Mount Elbert (14,440ft.) is a 14er mountain located near the town of Leadville in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, within the greater San Isabel National Forest. As the tallest mountain in the state of Colorado, the summit of Mount Elbert is one of the state’s most popular 14er destinations. Indeed, Mount Elbert holds additional notoriety as the second tallest peak in the contiguous United States, just behind California’s Mount Whitney.
There are several fairly easy-to-moderate routes to Mount Elbert’s summit, with the standard approach via the Class 1 Northeast Ridge beginning at the Mount Elbert Trailhead. However, since this standard route’s parking area is typically incredibly busy, we prefer an approach via the Class 2 Southeast Ridge that begins closer to Twin Lakes. This Southeast Ridge route is a 10.5 mile out-and-back roundtrip, with a steep 4,500ft. of elevation gain. Although this route is non-technical, it is by no means simple. Accordingly, we consider this route a challenging day hike, but achievable with proper preparation and training.
HIKE REVIEW SERIES: Mount Elbert
Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado, is named in honor of Samual Hitt Elbert, who was Governor of the then Colorado Territory from 1873-1874 and later served on the Colorado Supreme Court from 1876-1888. The first recorded ascent of Mount Elbert occurred in 1874 as part of a survey expedition led by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden.
Neighboring Mount Elbert is Mount Massive, Colorado’s second tallest peak at 14,421ft. For a time, there was considerable debate over which mountain was truly the taller peak given the slight height difference. Mount Elbert’s original elevation measurement was adjusted from 14,433ft. to 14,440ft. and to this day continues to be noted as the tallest peak in the state.
As with nearly every Colorado 14er mountain, Mount Elbert is extremely popular. Of course, this popularity is even more pronounced because of its distinction as the highest peak in Colorado. Expect a big crowd at the summit and moderate to heavy trail traffic depending on the route. Thus, we recommend planning to hike Mount Elbert on a weekday and consider camping nearby for an early start.
- Summit Elevation: 14,440ft.
- Range: Sawatch
- Location: San Isabel National Forest
- Nearest Town: Leadville
- Route: Southeast Ridge
- Class: 2
- Type: Out-and-Back
- Trailhead: Black Cloud
- Trailhead Elevation: 9,929ft.
- Route Length: 10.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 4,511ft.
The Class 2 Southeast Ridge route to Mount Elbert begins at about 9,900ft. at the Black Cloud Trailhead. This is a small, secluded parking and camping area just off of CO-82. Indeed, with this route you’ll be rewarded with far less trail traffic than the standard Class 1 Northeast Ridge route.
Start on the trail by passing some dispersed camping spots and be prepared for a gradually steep initial ascent. The trail switchbacks through dense forest with aspen trees and alongside Black Cloud Creek. Cross Black Cloud Creek on a makeshift log bridge at about 1 mile into the ascent near 10,900ft.. Next, in another .2 miles cross the creek again via a second log bridge around 11,070ft.. The trail leads out of dense forest with views of Bull Hill (13,761ft.) ahead and to the left, with improving views of La Plata Peak (14,336ft.) and Rinker Peak (13,783ft.) behind.
The trail steepens considerably around 12,050ft. heading northeast towards Mount Cosgriff (13,566ft.) and up to the ridge line towards the South Elbert sub-summit (14,130ft.). Much of the trail is along solid terrain, though expect occasional sections of loose scree. Around 13,500ft., turn left heading to South Elbert with views of Mount Elbert’s summit in the distance. Be prepared for about another two miles of high elevation exposure. Thus, a very early start for this hike is highly recommended. Once atop South Elbert, about a mile of steep ridge hiking remains to reach the Mount Elbert summit.
Although the Black Cloud route is less busy, plan for crowds atop the peak. Summit crowds aside, enjoy an impressively expansive vista of the Sawatch Range, with La Plata Peak prominent to the south and neighboring Mount Massive to the north. Descend via doubling back from the summit and retracing steps back to the Black Cloud Trailhead parking area.
From Leadville, CO, continue on US 24 through town for approximately 14 miles. Reach the junction with Highway CO-82 and turn right heading west toward the town of Twin Lakes. Stay on CO-82 W for about 10.5 miles, passing the Twin Lakes and a few campgrounds (Whitestar, Parry Peak, and Twin Peaks) on your left. Once past the Twin Peaks Campground on CO-82 W, be prepared to make an abrupt right turn into the Black Cloud Trailhead parking area.
The Southeast Ridge route to Mount Elbert begins at the Black Cloud Trailhead just off of Highway 82 past the town of Twin Lakes. There is very limited parking space in this heavily wooded area. However, there are a few dispersed campsites if camping is of interest. Do plan to arrive early to secure a spot.
If you plan to hike the Class 2 Southeast Ridge route, there are several dispersed campsites near the Black Cloud trailhead, which is located off of Highway 82 near Twin Lakes. If these sites are full, just down the road on Highway 82 is the Twin Peaks Campground with 35 sites, which are first-come, first served. Also, the Parry Peak Campground is a first-come, first served campground a short distance down the road. Lastly, closer to the town of Twin Lakes is the Whitestar Campground which is reservable in advance on recreation.gov.
Dogs are permitted on leash. However, if you do opt to bring your pet, please be considerate of others by keeping your pet on leash and picking up/packing out any dog waste.
Always check the weather forecast before venturing into alpine country. Thunderstorms and lightning are frequent occurrences in Colorado during the summer time, so plan ahead for your Mount Elbert 14er summit adventure.
RECOMMENDED HIKING APPAREL AND GEAR
We recommend bringing along a topographical map of the area — try the “Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Sawatch Range Map Pack” for an affordable way to purchase multiple maps at once, including one for Mount Elbert. A good topographical map is always nice to have in addition to a GPS device, if you’re using one. In addition, we included a couple of our favorite field guides for plant and bird identification to aid in the enjoyment of your outdoor adventure. Lastly, we included Gerry Roach’s “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” guidebook, which is the best print guide available for hiking Colorado’s 14ers. It provides an amazing amount of information on Mount Elbert and other 14er hikes in Colorado that may be of interest.
- Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs
- A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners
- Colorado 14ers: The Standard Routes
- Outdoor Trail Maps Colorado 14ers Series Sawatch Range Map Pack
- Rocky Mountain Wildflowers Field Guide
- Roadside Geology of Colorado
- Mammals of Colorado Field Guide
- American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Colorado
- Sibley Birds West: Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
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