Colorado, Colorado 14ers, Colorado Bucket List, Colorado Hikes, Colorado Summits, US High Points

On Top of Colorado (and Colorado 14er #8): Mount Elbert

On September 24, 2022, two of my travel goals collided when I summited my eighth Colorado 14er… which also happens to be the highest point in Colorado! A few days later, as I sit down to begin writing this post, I’m conflicted about whether to title it ‘Colorado 14ers’ to match my other 14ers posts or ‘On Top of Colorado’ to match my other state high point posts.

(Clearly, I couldn’t decide and ended up going with both. Is it awkward and a little clunky? Yes. Oh well.)

Anyway. Mount Elbert had been on my to-do list since we moved to Colorado more than 4 years ago. In that time, I’ve stood on the highest point in six of the surrounding states, yet somehow we just never got around to this one. So I was determined, in 2022, that we were not going to let another summer pass us by without summitting Colorado’s high point.

But, in fact, summer did pass us by, and suddenly it was September and we still hadn’t done it. Thankfully, we had a pretty perfect start to fall this year and managed to squeeze it in.

Mount Elbert

We opted to take the non-standard route to the summit, deciding we didn’t mind hiking a little farther if it meant avoiding the crowds on the standard route. The standard route heads up the northeast ridge. We went up the southeast ridge, beginning at Black Cloud Trailhead and following the Black Cloud Trail to the summit. In retrospect, I don’t regret our decision… though my legs – especially my knees – do. There is no easy way to climb a 14er, but this was overall the longest and steepest one I’ve done so far.

We arrived at the trailhead Friday evening and settled into the back of our Subaru for the night. We hadn’t been able to see our surroundings when we arrived and were pleasantly surprised when we woke surrounded by aspen trees and yellow leaves. Fall had definitely arrived in the mountains. Or maybe winter. It was barely above freezing when we stepped out of the car and there was a light dusting of snow on the high peaks surrounding us.

Without the threat of summer thunderstorms, we were able to take our time as we ate breakfast and drank our warm beverages before hitting the trail around 7:45am. It was uphill from the first step, and aside from a few short sections of flat ground, the elevation gain never let up. By the end of the first mile (1.6 km), we had climbed 1100 feet (335 m). And we still had about 4000 feet (1220 m) to go.

The next mile (1.6 km) was slightly less steep, but still plenty challenging as we crossed the creek and exited the forest into a more open area. The sun was finally cresting the ridge and beginning to illuminate the landscape, and the fall colors were glowing in the sunlight. It was a nice distraction from the strenuousness.

Looking back down the trail; the highest point, on the right, is 14er La Plata Peak

By mile 3 (4.8 km), we found ourselves staring up a very steep slope to the ridge, 1.3 miles (2.1 km) and 1800 feet (550 m) above us… so up we went. Even with the switchbacks, it was brutally steep. Much huffing and puffing ensued and many breaks were taken. Ninety minutes later (we climbed this stupid slope for ninety minutes… why do we do this to ourselves?), we finally reached the ridge at 13,560 feet (4135 m).

Trail up to the ridge; taken from about the halfway point
Looking back down, as I stop to catch my breath
Finally made it to the ridge

The summit of Mount Elbert was now visible at the north end of the ridge. It looked very far away. In reality, it was only 2 miles (3.2 km). But 2 miles is a long way when you’re at such high elevation. Especially when there is another summit and a lot of rock between you and your destination.

Mount Elbert summit is just barely visible on the right

To reach Elbert, we first had to summit South Elbert, which is technically not a 14er despite having an elevation of about 14,150 feet (4313 m)… due to certain mountaineering rules, it’s considered a sub-peak of Mount Elbert and not its own mountain. Regardless of its official classification, we had to climb it. And then descend it, losing about 200 feet (60 m) of elevation that we’d just worked so hard to gain.

Headed toward South Elbert (left), with Mount Elbert in the background (right)
Looking east over Twin Lakes and the Mosquito Range
Looking southwest from the South Elbert summit
Headed down South Elbert toward Mount Elbert… we still have a ways to go

And despite the progress we’d made – we were now just 1 mile (1.6 km) away – the actual Mount Elbert summit still didn’t look any closer. So we steeled ourselves for the endless slog ahead of us and began making our way through the rocks, gradually gaining elevation en route. And finally, about an hour after reaching South Elbert and nearly five hours after leaving the car, we made it. At an elevation of 14,438 feet (4401 m), we were standing on the highest point in Colorado!

Pat descends South Elbert
Looking back at South Elbert

We couldn’t have asked for a better day to be on the summit. Elbert is located fairly centrally in Colorado, surrounded on all sides by expansive mountain ranges. The sky was clear and visibility was excellent. With the help of my Peakfinder app we were able to locate 26 other 14ers, from Longs Peak nearly 80 miles (130 km) to the north all the way to Uncompahgre Peak almost 100 miles (160 km) to the south!

View to the south
View to the west
View to the northwest
View to the northeast
View to the southeast over Twin Lakes (and yes, despite the name, there are three lakes here…)
Mount Elbert handstand

We spent nearly an hour on the summit, taking photos and eating a snack and enjoying the 360° views. But eventually it was time to head down. We had a lengthy descent ahead of us, beginning with the long, rocky ridgeline back to South Elbert. At this point in our day, I’m not sure I can properly convey how badly we did not want to re-summit South Elbert. But we didn’t have a choice, so we huffed and puffed our way up 200 feet (60 m) to the summit and then back down the other side, continuing along the ridge to the saddle.

Down we go

On the way up, we’d discussed making the short detour from the saddle over to 13er Mount Cosgriff on the way down. It was probably no more than 0.3 miles (0.5 km) and 60 vertical feet (18 m) away. Oh how naïve and full of energy we must have been at that point of our hike. Needless to say, we did not summit Mount Cosgriff.

Mount Cosgriff, just right of center
The autumn tundra was glowing beneath the bright sunlight

From here, it was time to descend the terribly steep 1800 feet (550 m) we’d climbed up. It was not fun. My knees hated me, and every step was a battle to not slip and fall. Thank goodness for hiking poles. And then it was steadily downhill – but not nearly as steep – all the way back to the car. We were sore and exhausted and focused on just putting one foot in front of the other until the trailhead finally came into view.

We spent the evening sprawled on the sofa and much of the next day forcing our sore bodies to do our usual Sunday grocery shopping, cooking, and chores. My muscles were not amused. At all. 5100 feet (1555 m) of elevation gain is a lot on any hike, but it’s even more brutal at such high elevation. Black Cloud Trail was a beast.

But despite our exhaustion, smiles and high fives were shared. We had done it! Highest point in Colorado: check.


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Black Cloud Trailhead is located off CO Highway 82; coming from the east, it’s on the right just before Mount Elbert Lodge. There is no sign and it’s very easy to miss. My maps app didn’t quite get us there, but my COTREX app did.
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: roundtrip distance was 11 miles (17.7 km) with 5127 feet (1563 m) of elevation gain; while not technical, this was a very challenging hike and should only be attempted if you’re well-trained and acclimated
  • Route description: download the complete description and photos here
  • Where to stay: we slept in our car at the trailhead, and it was a pretty quiet night since the other people there were considerate and not noisy. There are numerous established campgrounds along Highway 82, as well as lodging nearby in Twin Lakes and Leadville
  • Other: we’re pretty well acclimated and in-shape, but this hike still took us 9 hours. It was a beast. Start really early, especially from June-August when there’s a risk of afternoon thunderstorms. This trail is above treeline with no shelter for a long time, and you’ll want to be back below the trees by noon at the latest. On a stormy day, we would have needed to start by 5:00am to accomplish this.

39 thoughts on “On Top of Colorado (and Colorado 14er #8): Mount Elbert”

  1. I always enjoy reading about someone else’s ascent of Elbert since it was our very first 14er. It kinda seems like your route up was our “accidental, mistaken” route up – the one that took us to the south summit before we had to turn around. (We returned a few years later and took the correct route up.) Not an easy mountain to climb, is it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooof, I can’t imagine this being my first 14er. This route was a beast! Objectively speaking I’ve done 14ers that are far more technical, but this one had the most elevation by far and it about killed me. I’m glad you made it back and were able to take the slightly less brutal route to the summit.

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  2. Good for you for tackling this peak with its endless slog up as you describe it! You certainly had a picture perfect day for it and those aspen trees are stunning! Gorgeous views once more from another summit in Colorado 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So Twin Lakes has three lakes eh? Someone’s idea of fun, I guess, keep people on their toes. Like others I’m impressed by your determination and fitness levels, this was a great accomplishment. So glad that you were rewarded with fine conditions at the summit.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Congrats on the accomplishment! It seems like it was a particularly strenuous hike but the views up there look breath-taking! I can imagine the relief you must have felt when seeing the beautiful yellow trees on your way back…!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Congrats on knocking off two goals from your list. Even though the trail was steep, at least it looked scenic with all those golden yellows. Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t hike this trail until the fall as it looks like there isn’t much protection from the sun on the ridge. The downhills are always the worst on the knees.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Congratulations on the summit! Looks brutal, but you made it! The golden foliage is certainly a lovely distraction from all of the sweat scaling to the top, and hopefully, it was cool, autumn weather during the hike to make it more bearable!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Autumn is such a spectacular time for hiking in the mountains. Crisp mornings, sunny days, cooler temps and no bugs. Great that you managed to complete your summit Diana and also great you knew when you had climbed enough. Thanks for sharing your experience. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha yeah, I used to come up with a fancy title for everything too, and then I decided it made more sense to organize them and come up with recurring titles to use

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  8. My congratulations for this double realization of your dreams. What beautiful photos and the weather was also good. The panoramas are really beautiful. As an avid mountain hiker, I really enjoyed this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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