Mount Massive (14,421ft.) is a 14er mountain located in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, within the Mount Massive Wilderness and the greater San Isabel National Forest. As the second tallest mountain in Colorado and the third tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S., Mount Massive is only slightly smaller than neighboring Mount Elbert (14,440ft.). Easily accessed from the town of Leadville in Lake County, Mount Massive is an incredibly popular hiking destination with plenty of camping options nearby.
The standard Mount Massive route via its East Slopes is best accessed via a parking area along Halfmoon Road, not far from Leadville. As with many Sawatch Range mountain ascents, the East Slopes route to the summit of Mount Massive is long and steep at 13.1 miles roundtrip with 4,347ft. of elevation gain. The East Slopes route is rated Class 2, with some moderate exposure approaching the summit. We consider this route a substantial challenge for a day hike, but achievable with proper preparation and training.
Hike Review Series: Mount Massive
Mount Massive, located in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, is named as such due to its huge presence. Though it is just slightly smaller in elevation at 14,421ft. than neighboring Mount Elbert at 14,440ft., Mount Massive impressively makes up for this second-place status with more area over 14,000ft. than any other peak in the contiguous U.S.
The Hayden Survey of 1873 records the first known ascent of Mount Massive, led by famous geologist and Civil War surgeon Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Hayden, who had previously led survey expeditions in the Yellowstone area in 1871 and 1872, turned his attention to Colorado in 1873 and beyond to study area geology and topography. Though it was Hayden’s survey expedition, Henry Gannett is noted with the distinction of Mount Massive’s first recorded ascent. Gannett famously would go on to become the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) chief geographer and one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society.
As with nearly every Colorado 14er mountain, Mount Massive is extremely popular especially because of its status as the second tallest peak in Colorado and being adjacent to Mount Elbert. Plan to hike on a weekday or arrive extremely early in the morning for less trail traffic.
The Class 2 East Slopes route to Mount Massive begins at about 10,100ft. at the Mount Massive Trailhead parking area just off Halfmoon Road, near Halfmoon Creek. The trail starts along a segment of the Colorado Trail, which follows a fairly gradual ascent through forest thicket. Approximately three miles into the ascent, cross Willow Creek and reach a trail sign noting the northeasterly shared direction of the Colorado Trail and the Main Mount Massive Trail. In about 300ft., reach another trail sign and turn left to take the branch onto the Main Mount Massive Trail.
The trail starts to steepen and leads to a clearing around 11,600ft., sparsely populated with conifers. Enter a portion of switchbacks through willow shrubs; to the east below is Turquoise Lake and the town of Leadville. Once through the willows, enter exceptionally beautiful tundra ascending the cirque toward the saddle of South Massive (14,132ft.) and the main Mount Massive summit (14,421ft.). Head right at the saddle, ascending through a trail of talus, gaining elevation along the eastern portion of the ridge. Once fully atop the ridge and heading straight toward the main Mount Massive summit, notice Mount Massive’s additional “summits” — Massive Green (14,300ft.), North Massive (14,340ft.), and Peak 14,169 (14,169ft.). Enjoy the views at the main Mount Massive summit and double back for the steep descent toward to the Mount Massive trailhead.
Recommended Hiking Apparel and Gear
We recommend bringing along a topographical map of the area, such as the “Outdoor Trail Maps Hunter-Fryingpan/Mount Massive Wilderness Map.” 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 Massive and other 14er hikes in Colorado that may be of interest.
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