Mount Elbert (14,433 ft)
14er Peak Rank #1/53
The highest 14er peak, Mount Elbert – featured on Colorado 14ers Series Map 6 of 16 – is also the highest peak in Colorado and the whole of the Rocky Mountains. Though Mount Whitney in California is higher by about 50 feet (highest in the contiguous USA) and a dozen mountains in Alaska are also higher, Mount Elbert is the prize highpoint of Colorado 14er hiking, and the summer crowds bear witness to this.
Mount Elbert was named for Samuel Hitt Elbert, the territorial governor of Colorado from 1873 to 1874. In conjunction with President Ulysses S. Grant, who was visiting Colorado, Elbert negotiated a treaty with the Ute tribe of Native Americans in September of 1873, opening up 3 million acres of land to mining and railroad activity. Miners who were beneficiaries of this treaty named this peak in Elbert’s honor. Less than a year later, he was removed from office without explanation. The following year, 1874, the first ascent of the peak was recorded by yet another member of the Hayden Survey – Henry W. Stuckle.
Though it is a giant of a peak, Mount Elbert is not considered a difficult peak – by 14ers standards – and has two Class 1 (easiest) routes to the top. One can climb the peak from one of three main trails to the summit – from the north, east and south. The North Mount Elbert Trail #1484 begins from Halfmoon Road across the street from the main Mount Massive trailhead (see Mount Massive post). This route follows the Colorado Trail south for 0.8 miles before splitting off to the right/west for a 3.3 mile Class 1 (trail walking) trek to the summit. This route has a total elevation gain of a bit more than 4,300′ from trailhead to summit.
Confusingly enough, the South Mount Elbert Trail is the route that winds up the east slopes of the peak – not the south. Starting at the South Elbert Trailhead near Twin Lakes (off CO Hwy 82) at the Lakeview Campground, the trail quickly joins (after 0.3 miles) the Colorado Trail and follows it 2.5 miles west then north to a turn off left/west onto the South Mount Elbert Trail #1481. From here it is a pretty basic 3.7 mile Class 1 trail walk to the summit, with a total elevation gain of just over 4,800′ from the trailhead.
The third option for hiking Mount Elbert is from the south – the Black Cloud Trail #1480. Beginning from a trailhead off CO Hwy 82 at 9,730′ elevation, this trail travels north to the summit in 5.1 miles – with some steep switchbacks halfway along making for a Class 2 (more difficult hiking) route, for a gain of 4,700′. Each option for hiking this peak brings a different experience without some of the challenges of other 14ers in the state.
The highest point in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains – Mount Elbert – is a gentle giant with some non-technical easy routes to the summit from the north and east. However, with a summit so high in elevation, altitude sickness can occur without some acclimatization, and the usual risks of alpine environments in Colorado remain. So remember to be prepared for a high country hike by bringing plenty of water, respecting both weather conditions and your own limitations and by bringing your 14ers Maps along with you. Mount Elbert is one of two fourteeners featured on Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Map 6 of 16.
Directions to Trailheads:
For the North Mount Elbert Trail: from the center of Leadville, take US Hwy 24 southwest for 4 miles, followed by a right/west onto CO Hw 300 for 0.8 miles. At that point, turn left/south onto County Road 11/Halfmoon Road. Bear sharp right to stay on Halfmoon Road (County Road 11) at 1.3 miles, just after crossing over the creek. At 1.3 miles after this turn, pass the FS Road 152 turn off for the Willow Trailhead (1.1 miles west on FS 152) and continue 5.5 miles to the Mount Elbert Trailhead on the left/south.
For the South Mount Elbert Trail (i.e. the east slopes), take Colorado Hwy 82 west from US Hwy 24 towards Twin Lakes, CO. Follow CO Hwy 82 for 4 miles and turn right onto County Road 24 towards Lakeview Campground and continue for 1.3 miles to the trailhead on the left/west side of the road.
For the Black Cloud Trailhead, take Colorado Hwy 82 west off of US Hwy 24 towards Twin Lakes, CO and stay on this road for 10.5 miles to the small Black Cloud Trailhead turn-off on the right/north. There is a small brown forest service sign signifying the small road to the trailhead off CO Hwy 82.