| Mount Elbert, East Ridge
Mount Elbert was named for Samuel Hitt Elbert, who was a Colorado Territorial Governor and Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. He helped to organize the Republican Party in Colorado. This Sawatch 14er is in the San Isabel National Forest just a few miles southwest of Leadville. At 14,433 feet, it is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains. Mt. Whitney in California is the only taller mountain in the 48 contiguous states.
Mt. Elbert can be approached from several trailheads, but the East Ridge Route from the South Mt. Elbert 4WD Trailhead offers the shortest approach. The Class 1 trail goes all the way to the summit. The roundtrip is eight miles, and the elevation gained is 4,100 feet.
The arduous journey began at 2:30 a.m. when my 17-year-old son Ian and I rolled out of the bunk. We met KeithK at the Morrison park and ride, and headed west on I-70 to Frisco. At Frisco, we turned south and drove to Leadville on CO 91. From Leadville, we drove south to Twin Lakes on CO 24. At Twin Lakes, we headed west on CO 82 for four miles. A brown sign marks the road to the South Mt. Elbert Trailhead. We drove past the parking lot at the trailhead, and continued on a rough dirt road for 1.8 miles. At that point, a sign marks the junction with the Continental Divide Trail. Be sure to turn right at this sign; we went straight, and followed an absolutely terrible mining road pretty far before we realized our mistake. The 4WD road is certainly not intended for low-clearance vehicles; there are deep ruts, large rocks, and a significant stream crossing. We didn't actually use 4WD, but the superior clearance on Keith's Ford Ranger was surely a blessing.
The South Mount Elbert 4WD Trailhead
The trail starts at a bridge over a creek. The morning was chilly, and there was still frost on the bridge. Quite a bit of water was flowing in the willow-lined creek. The first part of the trail was nearly level. After about ¼ of a mile, we took the left fork of the trail as the South Mount Elbert Trail split from the Continental Divide/Colorado Trail.
This sign marks the junction of the South Mount Elbert Trail and the Continental Divide/Colorado Trail
The trail ascends steeply through a serene Aspen forest. Wildflowers were particularly numerous in the many openings in the forest. The sky-blue Columbines were at the peak of their bloom.
Aspen trees on the lower part of the South Mount Elbert Trail
Columbines in full bloom
As we ascended towards treeline, the Aspens gave way to Spruce trees and alpine wildflowers became more common. To our left, we could see South Mt. Elbert towering over Bartlett Gulch.
South Mount Elbert and Bartlett Gulch
When we emerged from the trees, we faced a vast stretch of green tundra.
Tundra on Mt. Elbert
KeithK working his way up above treeline on the South Mount Elbert Trail
We climbed steadily as the trail headed northwest toward Elbert's East Ridge. I could see hikers on the Northeast Ridge route, and initially mistook them for wildlife until we drew closer. We hit the broad ridge at about 12,400 feet. The ridge was so wide that it did not really seem like a ridge; it was more like a broad slope. The snow-ringed summit still seemed quite far away. We had ascended 2,000 feet, and we were only halfway to the summit!
Mount Elbert's summit from a distance
Looking back down the trail from the East Ridge
The trail took a gradual but surprising turn to the southwest at about 13,600 feet. The grade had been relentlessly steep up to this point, but we enjoyed a brief respite as the trail leveled off a bit and bore us to the south side of the peak. At a point that was nearly due south of the summit, we began to switchback up the talus slope. We still had 500 or more feet to ascend, but the end was in sight. I could clearly see hikers milling around on the summit, and could hear an occasional celebratory whoop. The trail was good, and it was simply a matter of winding our way up to the summit.
Hikers gathering on Mount Elbert's summit
There were quite a few people already on the summit, including a few 14ers.com members. We signed the summit register, and collapsed in a wind shelter for a well-deserved snack. There were some interesting people up there, and I had the pleasure of meeting a charming and playful female bulldog. Bulldogs don't seem like to be built for moving long distances, but this one had plenty of energy to spare.
Mount Elbert's summit
Greenhouseguy and son Ian on Mount Elbert's summit
KeithK preparing to descend from Mount Elbert's summit
The weather held out for us, and there were only puffy white cumulus clouds in the sky. We stayed on the summit for an hour or more, and enjoyed some spectacular views. To the east, we could see the Twin Lakes and the Mount Elbert Forebay. To the south, La Plata Peak stood out in the foreground and the Collegiate Peaks were readily visible in the background. We had a beautiful view of the valley around South Halfmoon Creek to the west, and the Elks Range stood out in the hazy distance. The aptly-named Mount Massive dominated the northern view. One can truly appreciate its mass from this vantage point.
Twin Lakes and Mount Elbert Forebay to the southeast
La Plata Peak stole the show to the south
View to the west from Mount Elbert
Mount Massive dominated the view to the north
We had a lengthy descent ahead of us, so we reluctantly bailed off of the summit. A few raindrops fell, but there was no thunder or lightning. Animal life was virtually nonexistent, but we saw several ground squirrels and a couple of marmots. The marmots were somewhat shy, and I had to use a zoom lens to get an image.
Obligatory marmot shot
The wind picked up when we got back below treeline, and the Aspen leaves fluttering in the wind sounded like running water. The trail seemed to stretch on forever, but we all made it safely back to the truck.
Ian descending through the Aspens
People describe this trail as an "easy" 14er, but don't underestimate Mt. Elbert. The trail is long and steep, and the elevation gain is significant. Out-of-shape hikers will certainly suffer, and may get turned around without a summit. I was proud of my son for topping out Mt. Elbert only 48 hours after he arrived from the flatlands of Pittsburgh, PA. I was pleased with myself for finding the summit after freezing three toes during an unsuccessful attempt last winter (the Elbert Weee! Gathering). Keith was certainly happy to bag another 14er, but he didn't seem to share my vengeful glee.
Every hiker will take something different away from the experience, but the most memorable scenes for me were the views of La Plata Peak and Mount Massive, and the idyllic hike through the Aspens on the lower part of the trail. I felt it in my quads on Monday morning, but it was well worth the effort.