From the base of Mount Elbert. Photo by Jerry L.
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.
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. Please note the below photo and route graphics by Kane which shows several of the less common routes and variations of routes of Mt. Elbert. The most popular and standard routes for Mt. Elbert are the South Mount Elbert Trail and the North Mount Elbert Trail as described below.
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. See the left side bar or click here for the South Mt. Elbert Trail.
North Mt. Elbert Trailhead: (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. See the left side bar or click here for the North Mt. Elbert Trail.
South Halfmoon Creek Trailhead: (10,240) Follow directions to the North Mt. Elbert Trailhead except continue another 2.1 miles to the signed South Halfmoon Creek trailhead.
Black Cloud Trailhead: (9700 ft) From the intersection of U.S. 24 and CO 82: West on CO 82 for 10.5 miles to a right turn (north) to the signed trailhead. See the left side bar or click here for the Black Cloud Trail.
Echo Canyon Trailhead: (10,000 ft) From the intersection of U.S. 24 and CO 82: West on CO 82 for 12.5 miles to a right turn (north) where there is a cabin and a sign for Echo Canyon.
Red TapeNo permits or fees are required to park, climb, or hike.
Mt. Elbert is located in the Leadville Ranger District of the San Isabel National Forest.
Leadville Ranger District, San Isabel National Forest, 2013 N. Poplar, Leadville, CO 80461 Phone: (719) 486-0749 Fax: (719) 486-0928.
When To Climb
As with most Colorado high peaks, June through September is considered the summer climbing season. However, Mt. Elbert is also climbed in the dead of winter by experienced mountaineers. It is a popular ski mountaineering destination due to low avalanche danger on several of the routes. Louis Dawson recommends using the South Mt. Elbert Trail and the North Mt. Elbert Trail for winter ascents. Violent thunderstorms are a daily occurance in summer. Plan to be off the summit or ridges by early afternoon to avoid lightning danger. Start very early and allow 6-8 hours for climb and descent.
Winter Climbing of Mt. Elbert
Winter is a great time to climb Mt. Elbert. Afternoon thunderstorms are not an issue, but winter brings an entire new set of conditions that must be considered. The standard winter route is via the east ridge (South Mt. Elbert Trail) which begins at the overlook near Lakeview Campground. The 4WD road to the upper trailhead is closed in winter.
This is a great winter route because there is no avalanche danger if you stick to the route. However, do not take the mountain lightly in winter. Since the 4WD road is closed, this equates to an 11-mile round-trip climb. Due to the distance, some climb Mt. Elbert in winter as an overnighter, with a camp either at the 4WD upper trailhead or on the shoulder in the conifer just below treeline. But most still climb it in a one-day push....however, expect a LONG day. The road to the upper 4WD trailhead is easy to follow and snowshoes will sometimes be needed. Once at the upper trailhead, the route finding can be tricky because the trail cannot be seen (due to snow). Once you reach the upper trailhead, cross the footbridge and head northeast past the ponds (on the right) until reaching this sign a short distance later. Continue past the sign approximately 200 yards until coming to a second sign where you turn a hard left (northwest). Climb northwest up the steep slope through the aspen forest. With luck, you'll run into the switchbacks, but if not, the general rule is to head directly northwest until reaching the shoulder just below treeline. Normally, previous hikers have created a "trench" in the snow to follow, but after a large fresh snowfall, the trench may not be evident. Also, there are sometimes orange ribbons tied to trees to mark the winter route up through the apens. Once on the shoulder, follow the standard route using the maps below.
Gear: Ice axe and crampons are generally not needed; however, conditions may dictate otherwise. Normally, snowshoes are a MUST from the trailhead until reaching treeline, but sometimes they are needed all the way to the top depending on conditions and/or recent snow and winds. Or....they may not be needed at all if the snow is hard packed. The upper ridge above treeline is windswept and snowshoes are not generally needed.
Camping and Lodging[img:204101:alignleft:medium:Beaver Lake. Photo by Panhandler]
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: 4 miles west of Leadville on CO 300. (719) 486-1031. Full service RV campground. Showers available.
Lodging: In Twin Lakes, The Nordic Inn Bed and Breakfast is the best place to stay for Mt. Elbert climbers.  John Slater, owner, has being running the Nordic for 18 years and is an expert on the mountain. The Nordic Inn is highly recommended.   Further down highway 82, the Mt. Elbert Lodge, B&B and cabins, is within walking distance to two trailheads, Black Cloud and Echo Canyon. Leadville, Aspen, and Buena Vista offer the closest hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts outside of Twin Lakes. Aspen, to the west, also has lodging but is considerably more expensive. There is a hostel in Leadville at 500 E. 7th which has $3.00 showers and rooms for $15.00/night. (719) 486-9334.
Mountain ConditionsMost of the trails to the summit are well maintained and easy to follow. In fact, in some sections above treeline, the trails have become multi-trails where people have started new ones to avoid the deep ruts of the old trails. Try to avoid starting new trails and stick to the established path to minimize impact. Treeline is at approximately 12,000 ft; therefore, you have about 2400 ft of climbing in weather-exposed terrain.
Twin Lakes and Mt. Elbert Weather
Weather and Current Condtions
MapsSan Isabel National Forest (U.S. Forest Service)
Quadrangles: Mount Elbert, Mount Massive (USGS)
Trails Illustrated #127 - Aspen/Independence Pass
Latitude 40 - Aspen/Crested Butte/Gunnison
Note: The trail for the South Mt. Elbert trail is marked incorrectly on the Mt. Elbert 1/24 quad. The correct route is displayed in the maps below.
A cornice near the summit of Mt. Elbert.
Photo by Trevor Simmons
- Leadville Weather
- Leadville Ranger Station, San Isabel National Forest
Fantastic site with more information than can be put on a SP page.
- Town of Leadville Website
Official Leadville, Colorado website with lodging, dining, activities, and history. Very comprehensive site with lots of information.
- Town of Buena Vista Website
Official site for Buena Vista with lodging, dining, and activites for the local area.
- Town of Aspen Website
Aspen, Colorado website with lodging, dining, and activities for the local area.
Another site for Mt. Elbert routes, pictures, and information.
- Colorado Avalanche Information
- Lakeview Camground Reservations
Reservations for Lakeview Campground near Twin Lakes. Also reservations for Forest Service campgrounds all over the U.S.
- Jacke and Alan Ellis' Trip Report
Photos and text of a climb of Mt. Elbert during the SummitPost Gathering in June 2003.
- Mount Elbert (03/13/2004)
- Mount Elbert Northeast Ridge Route in September 2005
- A Hike up Mt. Elbert, October 2, 2003 (Video)
- Nice trip report of Mt. Elbert climb via the Black Cloud Trail in 2006.
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