IntroductionWe chose Mount Elbert because we read that most trails leading to Elbert were of moderate difficulty and it was enticing to hike to the 2nd tallest peak in the continental United States.
We traveled to the trailhead from Estes Park, CO and it took around 4 hours with moderate traffic. It is around 2 - 2.5 hours from Denver, CO and 20 - 30 minutes from Leadville, CO.
There were three of us in our party, one in their mid-20s, one in their mid-30s, and one in their 50s. All are experienced hikers and exercise regularly. This was the first 14'er for the two youngest. We selected the Black Cloud Trail because we read the trail was moderate in difficulty and provided far more scenic views over the other more traveled trails (North and South trails), more on this later. We hiked for 2 days in Rocky Mountain National Park to acclimate and spend 4 days in Estes Park before the hike.
TrailheadThere is parking for around 6 - 10 vehicles at the trailhead. We arrived the night before our hike, two slept in the vehicle and one camped outside.
Just about every review of the Black Cloud Trail mentions how difficult finding the trailhead is. This is absolutely true. You will most likely go past the trailhead. There is a very small sign (1.5' x 1.5') marking the trailhead on the edge of the road. I have included a Google Maps link of the latitude and longitude and the StreetView.
Google Maps Trailhead
I would recommend scoping out the trail head when there is sunlight because the trailhead start is marked with a very, very, very small sign. Luckily we had headlamps.
Planning your hikeMany of the reviews of the trail described the trail as having Moderate difficulty. I wouldn't go as far as saying the trail has a High difficulty, but it depends on how you approach the hike. We left the trailhead at 5:30 a.m. and didn't reach the summit until 11:30 a.m. Some reviews mention hiking about 1.5 hours into the trail and camping overnight. Hiking straight to the summit took us 6 hours and it made for a strenuous day. Also consider the weather. If you do not make it to the summit by noon, showers may be developing and for your hike down the summit most of the trails are exposed for around 1 hour. We looked at the weather ahead of time and there wasn't much of a risk for rain.
Camping overnight would have probably made the hike a bit less strenuous. In the first part of the hike, you hike in a valley. When you are 1.5 hours into the hike, there are plenty of places to camp. There is a semi-open field (with plenty of firewood) and camping next to an old cabin that has been torn down. You can see a lot of old campfires, so this is a common strategy and place to camp.
Also consider taking two cars. The Black Cloud trail is strenuous and can take a lot of time to get to the summit. It is a steep trail. Going down the trail may take as much time as going up. We elected to so up the Black Cloud trail (6 hours) and take the South trail back down (2.5 hours). For planning purposes you may want to leave a car at the South trailhead in case you decide NOT to go back down the Black Cloud trailhead. On the day of our hike around 15 people took the Black Cloud trail, us and a group of 10 or so. I didn't see a single person head down the Black Cloud trail from the summit.
The HikeThere are advantages and disadvantages to this trail. As I mentioned before we took the Black Cloud trail up and the South trail down. We could see the North trail from the summit. The Black Cloud trail is hands down the best trail if you want the best views. It is far more scenic. First, you hike up a valley with a few streams and then through a nice field. You also hike in quite a bit of alpine tundra. Another great part about this hike is that you hike along a ridgeline for around 3 hours. Probably the part that is least discussed is that you first summit South Elbert (14,134 ft) before you summit Mount Elbert. South Mount Elbert is considered a sub-peak and not an official 14'er. I still consider it two 14'ers.
Like I mentioned before it's hard to consider this a High difficulty hike because you don't cross any hazards (e.g., narrow crossings, bouldering, free climbing, you don't need crampons in the summer). However, it is very, very strenuous. If you start your hike at the trailhead and intend on going all the way to the summit, it's a 6 hour hike. You start the trail at 9,700 feet and hike to 14,400 feet. After you make it to South Elbert you hike down 500 feet and then you have to hike back up around 800 feet. So in total climbing you are going up over 5,000 feet in elevation from the start of the trail. Also, once you make it to the ridgeline you are above 13,500 feet for over 2 hours (for us 3). It's very hard to hike at that altitude for that long unless you are experienced at that elevation.
Here is a link to Google Maps with the topography visible.
Google Maps: Mount Elbert Elevations
Just a couple of quick notes. There was a box for a sign in sheet on South Elbert, but there wasn't anything in the box. Bring an extra sign-in sheet and a pencil. The box was missing from the main Mount Elbert summit. Also, bring a sign for pictures once you make it to the top (Mount Elbert, the elevation, and the date) and hold it up in your photos.
WeatherWe started early in the morning at the trailhead it was around 45-50 F. The temperature didn't feel like it changed much all the way to the summit; however it probably felt warmer that it really was. It felt warmer because we didn't have any wind or clouds the day of our hike. The sun at that altitude makes you feel warmer than it really is outside. There were people in shorts and T-shirts that came up the South trail. Be prepared with much warmer clothes in case you have wind and cloud cover. Also, note we did this hike in August and the high temperatures in Leadville were around 70F. The forecast at 13,000 was around 45F. Here is a link to the National Weather Service's forecast close to the summit of Elbert.
National Weather Service forecast