hike Mount Elbert is from the Northeast Ridge. Reaching the North Mt. Elbert Trailhead is relatively easy, and hikers can park their cars in the large parking area right next to the trailhead.

The first 1.3 miles of the hike go through a forest. Soon after leaving the trailhead the Mt. Elbert Trail merges with the Colorado Trail (CT). The trail is very large and easy to follow. Some parts of this trail are somewhat steep but relatively easy to manage.

Hikers reach a small clearing at 11,600 feet, and the timber line is close. The hike above the timber line mostly consists of a series of switchbacks, which is a trail design where the hiker ascends a trail that crosses back and forth. The switchback is less steep than a trail that would require the hiker to ascend vertically, but the hiker has to take more steps to reach higher elevations. Because these switchbacks appear at higher elevations, hikers can run out of breath frequently while ascending.

The trail gets more rugged and difficult as the climber nears the summit. Hikers should be careful with the rocky trail at this point, as some of the rocks are not as stable as they might appear. Once the hiker reaches about 13,900 feet, though, the rest of the hike is relatively easy. The summit features great views of a number of other peaks, including nearby Mount La Plata peak and Mount Massive. There are a number of false summits near the top, so don't get your hopes up too soon as you travel to the top.

The descent down any mountain can often be dangerous, and this is true for the descent down Mount Elbert trail as well. The rocky portion of the trail can be difficult to climb down, as the rocks may be slippery or unstable. The switchbacks are less difficult to manage on the descent though, and the hike through the forest is relatively easy.

The route up the Northwest Ridge is nine miles round trip and has an elevation gain of 4,700 feet. Another popular route is the East Ridge, which begins very close to Twin Lakes. The hike is only eight miles round trip from the main trailhead, but hikers can only reach this trailhead with a four-wheel drive. Others have to begin their hike from a parking lot two miles away, which means the total hike is 12 miles round trip. It's best to start early, whichever route you choose.

Conclusion: The Mount Elbert Hike

Dark forest interspersed with bright green grass besets mountains rising into clouds in background; Colorado.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Spring 2019

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