Mount Elbert has a lot to be proud of. It is the highest mountain in Lake County, highest in Colorado, highest in the Rockies, and second highest in the contiguous United States. But when you ask a non-climber or someone outside of Colorado, nobody has heard of it. However, that’s their loss, because Mt. Elbert is a spectacular peak and worthy of recognition and respect from all. One of the great things about Mt. Elbert is the relatively moderate terrain to the summit, allowing almost anyone with reasonable fitness to enjoy the mountain and its status.
Located in the Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rockies, Mt. Elbert was named for Samuel Elbert who was a controversial territorial governor of Colorado in 1873. The first recorded summit of the peak was by H.W. Stuckle of the Haydon Survey in 1874. Since that time, it has been climbed by thousands and even been summited by jeep.
In the seventies, there was a movement among a group of folks that felt Mt. Elbert's next door neighbor, Mt. Massive, was more deserving to be Colorado's highest peak. They stacked rocks in an attempt to raise the height of Massive's summit on top. Many more detractors would tear the summit cairn down upon their visits, so the attempt at changing Massive's elevation was eventually given up and Mt. Elbert has retained the title as the highest. (Courtesy of Aaron Johnson). Although most (or all) guidebooks list Mt. Elbert as 14,433 ft., a 2002 recalculation of old surveyed elevations, resulting in a world-wide adjustment of peak elevations, concluded that Mt. Elbert is actually 14,440 ft. Denver post article. Despite this re-survey, most Colorado Climbers regularly use the old survey elevations.
There are five main routes to the summit, the two most popular and easiest are the South Mt. Elbert Trail and the North Mt. Elbert Trail, both being well trodden class one trails. These relatively easy paths to the summit are busy in the summer, attracting all types of hikers and climbers, young and old. Like any high peak, weather, altitude, and personal ability must be considered before attempting Mt. Elbert. But with a little preparation and planning, Mt. Elbert offers a wonderful climbing and outdoor experience. The most important thing to remember about climbing this mountain (or any other in Colorado) is to start early....like sunrise....to avoid dangerous afternoon storms. If you see dark puffy clouds building, turn around and get off the mountain.
Mt. Elbert is located in central Colorado near the little town of Twin Lakes about 140 miles west of Denver, 50 miles south of Vail, and 40 miles east of Aspen. The closest large town is Leadville, approximately 16 miles northeast.
The trailheads for routes are South Mt. Elbert Trail Trailhead for the east ridge route, North Mt. Elbert Trail Trailhead for the northeast ridge, South Halfmoon Creek Trailhead for the northwest ridge, Black Cloud Trailhead for southeast ridge, and Echo Canyon Trailhead for the southwest ridge route.
South Mt. Elbert Trailhead (9560 ft) From Leadville, drive south approximately 10 miles to the intersection of U.S. 24 and Colorado (CO) 82. From Buena Vista drive north 20 miles to the same intersection. Once on CO 82, drive west 4 miles to Lake County Road 24 (Do not confuse with U.S. 24). Turn right (north) on Lake County 24 and drive one mile to Lakeview Campground. The trailhead is on the northwest side of the campground and is also an access point for the Colorado/Continental Divide Trail in which a short section runs from Lakeview to the North Mt. Elbert Trailhead. Shortly after Lakeview Campground, turn left into an obvious parking area, overlook, and dirt road. High clearance vehicles can drive to 10,440 ft. by driving west past the parking lot on a rough road for 2 miles until the road ends and you see other vehicles parked. The upper trailhead is on the north side of the parking area. Cross a creek via a footbridge and continue a short distance until reaching a signed intersection of the Mt. Elbert/Colorado/Continental Divide Trail where you turn left.
No permits or fees are required to park, climb, or hike.
There are several Forest Service campgrounds nearby requiring fees. The closest to the South Mt. Elbert trail is Lakeview Campground as described in "Getting There" section. Lakeview has a campground host from May 15 until September 8. It has 59 sites at $12.00/night and will accomodate an RV up to 32 ft. Drinking water, pit and flushing toilets, no showers. Reservations may be made at Lakeview Campground. The closest campgrounds to Halfmoon Creek and North Mt. Elbert Trailheads are Halfmoon Creek Campground and Elbert Creek Campground located on the road to the trailheads as described in the "Getting There" section. Elbert Creek has 17 sites at $13.00/night and will accomodate up to a 16 ft trailer. Open from May 30 to September 30, it has drinking water, pit toilets, but no showers. Halfmoon Creek has 24 sites at $13.00/night and will accomodate up to 16 ft trailer. Open from May 20 to September 30, it has drinking water, pit toilet, but no showers.
There are approximately nine other Forest Service campgrounds nearby. Call the Forest Service at (719) 486-0749 or see their website. They will send you a packet with free information.
Primitive camping is allowed pretty much anywhere on the mountain. Avoid camping along the 4wd road, next to a trail, or in the parking areas.
Sugar Loafin' RV Park and Camground is 4 miles west of Leadville on CO 300. (719) 486-1031. Full service RV campground. Showers available.