“The highest mountain in Colorado is also one of the easiest 14ers.
— Tyler Prince
Fall Colors · River/Creek · Views · Wildflowers · Wildlife
Mt. Elbert's Northeast Ridge - the route described here - is an easily accessible standard route. It's hard to believe getting to the highest point in Colorado requires so little effort relative to that necessary to summit other 14ers.
Need to Know
While an easy 14er, this is still a long hike. Be ready to spend the better part of the day on the mountain, and bring plenty of water. During monsoon season, make sure you're off the summit by noon at the latest. With a solid 2.5 miles above treeline, it's a long way to cover if you get stuck in a storm.
Average hikers should allow about 6 hrs. round trip.
Note: Even though land management says dogs are to be leashed, you'll see many dogs and few leashes.
Using any 2WD car, drive south on 24 out of Leadville. Just as you're leaving town, turn right onto WB Colorado 300. Drive 0.8 miles and turn left onto County Road 11; there should be signs for Halfmoon Creek. In another 1.2 miles turn right onto a dirt road, following signs to Halfmoon Creek. This TH is accessible to any car, but the dirt road does have some potholes and sharp turns, so pay attention! The North Mt. Elbert TH will be on the left in about 5 miles. It is well-marked, but the parking lot overflows onto the road on busy summer days. There is a latrine in the lot.
From North Elbert Trailhead, start up a clearly marked trail through the trees. In a few hundred yards you'll come to a trail junction. Stay left, and then cross a small creek on a sturdy footbridge. Continue on an excellent and very clear trail, passing the ruins of an old shack. The trail flattens out around 10,600 ft, after which you must descend, painful though it may be, a mere 200 ft before reaching a second junction. Stay off the Colorado Trail, heading to the right. (Note: there are really only two ways to get lost on this hike, and they both involve the Colorado Trail. There are two junctions: stay left, and then stay right.)
Continue up the stellar trail for 1.7 miles from this point, passing a clearing at 11,600' and finally coming to tree line at 11,900 ft. From this point on you'll be in the sun and/or wind, so this is a good time to stop and take a break if you need it. Lather on the sunscreen and prepare for the grade to crank up.
The trail switchbacks up a steep yet reasonable grade, made a fair deal easier by the Colorado Fourteener Initiative's initiative to put in log and stone steps. Near 12,700 ft the ridge will crest, flattening briefly while you pass an alpine pond. The trail is very easy to see from this point, although the summit is not. Be ready for at least a little annoyance - Mt. Elbert boasts not one, not two, but three false summits, the first of which is preceded by the crux of the route, a steep and rocky pitch from about 13,400' to 13,900'.
Once past the steeps, you're not far. Continue up on a rocky trail, which only becomes clearer as you ascend. Pass two more false summits before the real summit finally comes into view at around 14,300 ft. Continue over a mere 100 vertical to attain the summit and become the highest person in Colorado (well, at least in terms of altitude).
Flora & Fauna
Upon breaking through coniferous forest you'll find yourself among wildflowers and overly friendly marmots.
History & Background
Colorado's highest peak, Mt. Elbert is the second highest in the lower 48. Given the lower traffic and requisite permits to climb Mt. Whitney, and the technical difficulty of summiting many of Alaska's highest mountains, there is a good chance that a hiker standing on the summit of Elbert is the highest person in America!