Second Highest Mountain in the Lower 48 States in the Sawatch Range
The eight-mile long trail to the summit of Mount Elbert begins at Half Moon Campground about ten miles southwest of Leadville, Colorado at the trail head of the Half Moon Creek Trail. There is no other way to get here but by private car where there is ample parking for over 60 cars. The starting point of the Half Moon Creek Trail is 10,060 feet above sea level. Hikers should sign the trail register just beyond the parking lot.
The Best Times to Climb Mount Elbert are Limited
The best times to climb Mount Elbert (named after Samuel Elbert, Secretary to Territorial Governor Evans) are from late June through very early September. Be aware that at elevations this high, it can snow any day of the year. The worst times to climb this peak would be from early September through almost all of June. There are no man-made hazards on the trail but the hiker should be wary of altitude sickness and spend a few days in Leadville to acclimate.
The Hiker Should Start From Half Moon Campground No Later Than 6 A.M.
In order to avoid afternoon thunderstorms atop Mount Elbert, the hiker should begin her climb no later than six o’clock in the morning. Once she is under way, the hiker will enter a dense Hudsonian forest of silvery-barked sub-alpine fir and red and scaly-barked Engelmann spruce trees. Growing along or near the trail will be an abundance of wildflowers including red Indian paintbrushes, blue chiming bells and yellow heart-leafed arnica. Be on the lookout for gray Canada jays and black and white Clark’s nutcrackers. Deeper in the woods in the meadows, the hiker may see grazing elk.
The First Three Miles of Trail are Part of the Colorado Trail
As the hiker slowly gains elevation, the Half Moon Creek Trail joins a segment of the Colorado Trail where he will begin to see broad vistas of the Leadville Valley below. The Colorado Trail goes all the way from the New Mexico border to the Wyoming border, so some of the people along this portion of the trail may be long-term hikers who have been at it for several weeks. The higher the hiker climbs, the thinner the forest becomes. In approximately an hour and a half, the hiker will arrive at the junction of the Colorado Trail and the Mount Elbert Trail to the right. Here is a good spot to rest, drink water, have some snacks and chat with fellow hikers. Be prepared for the beginning of a long workout on the Mount Elbert Trail. If necessary take frequent rests and drinks of water, especially as you approach 13,000 feet. Notice an array of alpine flowers at trail side including delicate blue alpine forget- me-not, dwarf pink Parry’s primrose and late in the summer bright yellow alpine sunflowers. Small gray, fluttering birds making a piping sound are pipits and birds with a pinkish breast and brown feathers are rosy finches; they are summer-time residents up here.
There are Two False Summits Before the True Summit of Mount Elbert
The hiker should not lose heart when he at last stands on what looked like (from below) the summit of Mount Elbert. Take a rest and enjoy the hoary marmots running over the rocks and making a high-pitched squeak. Tiny gray rabbit-like pikas may also be seen perhaps with grass in their mouths as they prepare for winter. The trail proceeds ever upward to yet another false summit above 14,000 feet. From here, the climber might spot tiny specks of people standing atop Mount Elbert another quarter of a mile away.
Views From the Summit of Mount Elbert Are Phenomenal
Hopefully the hiker will arrive at last on the true summit at 14,433 feet (almost half way up Mount Everest), by noon or so. Take a deep breath and a well-deserved rest up here and enjoy the views of La Plata Peak to the south, Pikes Peak to the very distant east, the entire Sawatch Range to the north, and the Elk Range to the west. The hike takes up to a full day with a vertical gain of 4,383 feet. Bring sufficient water and energy snacks as there are no water sources along the trail, nor are there any rest room facilities. You can pick up a trail map at U.S Forest Headquarters in Leadville or download one from USGS website Mount Elbert Quad.
*Mount Elbert is 61 feet lower than Mount Whitney (14,494 feet) in California.