Standing among the red-tinged rocks of this mountain’s summit, reached via a long ridge-line that tapers off in two directions, you’d be forgiven for believing, momentarily, that you were atop a mountain on the planet Mars.
Name: Mount Elbert
Height: 4,401 m (14,440 ft)
Location: In the Sawatch Range, central Colorado, USA.
First Climbed: 1874 by Henry W Stuckle.
Climb Time: 6-9 hours
Best Time to Climb: June to September, though possible year-round.
Introduction to Mount Elbert.
On Mount Elbert you are in fact very much on Earth! It is bang in the middle of the US state of Colorado, near the hardened mid-American town of Leadville. The peak stands at the pinnacle of the Colorado 14ers club and is second only to Mount Whitney (4,421m/ 14,505ft) in the contiguous United States.
Better still, Mount Elbert proves to be an entirely accessible peak, offering up a series of very accessible hikes to its summit. It is an adventure for just about anyone.
The reward is the view from the top. Surrounded by numerous ranges in the extraordinary Colorado landscape, Mount Elbert is a peak well-worth bagging for any nature lover or mountaineer – armchair or otherwise!
History of Mount Elbert.
The mountain was named after the controversial governor of Colorado, Samuel Elbert in 1873. The local miners offered him this honour after he brokered a deal with the indigenous Ute tribe to gain access to over 3 million acres of their land for mining and railroad activity.
Deals such as this were used to wrestle the last of the land from these indigenous populations, by seemingly democratic means. So while popular among the incoming population for opening up a land of plenty to them, the costs to those who had occupied the land for centuries previously were enormous.
- Read our guide to the Rocky Mountains
- Read our Introduction to the Colorado 14ers
- Browse a list of books about the Colorado 14ers.
Mount Elbert’s height was recalculated in 2002 (though the measurement pre-dates this by several decades), lowering its summit elevation from by 1 m (3 ft) to 4,401 m (14,440 ft). Despite this, many local climbers prefer to use the old measurement, perhaps because of the insecurities that were bred by an extraordinary incident on the 1970s.
A group of people attempted to raise the elevation of nearby Mount Massive (4,398 m/ 14,428 ft) to lift its summit above Mount Elbert. This would thus make Mount Massive the tallest mountain in the area, relegating the less impressive Mount Elbert to second.
While somewhat unprecedented, this attempt is understandable in a way. While Mount Elbert has two summits and a significant ridge-line that doglegs from south-east to north east, Mount Massive is a far more impressive structure and arguably is more worthy of being the crowning glory of Colorado.
It has five summits exceeding 14,000 ft along its 5km (3-mile) ridge, which runs south-east to north-west. It has more land area above this height than any other mountain in the contiguous United States, but this record doesn’t quite have the allure that being the highest peak does.
However, this temporary re-elevation was only ever short-lived, as Mount Elbert supporters climbed Mount Massive and tore the small cairn down. How it was thought that this temporary lift would last is anyone’s guess, but it does illustrate an interesting geographic division among locals!
Geography of Mount Elbert.
Mount Elbert’s a high-flyer!
It is the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, the state of Colorado, the Colorado 14ers, the Sawatch Range and the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States. It’s located in the San Isabel National Forest in the middle of a undulating landscape of mountain peaks and wide valleys.
The Sawatch Range was formed as part of the Laramide Orogeny; this was a period of uplift along the west of the US that began 70 million years ago and ended around 25 million years ago. The Sawatch Range was, at this stage, connected to the nearby Mosquito Range (to the east) but became separated around 28 million years ago.
The area shows strong evidence of previous glaciation, though no glaciers remain now. This is shown in the moraine fields found on the eastern side of the mountain and the cirque containing a small tarn (mountain lake), also found on this flank.
This also comes to explain the appearance of some local peaks and ridge-lines that are more angular than the curving nature of much of the landscape.
Mount Elbert, and the massif it stands above, is typical of the area.
With a long extended ridge-line housing a number of subsidiary peaks, it borders numerous similarly linear-shaped mountains. This causes the Sawatch Range to appear like a series of veins raised from the Earth, rather than the stand-alone peaks that are typical of stratovolcano formations.
The rocks found at the summit are very old, dating back up to 1.7 billion years. These metamorphic rocks include the abundant quartzite as well as lesser quantities of pegmatite, gneiss and schist.
The top three peaks in the Colorado 14ers (the 53 peaks in Colorado standing above 14,000 ft) are separated by less than 6 m (19 feet).
Mount Elbert is 2.1 m (7 ft) higher than Mount Massive, which is then 3.7 m (12 feet) above Mount Harvard. Mount Massive is also Mount Elbert’s neighbour (in mountain terms), lying 8 km (5 miles) south south-east.
Mount Elbert is located only 20 km (12.5 miles) south-west of Leadville, the isolated town that hosts one of the world’s most gruelling foot races (see below).
Unusually for its height, Mount Elbert does not have a permanent snowpack. This is a result of being surrounded by mountains of a similar height, which leads to lower than expected precipitation at the summit. The warm summer sun also causes snowmelt to occur quickly in the spring and summer seasons.
Wildlife of Mount Elbert.
Mount Elbert’s lower elevations, known as the Montane and Subalpine zones, are thickly wooded up to the tree line. The variety of trees found on the mountain’s slopes are typical of the region and gradually change with the elevation.
The lower slopes contain a mixture of aspen, fir, lodgepole pine and spruce. The routes listed below suggest that you are most likely to be walking among aspen and pine at these levels.
At subalpine levels, which extend to the tree line, conifers become the dominant species. Again, this is a very typical pattern in the mountain woodland in this area of the US.
At the alpine level up to the summit, whose gentle curve, moderate elevation and broken up rocks do offer a favourable environment for flora, you’ll discover some fantastically named, low-lying plants.
These include the sky-pilot, a purple flowering plant endemic to the nearby Sierra Nevada Range; the old-man-of-the-mountain, whose stout stem is covered in what looks like a great white beard; and the mountain aven, a low-lying mat plant from the rose family, whose flowers are white and yellow.
In the summer, the grazers arrive on the lower slopes and flat meadow sections. Elks, mule deer, grouse and turkeys can all be found in these areas, particularly along the Black Cloud trail (see below).
Around the forests, you may come across a weasel-like creature called the pine marten. This brown predatory creature, with its long, slender figure, has a bushy tail almost as long as its body. It can be spotted in the trees and the undergrowth hunting, though in winter it becomes primarily nocturnal.
Mountain sheep, marmots, pika and the occasional grizzly bear are found up in the Alpine zone. The bears roam over a vast area, and so their habitat is harder to define. Despite their size, they are incredibly sensitive to changes in the environment and so have become less common in this area, as is common across the increasingly populated wilderness areas of the US.
Mountain sheep, marmots and pika are found higher up, though in winter the latter two will be hibernating. If you’re not sure what a pika is, have a look online. There are a plethora of videos of pika, whose big round ears and chubby body earn them adoration as one of the world’s cutest creatures.
One curious bird to try and see (a particular challenge in winter) is the ptarmigan or lagopus, a member of the grouse family. These squat birds have evolved to prefer a defence strategy of disguise rather than escape, as their white plumage helps them evade predators in the winter. Their name, translated from Ancient Greek, means ‘hare foot’ in reference to their hair-covered feet.
First Ascent of Mount Elbert.
Very little information is available about the first ascent.
It is understood that it was made by surveyor Henry W Stuckle in 1874. He was working as part of the Hayden survey, a large sweeping geological survey of the Rocky Mountains, led by Dr F V Hayden, which began in 1867.
Given the ease of the ascent, it is safe to assume that, although Stuckle was the first recorded ascent, he was not the first man to stand on Elbert’s summit. However, like so many of the easily climbable mountains in this state, the true first ascent is now surely impossible to discover.
Mount Elbert was one of the first mountains of this height in the world to be climbed in a motor vehicle.
In 1949, a Jeep was driven to the summit; given the limited technology of that era this was quite a feat. Supposedly achieving this first wasn’t the trip’s primary motivation however, as the car was filled with people there to simply assess the potential for opening up a ski resort!
Climbing guide to Mount Elbert.
There are five principal routes up Mount Elbert. The two most popular are both rated as Class I: the South Mount Elbert trail and North Mount Elbert trail.
The South Mount Elbert trail is popular both in summer and winter.
In the summer, this route is a 12.2 km (7.6-mile) round trip, climbing 1,217 m (3,993 ft). This is a comfortable distance to cover in a single day, as the terrain is of no more than occasion moderate difficulty. However, plan to start early to avoid the violent afternoon storms.
In the winter, this is the preferred route as there is no avalanche risk. But it is a long round-trip at 18.5 km (11 mile), as you have to walk a longer approach, as vehicles cannot pass up the track to the upper trailhead.
There are two trailheads you can begin this trail from.
The upper trailhead is preferable route but is only accessible by 4WD routes. It is found at 3,182 m (10,440 ft) up a bumpy, off-road track. The lower trailhead is accessible by paved road but offers a much longer day’s walking. Beginning from here at 2,914 m (9,560 ft), it is a 18 km (11.2 miles) round-trip.
The route itself is very simple, as it’s clearly marked from car park to summit. From the upper trailhead car park (you walk up from the lower trailhead to there) cross the creek to the north via the footbridge then walk up to the intersection of trails and turn left (north-west).
This first section is steep, ending with as series of switchbacks through idyllic aspen forest. This will help to keep you cool in the summer. A level section of meadows and scattered conifers follows, leading to the turn up towards the summit ridge. Once gained, head up the ridge to finish with a few switchbacks to earn the view from the summit.
The descent follows the same route back down.
The North Mount Elbert trail begins near Leadville at, unsurprisingly, the North Mount Elbert trailhead. This is a large car park with basic facilities.
From the trailhead, follow the Colorado trail until the North Mount Elbert trail junction. Here, turn right and begin to climb the mountain’s north-east ridge. The tree line is about halfway up this ridge, revealing the first of several false summits.
Some way further on, the trail will become steeper with more scree. This is the route’s hardest section and lasts little more than half a kilometre. The climb to the true summit is over a gentler incline and soon enough you’ll have views out over the surrounding ranges.
The descent is by the same route, or by the alternative South Mount Elbert trail.
But for a much less travelled and more challenging route, the Black Cloud trail may be more enticing. This can be hiked over 1 or 2 days.
Heading in from the south but up the west side of the mountain, this route is so untraveled that you may even get to walk it alone. It also crosses the peak called South Elbert, which lacks discrete mountain status, as its prominence is too low, but does still have a sign declaring this high point.
It is recommended to refer to the detailed notes in the link posted above, as the trailhead can be tricky to locate. The route follows the Black Cloud creek through woodlands, and there is a need to cross the water several times as the path runs out and diverts across it. This section is also relatively steep.
A boulder field greets the opening up of the terrain before more woodland, in which you’ll find an old cabin that is commonly used as an overnight camp, should you wish to make it a two-day hike. Switchbacks lead you above the tree line to gain the ridge, then head up to the South Elbert summit, descend 60 m (200 ft) to the saddle to hike up to the Mount Elbert summit.
This ascent takes up to 6 hours and is more strenuous than the other routes. Descent can be via any of the listed routes.
Information on trekking around Mount Elbert.
As Mount Elbert itself is a relatively straight-forward ascent, let’s focus on what’s available nearby that poses more of a challenge.
- Read our guide to the Top Long Distance Hikes in USA & Canada
- What to take on a hike
- Browse a list of books about the Colorado 14ers.
The Mount Massive ascent is a class II hike, so slightly tougher than what Mount Elbert poses. There are several routes (and several summits as we’ve seen) but the two primary routes are:
• The Mount Massive Trail is a 21 km (13-mile) round-trip with 1,284 m (4,212 ft) elevation gain, navigating the peak from the south-east. It pushes the limit of its class II ratings at times, though much of the lower approach hiking is only a class I challenge.
• The West Couloir Route (via Halfmoon Creek Trail) is a 14.5 km (9-mile) round-trip over more challenging scree-like terrain. It climbs 1,180 m (3,870 ft) and, as it is not an ‘official’ trail, can be more difficult to navigate.
Or why not have an ultra-adventure?
Started in 1983, the Leadville Trail 100 is one of the most gruelling ultra races in the world. Set up by Ken Chouber in order to bring some positive publicity into the down-trodden and isolated town, this race heads up, down, over and around the nearby mountain range.
It was made more famous in the early 1990s by the presence of the near-mythical Mexican runners, the Tarahumara, who won the race two years in a row. This was popularised behind the ultra marathon community by Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run.
And should you wish to join them, the race happens in mid-August each year – right in the midst of the Colorado summer!