Colorado's 14,433-foot Mount Elbert is a gentle giant that stands as the highest peak in the state, as well as the tallest summit in the Rocky Mountains. Uplifted by tectonic forces some 28 millions years ago, Mount Elbert has been polished by glaciers, wind, and water into its modern day dome-like profile.
But despite its lofty credentials, the standard hike to the top is a non-technical walk-up. In fact, it's generally considered to be one of the easier 14,000-foot peaks (aka the “14ers”). That’s not to say it’s a cakewalk, but with a little fitness, respectful acclimation, and some smart planning, this welcoming highpoint—and its awe-inspiring views—is in reach for aspiring hikers. Here's how to do it.
Preparing for Mount Elbert
Many of the mountainous logistics for Mount Elbert are already neatly in place. It has an easily accessed main trailhead, an excellent and well maintained trail, plenty of helpful signage, and a wealth of information available, from trip reports to turn-by-turn guides ( 14ers.com has a very helpful Mount Elbert section ). The responsibility for hikers therefore involves how best to prepare their bodies and minds for the adventure.
First, there’s the high altitude. Hiking over 14,000 feet is no joke. Even very fit athletes who ignore the consequences of oxygen-thin air can find themselves disabled by acute mountain sickness (AMS). Thankfully, the human body is quite good at adapting to these modestly high altitudes. If coming from sea level, it’s a very good idea to spend at least 2-3 days over 7,000 feet, then another 2-3 days exploring between 9,000-13,000 feet before going for Mount Elbert.
The adage of “hike high, sleep low” is a very good one. For Colorado locals or those coming from a higher elevation, it’s still a good idea to do some training hikes in the 12,000-13,000 foot range and camping a night or two over 8,500 feet before attempting the Mount Elbert. Less preparation doesn’t mean you won’t summit—there are plenty of people who head up the mountain from their homes of 5,000 feet or lower—but if you want to feel your best on the hike, proper acclimation is a wise idea.
Then there’s fitness. While the trail itself is non-technical, class 1 or easy class 2, there’s still the matter of gaining 4,400 feet along the 9-mile round-trip Mount Elbert Trail. Training hikes of a comparable distance at lower altitude are a very good idea to gauge your fitness level. Strong hikers can be up and down Elbert in about 5 hours but the normal round trip time at an average pace is about 7 hours. You certainly don’t need elite levels of fitness but you should be able to take on 4-7 hour hikes comfortably before trying Mount Elbert.
Finally, it’s important to listen to your body. Stay hydrated, well fed, protected from the sun, and a little bottle of Advil/Tylenol is a good idea for the inevitable aches and pains. Your body works hard to digest heavy foods at altitude, so energy gels and blocks are great fuel in contrast to sandwiches and bagels. Aches, pains, and a slight headache are all par for the course, but if you begin to feel nauseous, dizzy, or have a severe headache, that’s the altitude telling you it’s time to head down. Note that feeling a bit winded after just a few steps is perfectly normal, especially towards the top: As long as you aren’t getting dizzy and you get your breath back, you should be able to continue up.
Standard Route Description: Mount Elbert Trail
There are several ways up the peak, but the most popular is the Mount Elbert Trail via the Mount Elbert Trailhead , where parking is plentiful thanks to a large lot plus an overflow lot. Starting at 10,040 feet, this high trailhead follows the Mount Elbert Trail through a vanilla-scented pine forest up to treeline, with one major split where the Colorado Trail breaks off from the main path. Stay on the Mount Elbert Trail. Beyond this, the trail breaches treeline 1.5 miles in and from here, the rest of the way up is a well defined, slightly rocky path.
Be warned, there are a pair of false summits en route to the top. The toughest hiking is in bypassing these small hills because you’re well over 13,000 feet and the trail is at its rockiest. The summit itself, 4.5 miles in, is mostly flat with plenty of room and a half dozen wind shelters. Exposure along the entire route is minimal, even at the top. Return back down the way you came.
If You Go
Take U.S. 24 south out of of Leadville and turn onto Colorado 300 and cross the railroad tracks. Drive 0.7 mile and turn left onto County Road 11 toward the Halfmoon Creek. After another 1.2 miles, turn right on the dirt road to Halfmoon Creek. Drive on the good dirt road (except for the usual washboard and potholes) for 5 miles to the Mt. Elbert trailhead on the left.
Note there are several free dispersed campsites along the way, plus a few pay campgrounds as well as the paid car camping at the Elbert Creek campground at the trailhead. One local’s secret is that there is good, free, dispersed camping just past the Mount Elbert/Mount Massive Trailheads along the 4x4 road (which most vehicles can navigate to get to the first campsites, about 0.25 miles past the Mount Elbert Trailhead). There is a restroom at the Mount Elbert Trailhead as well as at Elbert Creek’s campground.
What to Bring on Summit Day
- Plenty of water and snacks
- First aid kit with ibuprofen (Advil) and/or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Sunscreen and hat/visor
- Layers including a warm jacket, non-cotton base layers, winter hat, gloves, and rain shell; it can get below 20 degrees on the top, even in the summer
- Poles are a very good idea
- Map and compass/GPS/navigation app
- High-quality sunglasses
- Footwear: light hiking shoes are best for July-September; if there’s snow, wear hiking boots
- Electrolyte-rich sports drink or Endurolytes (or similar) electrolyte supplements for water
- Start early! Be on the trail by 6 am at the latest, though earlier, pre-dawn starts (4:30 am) are best. When afternoon thunderstorms roll in (around 1 pm), the upper portions of the trail are wildly exposed.
- Pace yourself! Starting out too fast is the best way to fail on Mount Elbert. As you get higher, your pace will naturally slow down and that’s normal. An odd but helpful tip: relax your toes, feet, and your grip on your poles. Stay loose: Any extra tension means your body is working harder than it has to.
- Be vigilant about sun protection. Even if you are acclimated and fit, a sunburn headache and dehydration can make your post-hike hours miserable.
- Make sure to check the weather forecast beforehand, as cell reception is spotty at best in the area.
- Finally, be nice! A lot of hikers attempt Mount Elbert, so you likely won’t have the place to yourself. You may see some struggling while others may be trail running up; so it goes in Colorado. This is a social mountain trail, so if you’re looking for solitude, consider other routes such as the southeast ridge.