Hiking Colorado: Mount Elbert
If you're looking to conquer one of Colorado's 14,000-foot-plus peaks, give some thought to hiking the tallest of them all. Mount Elbert sits atop Colorado's mountains at 14,433 feet. It offers excellent views and one of the easier hikes to the top of the State's Fourteeners, according to many hikers.
The primary trailhead starts at 10,100 feet about a mile west of Half Moon campground, outside of Leadville. There are actually three trails which lead to the top of Elbert. The north trail was closest to our campsite and the shortest. It is also the most-traveled of the three.
You'll find the trailhead to the left of Half Moon Road. Arrive early if you want to find a parking spot in the small lot. Otherwise you'll be forced to park alongside the road. On weekends the trail is usually dotted with hikers, so if you're taking a dog keep it on a leash.
Start by heading southeast into the forest. For the first half-mile the trail is relatively easy until you cross a bridge over Elbert Creek. The ascent for the next quarter-mile is fairly steep as you climb through your first series of switchbacks. Proceed for another quarter-mile until you come to a fork for the Colorado Trail - stay to the right for Mount Elbert.
During the first half of the hike you can enjoy the shade of the pine forests. About an hour into the hike the trail levels off and the trees drop back enough to give you a view of the peak above and glimpses of the valley to the east. This is a great place for a break before hitting the next climb to timberline.
Once you're past the forest, take a moment to study the alpine flowers and geology at this altitude. The sides of the trail are lined with loose rock, some of which contains both sedimentary and metaphoric rock in the same stone. When you're done looking down, turn to the north and take in an unhindered view of Mount Massive. To the northeast you can see Turquoise Lake and Leadville.
The ascent here is steep but bearable. Keep a nice steady pace to avoid getting winded in the thin air. You'll reach a point where the trail comes to a point overlooking the Mosquito Range to the east and the valley between Leadville and Buena Vista to the southeast. Hike a little further and you'll see a small pond and the headwaters of Box Creek some 300 feet below you. Notice hikers ascending the mountain on the ridge to the south - they're on the South Mount Elbert Trail. This is a good place to stop, catch your breath and prepare for the toughest part of the hike.
It's only three-quarters of a mile to the summit from this point, but you'll climb over 1,400 feet in that short distance - most of it in the next quarter-mile. There's quite a bit of loose rock in this leg of the ascent so leave some room between yourself and any hiking buddies in case one of you dislodges a stone. Keep an eye on the weather at this point too.
The hardest part of the climb is behind you when you reach a strip of snow that stretches to the peak. The summit is 640 feet above you, but the ascent is a relative breeze compared to what you just climbed.