Despite stunning views and a rigorous hike, Elbert Creek Trail remains less traveled than many others in the area. However, the crowds will gather here on a bright fall day to watch the changing colors.
Elbert Creek Trail is a hearty hike clocking in at 9.9 miles with steep sections throughout, but the rewards, especially in the fall, are worth the effort. At the trailhead, navigate your way through the cattle gates, being sure to close them behind you, and begin your hike along a flat, shaded trail. Enjoy this brief section, as the remainder of the hike follows a more vertical line.
After a creek crossing that is facilitated by a log bridge and a rope handle, the ascent through the aspens begins. On this narrow trail, be aware of other trail users, including horses, as this is a common ride year round. Remember that hikers, runners, and bikers should yield to riders and stand on the downhill side of the trail when a horse and rider approach.
The switchbacks continue far up the mountain until the trail begins to head due west through more aspens and into a meadow where an old cabin sits to the left and wildflowers abound in the summer time. Just beyond this point the trail forks; to reach the overlook on Purgatory Cliffs take the option on the right.
The trail gets very steep from here on, but remains simple to navigate with the exception of a few tree roots and mud if there have been any mountain storms, which is apt to happen in the late summer and fall.
When the trail begins to emerge from the shadows of the tall pines, follow it east as it rambles over moss covered rocks and exposed tree roots. The cliff band emerges abruptly from the forest showing, among other landmarks, Purgatory Flats, the Animas River Basin, Potato Hill, Engineer, Twilight peak and the Needles, Pigeon Peak, and Electra Lake. In the fall, veins of yellow aspens contrast with the snow capped peaks and evergreen valley.
What Makes It Great
The views from Purgatory Cliffs at the top of the Elbert Creek trail overlooking the Needles are beautiful no matter what time of year you scale the heights; however, there is almost no better place to witness the changing aspens in the fall.
Because the Elbert Creek trailhead begins at just above 8,500 feet, hikers will witness the landscape transforming from the desert sagebrush and scrub oak of Durango (6,512 feet) to aspen groves and alpine meadows of the higher elevation. The first half of the hike travels through one of these groves and the light that is filtered through the leaves becomes bright gold in the morning.
Who is Going to Love It
Hikers looking for views will not be disappointed with the views from Purgatory Cliffs, which include the surrounding mountains and surrounding evergreen valley. Leaf peepers on the hunt for a show of color will find the changing aspens in the fall stunning and very well worth the effort of reaching the peak.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
A quick 20-minute drive north on Highway 550 from Durango will find you at the Needles Country Store. Turn left into the parking lot, but parking for the trail is limited to a few spots on the far south end near the empty cattle pens. There are no fees or permits required in the San Juan National Forest where Elbert Creek Trail is located.