Mt Massive Wilderness, San Isabel National Forest, 6 miles southwest of
Trail: 8.5 -9 miles roundtrip (official estimates vary), 4,700 ft elevation gain
Map: USGS 1:24K MT Elbert
Dogs: Leash control, but this seems to be very loosely interpreted
Webcam: Lake County HS in Leadville
Weather: National Weather Service Forecast
Snow details from NOAA
Mt Elbert is Coloradoís highest peak, at 14, 433. Despite having over fifty 14ers, Colorado does not have the highest: California, with only tfifteen 14ers, boasts the highest peak in the lower 48 states, with Mt Whitney at 14, 494 ft. All peaks in the US take a backseat to Alaskaís Mt McKinley (aka Denali) at 20,320. Thus concludes your brief lesson on US highpoints.
Mt Elbert is part of the incredible Sawatch Range, which includes such massive peaks as, well, Massive, plus La Plata, Huron, Belford, Oxford, Missouri, Harvard, Columbia and Yale. Quite the star-studded cast in this rugged range just west of Leadville, Colorado. Itís truly pleasurable to see it, and naturally after one sees these peaks, one wants to climb them. Thatís all the explanation I can give on our motivation to climb Mt Elbert. Something just draws one to high places.
Early on the morning of July 22, Andra, Christine, and I plus our two canine companions, Makenzie and Frank, loaded our gear and ourselves into the car under cover of a 4AM darkness and quietly drove out of Littleton by way of C470 and then headed west on I-70. All were pleased to see the dawn come clear and crisp with nary a cloud in sight. Just past Frisco, we turned south on Hwy 91 to Leadville, then a little more south to the Half Moon trailhead. There were other cars in the parking lot, but not as many as I anticipated. It was barely light out as we hit the trail, and we were all satisfied at our 6AM start.
Thereís not much to say about the trail except that it goes uphill for a very long time. We plodded along in the cool morning air while the dogs ran up the trail and back down again hundreds of times in front of us. There were so few people around, we gave them a lot of latitude on the trail. We hiked briskly, but comfortably, stopping frequently for water breaks and to catch our breath on some of the more absurdly steep pitches. We stopped for a long break just above treeline, and were henceforth treated to amazing alpine views of surrounding peaks, including Mt Massive to the north. Several people passed by us as we rested, and for a short period, it was a little crowded. We waited until the trail was relatively clear to begin again, this time with fleeces on to blunt the chilling breeze. The dogs were still as excited as ever, and pranced around the tundra, sniffing and saying hello to other dogs who appeared to be having equally grand days out.
Having read about the peak, we werenít lulled into believing we were almost there as we approached the false summit, and took it in stride when a whole other peak rose up behind it, a thin ribbon of trail striating up its flank. Tiny specks of people were visible near the top. Just beyond the false summit, we took another break well off the trail and played fetch with the tireless Makenzie. Folks passed by slowly on the trail, all bound for the same goal. Nobody can resist the call of the high places. The false summit, beautiful as anything in its own right, is clearly overshadowed by the much higher summit. Thus, nobody stops at the poor false summit to rest. Even we walked 200 yards before stopping.
Our final push put us on top along with about 60 other people. Iíve never encountered so many hikers, and yet it was about what I expected from reading hiker blogs. If youíre ready for crowds, they wonít bother you, so I always try to have an idea of what to expect. So, Iím telling you, reader, expect a crowd. I overheard one fellow telling his mother he was just fine on his cell phone which was apparently getting swell reception. Others were asking strangers to photograph them, and handing them teeny digital compacts. Dogs roamed the summit, wagging tails. Several summit logs were floating from person to person being signed. I struck up a conversation with a nice woman about dogs: hers and mine. I think I even heard someone yelling, "Popcorn! Get yer Popcorn here!" We found a spot on the south side of the summit and ate lunch. A marmot came to investigate, and we luckily had the dogs on leashes at that point or else there might have been a rumble. Frank was intensely interested. After lounging around up top for at least 30 minutes, we headed down the way we had come. The downhill was relentless, and tiring on the legs and toes. Even as we neared the parking lot, the sky was clear. We really lucked out at missing the thunderstorms on this weekend. We arrived back at the car around 2:00, about 8 hours after having left. I was surprised it took that long, but apparently thatís the natural effect of 3800 vertical feet. Mt Elbert was a very enjoyable, non-technical hike, and I can see why so many people flock to its summit on summer weekends. Just be sure to bring plenty of water, as there is almost none along the way.