On top of the Rockies: Climbing Colorado's Mt. Elbert
Climbing a mountain is the most personal of challenges. It’s a test of your physical endurance, a battle against the negative voice in your head, and an adventure into the unknown. As Sir Edmund Hillary once said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves."
Hilary was talking about Mt. Everest, which he and his Sherpa companion became the first to summit in 1953. I may never see the top of Everest in my lifetime, but I have pushed my way up the sides of many mountains. Each has presented its own unique challenge.
I've slogged through knee-deep mud and thickets of razor grass to reach El Toro, the highest peak in Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Mountains. I’ve climbed nearly 1,000 feet straight up a sheer granite face to reach the top of Champlain Mountain in Acadia National Park. And I've journeyed above the tree line and into the clouds to the very top of the Rocky Mountains, to the summit of Mt. Elbert.
This is the trail report of my Mt. Elbert ascent, along with useful information for planning your own climb.
Mt. Elbert, in Central Colorado, is the highest mountain in Colorado and all of the Rockies. At 14,440 feet above sea level, it is second in height only to California’s Mt. Whitney in the contiguous 48 states. Despite its impressive height, Mt. Elbert is a Class 1 climb, meaning it does not require ropes or specialized rock climbing skills. With proper conditioning and advance preparation, almost anyone can climb Mt. Elbert.
Mt. Elbert is located in the Leadville Ranger District of the San Isabel National Forest, approximately 120 miles west of Denver and 16 miles southwest of Leadville. There are five main trails to the summit, with the two most popular being the South Elbert Trail and the North Elbert Trail.
The South Elbert Trail, which begins near the Lake View Campground above Twin Lakes, is considered the easiest route. It is 5.6 miles from the trailhead to the summit (11.2 miles round-trip), but with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, hikers can eliminate 1.8 miles each way of a relatively boring hike along a Forest Service road. The total elevation gain is 4,900 feet (4,000 feet if starting at the upper trailhead). The trail is the standard winter route to the summit.
The North Elbert Trail is accessed via the Elbert Creek Campground outside of Leadville. The trail is 4.6 miles to the summit (9.2 miles round-trip), with an elevation gain of 4,500 feet. The shorter distance and steeper incline make for a more strenuous ascent than the South Elbert Trail.
Make sure to read the important safety and planning tips below before attempting any climb.
View from Mt. Elbert
Location of Mt. Elbert
South Elbert Trail Report
The alarm went off well before dawn that late July morning, and we woke to find a steady rain. My only other fourteener attempt had been an unsuccessful climb of Long’s Peak a couple years earlier. That day also started with rain, and the wet, slippery conditions on the rock ledges just below the summit proved too terrifying to continue without a rope. Today, I was determined to make an ascent.
The rain continued as we drove 15 miles southwest of Leadville to the Lake View Campground above Twin Lakes. Our four-wheel-drive vehicle allowed us to continue past the lower trailhead and climb nearly two miles up a rough, dirt road to an elevation of 10,440 feet. As we reached the end of the bumpy road, the moon broke through the clouds. Just like that, the rain stopped. It was going to be a good day.
We crossed a creek on a footbridge and hiked downhill on the Colorado Trail for about 100 yards to reach the intersection of the South Elbert Trail and the trail register. It was just after 5:00 a.m. when we signed in. According to the register, several other hikers already were in route.
After signing in, we climbed a steep section of switchbacks through an aspen forest. The trail was muddy. Although we saw no other people, our headlamps revealed the footprints and trekking pole divets of those who had climbed before us that morning.
After gaining about 750 feet of elevation, the sun broke over the Mosquito Range and we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Twin Lakes Valley.
The trail leveled out and opened into a small meadow, then a larger meadow. The conifers grew more sparse and scrappier until we climbed out of the trees completely and onto the alpine tundra. We were on the east end of a long ridge that led right up to the summit. The peak loomed ahead, and clouds gathered below it over a canyon.
We followed the ridge for what seemed like hours as the daylight grew and a sharp wind cut through us. We came around a rocky ledge and found a sheltered spot to refuel with trail mix, chocolate, and water.
The endless climb
From here, the trail wound back and forth up the southeast face of the mountain, climbing over the rocks. We could see other groups of climbers above and below us, all headed to the top.
The air was thin, making it difficult to move with any kind of speed. I found the only way to keep pushing myself on was to pick out rock about twenty feet up the trail. Once I made it to that spot, I would stop and take a couple of deep breaths before picking out the next rock and continuing up.
We moved slowly and steadily until reaching an elevation of around 12,500 feet. There, we stopped for a rest and decided we would rest after each additional 500 foot gain. At 13,500 feet, we decided to rest every 250 feet. Finally, with the summit in view, the final 200 feet went quickly. We reached the summit just before noon.
There was a party-like atmosphere at the top, with four to eight people on the summit at any one time. As each new person reached the peak, there was another round of high-fives and exchange of cameras for photos at the summit marker. But no one stayed for long, After admiring the view and taking a few shots that most certainly would not do it justice, we headed down to take shelter in the rocks for one last rest before beginning the long descent.
- Date: July 26
- Round-trip: 7.6 miles
- Total elevation gain: 4,000 feet
- Total time: 10 hours
View from the top
Four great conditioning hikes for climbing Mt. Elbert
1. Timberline Lake Trail: This trail offers nice views of Turquoise Lake.
- 4.4 miles round trip
- 800 feet elevation gain
- Holy Cross Wilderness
2. Native Lake Trail: This trail passes by pretty Native Lake and offers views of the lake from above.
- 8.4 miles round trip
- 1,000 feet elevation gain
- Mt. Massive Wilderness
3. West Tennessee Lakes and Homestake Mine: Follow a wide valley to the headwall, where a bowl holds two perfect glacial lakes.
- 8.8 miles round trip
- 1,400 feet elevation gain
- Holy Cross Wilderness
4. Big Willis Gulch: Hike along an old miners road to Willis Lake and an abandoned mine at the back of the canyon.
- 11 miles round trip
- 2,500 feet elevation gain
- Leadville Ranger District
Planning and preparing for your climb:
1. To train for any high altitude hike, proper conditioning is important. At least 12 weeks before your planned climb, begin an exercise program incorporating both cardio and strength training. Check with your doctor first.
2. If traveling from a lower altitude locale, plan your climb so you have several days to acclimate when you arrive in Colorado. Your body needs time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels at higher elevations.
3. Also plan several conditioning hikes. Spend three to four days on successively longer and higher altitude hikes. Make sure you can hike to an altitude of 12,000 feet comfortably before attempting a fourteener.
4. If your vacation schedule allows, take a day off before your big climb. Take a scenic drive or take in some of Colorado’s many attractions.
5. Eat a healthy, well-balanced meal the night before your climb, including protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. Avoid greasy foods that may cause stomach distress. Limit alcohol intake and drink lots of water.
6. An early start is the key to climbing a fourteener. Dangerous electrical storms can arise quickly in the afternoon so you will want to allow enough time to reach the summit and begin your descent by no later than 1:00 p.m.
7. In dressing for your climb, prepare for extremes. This means layers. Start with a lightweight, wicking shirt, add a fleece pullover and top it all with a water and wind resistant jacket. Convertible pants are a good option in the summer when the afternoon sun gets warm on the descent.
8. You will need sturdy, comfortable hiking boots or shoes with good tread. Make sure they are broken in before setting out to climb a fourteener. Also wear good quality wicking socks to avoid friction and blisters.
9. Other must-have items for climbing a fourteener include a sun hat and ski cap, sunglasses, gloves or mittens, sun screen, and a rain poncho.
10. Carry a small day pack for your extra layers as well as food and water for your climb. Other items to keep in your pack include:
- A small first aid kit with some basic necessities, including band aids, an Ace bandage, ibuprofen or other pain relief tablets
- A small folding knife
- A small flashlight and batteries or headlamp for hiking in the pre-dawn hours
- A package of tissues
- Sunscreen and lip balm
- Trail maps, a compass or GPS, and a camera
11. The air is dry at high altitudes, increasing the risk of dehydration. Carry a minimum of two quarts of water. A water filter or purifying pills are helpful, too. No matter how pure a mountain stream may look, you can’t drink it without first boiling it or taking other measures to eliminate giardia, a dangerous parasite common in mountain water.
12. The climb will take several hours to complete so it’s important to carry a supply of food for fueling your body throughout the grueling day. Have several options in case your appetite becomes finicky in the high altitude. Trail mix, grapes or other fresh fruit, energy bars and sandwiches all make good options.