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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.