There are three approaches to Mt. Elbert: the North Elbert Trail,
the South Elbert Trail, and the more ambitious Black Cloud Trail.
Since we were staying at Twin Lakes the South Elbert Trail seemed
to be the logical choice.
Strangely, for such a popular hiking destination, the experts can't
seem to agree on the distance of any of the three approaches. I've
done enough highpoint hikes to have some feel for how many miles
I've covered. For that reason I'll go with the 6.2 miles published
in A Climbing Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners by Borneman
and Lampert for the South Elbert Trail. I've rounded their 6.2 mile
one-way distance off to
6.0 since the trailhead has been moved from the back end of the
Lakeview Campground to a parking area above the campground on
County Route 24.
To reach this trailhead from Leadville, Colorado proceed south on
US 24 for appoximately 15 miles to State Route 82. Turn right and
go approximately 4 miles. Turn right onto County Route 24. This is
the road to Lakeview Group Campground. After one mile you will
come to the campground entrance. Proceed past that for another
0.4 miles and park at the trailhead parking lot on the left.
Hike down the dirt road that turns left off of County Route 24
just above the parking area. It
will lead you a short distance to an intersection with the Colorado
Trail. From that point the Colorado Trail follows this dirt road.
Follow the road for roughly a mile and a half to where it ends.
At that point there is a parking area and some primitive camp
spots. If you have 4-wd or a high clearance vehicle you could drive
to this spot and shorten your round trip hike by about three miles.
Past the parking area continue on the Colorado Trail to a
well-marked intersection with the South Elbert Trail. This
intersection is approximately 2 miles from the County Route 24
trailhead. An interesting alternative would be to mountain bike to
this spot and begin your hike at this junction.
Turn left onto the South Elbert Trail. The trail is well-used and
easy to follow for the next four miles to the summit.
From the trailhead to the South Elbert Trail junction the elevation
gain is moderate. After the junction the grade is steep the rest
of the way, but it is just a tough hike -- no climbing or
boulder scrambling is required.
At my normal pace I expect this hike would have taken me about
nine hours. I usually figure two m.p.h. on the mild grades, one
m.p.h. going up the steep grades, and 1-3/4 m.p.h. going down.
Throw in a half hour for lunch and photos on the summit and that's
where I came up with nine hours. This formula has been incredibly
accurate for me on previous highpoint dayhikes.
On this particular day, however, we took 14 hours to complete the
hike. My hiking partner, Diane Baker, underwent serious emergency
surgery exactly two months before. This hike was a goal she had
set as part of her effort to get back in shape. Somewhere
between 500-1000 vertical feet from the top we began to have
doubts she would make it, but slow and steady did the trick.
What an incredible feeling for her when she finally made it!
What an incredible feat for someome whose life hung in the
balance on an operating table only two months ago! I
suspect we both would have been crying tears of joy if there had
not been about a dozen other hikers at the summit.
Here's some idea what to expect if you choose this approach:
From the trailhead to the end of the 4-wd road the scenery is
nothing special, except for a couple of nice overlooks of the
Twin Lakes. After the road ends the trail enters an attractive
area within a dense growth of small aspens. This continues uphill
past the South Elbert Trail junction.
A mile or so later the tree cover has gradually changed to
evergreens. During the next mile or so the trees become stunted
and less frequent. Finally there are a few tenacious, scrubby trees
that look more like shrubs and then you emerge above the tree line.
The views are, of course, excellent from this point on. The footing
gradually changes from a dirt path to broken rock, but there is
no boulder jumble to scramble up like so many other highpoints.
Considering it's the second highest peak in the lower 48, Elbert
does not have the rugged character you might expect. It's not
disappointing, but not stunning either.
Despite our crack-of-dawn departure, we did not reach the summit
till 1:30 p.m. Luckily there were no dark clouds to chase us off.
Like most western highpoints, an early start is recommended to
avoid the danger of afternoon thunderstorms. If you're considering
the Black Cloud Trail one factor to keep in mind is that
you will be spending a lot of time on exposed ridge tops. If you
have the luxury of a vehicle shuttle, a nice alternative would be
to ascend via Black Cloud and descend via South Elbert.
One final word of advice, if you hike up and back on the South
Elbert Trail take a close look at the intersection with the
with the North Elbert Trail, which is near the summit. You
could easily miss your turn on the way back down. We didn't, but
maybe because we had been forewarned.