Mount Elbert is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains of North America. It is also the highest of the fourteeners in the US State of Colorado, and the high point of the Sawatch Range. It is located in Lake County, approximately 10 miles (16 km) southwest of Leadville. It lies within the San Isabel National Forest.
Elbert is the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States, after Mount Whitney in California, and is but 65 feet (20 m) shorter than Whitney’s 14,505 feet (4,421 m).
Elbert is a fairly easy climb (after adjusting to its elevation— beware Altitude sickness), and is popular with hikers. There are three routes up the mountain. The standard route ascends the peak from the east. The most difficult is the Black Cloud Trail, which takes ten to fourteen hours, depending on the pace. The third option up is the North Mt. Elbert Trailhead (North Halfmoon Creek trail) which we took being the less crowded.
North Mt. Elbert Trailhead (North Halfmoon Creek): (10,050 ft.) From Leadville, drive 3.5 miles south on U.S. 24 to Colorado (CO) 300. Turn right (west) on CO 300 and drive .7 miles. At .7 miles, turn left (south) on Lake County 11 which is a newly paved road. Drive south 1.8 miles on Lake County 11 and turn right (west) at the signed intersection for Halfmoon Creek. Continue southwest past the Halfmoon Creek Campground and the Elbert Creek Campground until reaching the signed North Mt. Elbert Trailhead at 6.9 miles. Note: This trailhead is also referred to as “South Colorado/Main Range Trailhead” in some guidebooks. It is an access point for the Colorado/Continental Divide trail, a short section of which runs from here to the Lakeview Campground to the south.
We arrived in Leadville pretty late and drove Jays Toureg up past the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead till it forks at Halfmoon Creek. You can hike this trail from here North to Mt. Massive of South to Elbert. It was late so we camped there with the idea that we would scope out the route in the light.
When we wok up the day looked great, perfect sky. The river crossing right at Halfmoon Creek was washed over pretty good, and although Jay was confident his nice new Toureg would be able to drive through it with no problem I wasn’t completely sure. Since it was a beautiful day why not hike it? So we chose our gear and hoofed it. If you drive further up you can take another mile or two off the route and gain another 1,000’ or so. However we passed two broken bridges the second one looking like you would really need to winch it to get through. Maybe late in summer after all the melt has run off a typical high-clearance 4×4 would be alright there.
We kept hiking south with Elbert rising on our left, but being down in the valley makes it tough to orient. We were expecting to see a fork in the trail for when it takes a shoulder of Elbert up, but we never saw one… I can confirm after taking the same route back down that we never saw a clearly defined hikers/climbers trail. The further you go south on this trail the more you have to hook back to Elberts summit once you gain the ridge. You can see the detour we took on the way up in the GPS trail in the photo gallery for this trip.
Making our way up east and toward the summit ridge and clearing tree-line we found ourselves climbing talus fields all the way up to the ridge. From on top of the ridge we could see the true summit perhaps a half mile or so along this East ridge. We were blessed with perfect weather and incredible views !!
We decided that we should take the most direct route back North to the Toureg. We scree/snow-surfed down the scree and remaining snow and got down in a snap. Plastic shell mountaineering boots might seem a tad heavy/clunky when you selecting your gear at the trailhead, but when you get can jog/surf scree with no risk of twisting an ankle etc its sooo worth it. Yes, I believe in the plastic boots (least in my Koflach’s)
There is no substitute for getting an early start, and getting as much of the mountain “behind you” as early in the day as possible. Keep a good eye on the sky as weather conditions can deteriorate rapidly. The greatest weather danger is from lightning strikes, and climbers are killed almost every summer in Colorado by lightning strikes. July seems to be the most deadly month for lightning.
Two climbers were killed by lightning in Colorado within a couple days of each other in the summer of 2003. I think the following important information from Gerry Roach’s book “Colorado’s Fourteeners From Hikes to Climbs” bears repeating. Added here with permission from Gerry Roach:
Colorado is famous for apocalyptic lightning storms that threaten not just your life, but your soul as well. This section will have special meaning if you have ever been trapped by a storm that endures for more than an hour and leaves no gap between one peal of thunder and the next. The term simultaneous flash-boom has a very personal meaning for many Colorado Climbers.
1. Lightning is dangerous!
2. Lightning is the greatest external hazard to summer mountaineering in Colorado.
3. Lightning kills people every year in Colorado’s mountains.
4. Direct hits are usually fatal.
1. Start early! Be off summits by noon and back in the valley by early afternoon.
2. Observe thunderhead buildup carefully, noting speed and direction; towering thunderheads with black bottoms are bad.
3. When lightning begins nearby, turn around. If you can see lightning you are already too close.
4. Get off summits and ridges and below tree line as quickly as possible
1. You cannot outrun a storm; physics wins.
2. When caught, seek a safe zone in the 45-degree cone around an object 5 to 10 times your height.
3. Be aware of ground currents; the current from a ground strike disperses along the ground or cliff, especially in wet cracks.
4. Wet ropes are good conductors.
5. Snow is not a good conductor.
6. Separate yourself from metal objects.
7. Disperse the group. Survivors can revive one who is hit.
8. Crouch on boot soles, ideally on dry, insulating material such as moss or grass. Dirt is better than rock. Avoid water.