Black Cloud Trailhead
We accidentally drove way past the Black Cloud Trailhead. Just a tip, it's right across from a small hotel on the road. Small sign, but well marked and plenty of parking once you find it.
Our group of 3 hiked up 4th of July weekend, so we took the Black Cloud trail to avoid too many other people. There were about 10-20 others at the summit, so we were glad we took this trail because there was only one other group on the trail with us. It was also a beautiful, beautiful hike up some amazing valleys. HIGHLY recommended route.
Fitness and Experience
This was the first 14er for two of us from Waco, TX, so we knew the altitude would be an issue. All of us are in what I'd call good but not awesome shape. I know that's subjective, so lets say we probably work out an equivalent to running 3 miles a few times a week at a 9 minute pace (we really mountain bike and play sports, but it's about the same I think).
Hiking experience wise for us not tons of experience, but not total rookies either. Mostly dayhiking and a little bit of backpacking from time to time. Only one of us had done any hiking at altitude, and that was an easier 14er the weekend before as a day trip, so that was the big unknown for us. No mountaineering experience for any of us; definitely not needed for Elbert though.
Altitude Thoughts and Camping
To help with altitude, we flew in to Denver, spent the night in Boulder, then drove to the trailhead and carried packs up to 11,300 at the last stream you cross and spent the night there. There's an old wheelbarrow and old cabin thing here, so you can't miss it. Good place to refill the water too. This was about 45 minutes below treeline. There are two beautiful valleys to camp in next to streams on the way up. This short hike took us about 1.5-2 hours. This was just an incredible place to camp, HIGHLY recommended. The stars up there are awesome. We just left the heavy stuff there and took small packs to the summit. Worked great. We also figured this would be a good retreat in case a big storm came up. We each took 2 liters of water up, which worked out well and left a safe reserve.
We left the next day about 7:30 am. The trail was well marked, but on the way back it was helpful to have the map because there's turn you can miss right at the top of the switchback part near the cairn. A few snow patches here and there, but nothing on the trail. The switchbacks are steep, but nothing technical. The rocks at the top were no problem, and the two 14er summits was kinda cool. I don't know what time we summited, but maybe 11?
Once you get to the top of Elbert, you go down, then up, then down, then up, etc a little bit, so don't forget about that.
Just one foot in front of the other, lots of snacks and water. It was VERY windy the entire time above treeline, and windproof clothes made a big difference. There were some very unprepared idiots at the top with teenage girls freezing to death in shorts. They were blue in the lips, and it's a good thing a storm didn't come in, because they would have been in real trouble. Needless to say, they didn't seem to be having fun.
On the flip side, there were some very well equipped and prepared people there with an infant. They are my idols.
We went pretty slow, and made it back to the campsite around 3 pm, then packed back up and made it back to the trailhead about 5 pm. So, a long day with 9.5 hours of hiking, but we were in no hurry.
It should be obvious, but if you're a flatlander, don't underestimate it. We initially thought maybe we were being too cautious with our acclimatization plan, but there was a group on our trail also from low altitude. 2 of them turned around pretty early, and 3 kept going. One of those got pretty bad altitude sickness, and eventually they called Search and Rescue for help. Search and Rescue in that area is apparently very underfunded, and it like one dude with his cell phone. They got down okay, but we were a little freaked out by it, and obviously they were too.
We drank tons of water and went slow. We all got small headaches, but nothing bad.
Just a truly awesome hike that would make anyone fall in love with this kind of hiking as long as you're prepared and do things right. The Black Cloud Trail was a great pick, so glad we went that way!
We had buffered in extra time in case there was bad weather, but things worked out great, so we had time to go climb Mt. Massive too. Trip report over there if you're interested.