Monday, September 6, 2010

Mt. Elbert, Colorado's tallest mountain at 14,433 ft!

On top! 14,433ft, 2nd tallest in Cont. USA
Last weekend when my family visited, we hiked Mt. Lincoln via the Mt Cameron route and we had so much fun that Josh and I were eager to  hike at least one more 14er before winter set in in the high country. Initially we had plans to go to Durango and hike, an area which we have never visited before, but the drive proved to be too much for Josh at the last minute so we decided to hike Mt. Elbert.  Mt. Elbert is the tallest mountain in Colorado at 14,433 feet above sea level; it is also the second tallest mountain in the Continental USA behind California’s Mt. Whitney. I had read that Mt. Elbert was classified as a Class 1, the easiest of the 14ers, however the steepness and exposure during the hike makes me think it was more of a Class 2.
After nearly 5 hours and 4.5 miles of gaining 4700 feet in elevation we were standing on the top! It was an incredible challenge and a very long hike, but an amazing feat to reach the summit; this is the 10th, 14er that we have hiked and it’s very fitting that it was the tallest in Colorado. 

  The Mt. Elbert trailhead standard route starts a short drive from the mountain town of Leadville, about 1.5 hours from our home in Golden, CO. From Leadville, drive south through the town and follow the signs toward Hwy 24 East.  Just as you are leaving the south end of Leadville turn right onto CR 300 and immediately cross the railroad tracks; drive for just under a mile and make a left turn onto CR 11 toward Halfmoon Creek.  

Getting there:  After another 1.2 miles turn right onto CR 11/Halfmoon Creek Road (also called CR 110 on google maps); there is another sign pointing you toward Halfmoon Creek, and the road is newly paved for about a mile while as of fall 2010.  Continue on this road for 5 miles until you reach the signed Mt. Elbert trailhead. Even after the road turns to dirt, it’s easily passable by a car; I even remarked “this is the nicest Colorado dirt road I have ever been on.” Due to it’s accessibility; and/or the holiday Labor Day weekend, it was very busy.  The Mount Massive Trailhead is just a short distance farther up this road.   Google map here.
Rough route; green-alpine; red -Class 2 hardest; blue-easy
Specs: The trailhead has pit toilets and a larger parking lot that was nearly full at 8am when we arrived.  To hike from this trailhead to the top of Mt. Elbert you will gain 4700 feet of elevation and nearly 9 miles round trip. This hike took us 8 hours to complete; 4 hours and 45 minutes to reach the top (with a half an hour lunch stop), 40 minutes on top; and then a 3.5 hour hike back to our car with a 20 minute snack stop along the way. Plan at least 4 hours to reach the top and 2.5 for the hike down for very experienced hikers; also check the weather the day you are hiking for afternoon thundershowers and wind.

The Journey: I could not contain my excitement days prior to our hiking Mt. Elbert. I was dreaming about hiking at night and daydreaming about standing on top of the tallest mountain in Colorado, (second tallest in the Continental United States) for two days; ever since forgoing our plans to drive to Durango for a closer hiking/camping experience. We had planned on leaving Friday evening, but Josh was delayed at work and rather than set up a tent in the dark, we decided to drive out super early on Saturday morning, set up our tent, then hike Mt. Elbert. We managed to leave the house by 5am and chose our San Isabel national forest campsite around 7:30am which was about 300 yards from the Mt. Elbert trailhead; and we were on the trail just after 8am.
Emerald Lake from woods

The trail starts with a long hike through the woods, which encompasses about half of your hiking experience on the mountain. During the entire hike there is a 4700 foot elevation gain, much of that from the trailhead at about 10,000 ft, to above the timberline at over 12,000 feet. The section through the woods is pretty steep and rocky, and Josh was not feeling as great as he had last week, so we stopped a few times for him to adjust clothing and eat.  I, however, was feeling awesome and enjoying the scenery and experience. I became one of those hikers, who, when annoyingly asked by someone coming down the mountain “how are you today,” rather than my usual breathless comment about wishing I was heading down the mountain, I became that person who exclaimed, “I'm great, what a beautiful day, how is your hike?” This is pretty unlike me when hiking a 14er, usually I am so focused on making it to the top, that I sometimes miss some of the hiking ‘experience.’  And this euphoria made me wonder if I had altitude sickness or something; a thought that literally made me laugh out loud. However, I have hiked a lot this summer year and I think that I am more conditioned to the altitude than in previous years and I can definitely tell the difference.

Steep alpine valley climb
After two hours of hiking we had made it past the woods and we could see our destination, Mt. Elbert. Well, we could see the mountain anyway, the peak is not visible for the entire route to the top of the hike; except in the last 300 yards, it’s hidden by several false peaks. *hint* If you look up, and you don’t see people standing on the top, then that’s a false peak and not where you are going!  The wind was whipping on the alpine meadow, and I had to add layers and change into my pants; it was going to get even colder as we climbed higher. 

The trail continues up the alpine meadow, which is steep and after a long straight arduous climb in the wind the trail begins to switchback up the ridge to the top, where you have some reprieve from the sharp grade and incredible views of the valley and surrounding mountain ranges. Continue up this section to the base of the first false peak (start of red line in route photo above) where there is a large partially man-made rock outcropping. Here Josh and I ate lunch in the shelter warming ourselves from the wind and prepared ourselves for the hardest part of the hike with the steepest grade and most exposure; the climb around the first false peak.
Steep Class 2 section, hardest part of hike
After about 30 minutes and a lunch of cheese and crackers, we put our gear back on and braved the wind for the rough section. I would consider this section of the hike a Class 2 climb; especially in comparison to Mt. Lincoln (rated Class 2) last week. We started the climb up and realized immediately we had to use our hands and hiking poles to make it up the section. Hikers coming down the mountain had to yield to hikers climbing up or there was just not room enough on the trail with a sharp drop-off on either side of the ridge. As I waited for some hikers to pass me I looked down to see a high alpine lake below and was met with immediate vertigo at the sharp drop-off to the lake below, and I am not one who is afraid of heights at all!
Steep section of false peak
From below it looks like once you brave this section, you will have a slight reprieve from steepness, but instead the trail continues around the mountain where there is even greater exposure and grade for another few hundred feet past the false peak. Once you have completed this section, give yourself a ‘hooray’ because it’s the hardest part of the hike. From here, you still have at least another 40 minutes of hiking or a half mile to the top, but the rest is peaches compared to the first false peak.

It was at this point in the hike where I kept thinking that each false peak thereafter was the actual summit, and was met with immediate disappointment at the top of each ridge when another (false) peak presented itself. The moral here, if you don’t see people on it, it’s not the peak; which is very evident when you do finally see it.  There is a small (dead) pine tree at the top which looks like a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree along with a US geological summit marker and Tupperware with a summit sign-in sheet and lots of people.  On most peaks we usually spend maybe 20 minutes and head down due to being cold or just wanting to get off the mountain, but this time we spent 40 minutes on the top; we chatted with other hikers as usual, introduced our dogs and talked and talked about our experiences up the mountain. After some crowding which prompted us to look at our watches we realized it was 1:30 and it was time to head down.
Finally, the summit!  Complete w/ tree
It took merely minutes to make it back to the difficult false summit, less than half of the time it took to get up the mountain; but we were immediately slowed in our tracks by the steep and exposed terrain as we timidly hiked down this section. It took us nearly the same time getting up as it did going down, a testament to the grade. After the difficult section the hike seemed relatively easy as we made short work of the alpine section and were back to the woods at 3:00pm, just an hour and a half from the top.  I expected it would take us another 1.5 hours back to the car and we were exactly right as we strolled into the parking lot at 4:30pm. The section through the woods was tough on our tired legs and knees especially, and the steep section made us stop and stretch often. I was so glad when we finally saw the stream crossing I remembered from very early in the hike and then we were back to the car! It was a long, difficult hike, but overall I felt great throughout; Josh however was very tired, but the dogs including Rock who is 12 years old this summer, did very well.
180 degree view from the top. 
The dogs *live* to hike, and I am always surprised by peoples shocked reaction when I tell them that.  They chase squirrels, make sure we are safe, sniff the air, greet the other hikers and generally love their life when they are on a trail.  This was Belle's first 14er, and Rocks 9th; it was our 10th 14er and Rock only missed Mt. Lincoln last week due to no pet-friendly lodging in Breckenridge.  Mt. Elbert was a great experience and I am so glad we were able to tackle it.  Here are some more photos of the hike. 

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Me pointing to the actual peak, finally!  Josh didn't believe me, but it really was the top :)

Beautiful aspen trees and Colorado blue sky :) 

Pooped pup on the top :)  Belle

Summit looking west, the wind block made it downright warm on the top. 

Josh and I on the summit, just heading back down, Twin Lakes behind us.

Geological Marker on the summit

Views of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains
Belle chillin while we had a snack on the way back down. 


  1. Wow you guys have done some major hiking the past few weeks! How exciting, I'm a little jealous we have been busy working on house projects and my goal was to get a 14er in this year, not sure it will happen. Do you think the last weekend in Sept is too late in the season to hike a 14er?

  2. We hiked Mt. Evans late in the season in 2008; and while there was snow, we were still able to make it. I think (this is just my guess) winter will come a little later this year, because the trees aren't changing in the mountains yet, so there is still time :) As long as there isn't a ton of snow the hike is safe and do-able, just cold.
    We are planning on hiking Torreys before the end of September hits as well; Good Luck!