Travel: Directions to South Mount Elbert Trailhead. Turn west from US Route 24 onto CO 82 just south of mile marker 191. This is the Twin Lakes, Independence Pass turnoff. In 4.0 miles, turn right on Lake County Road 24. Pass the Lakeview Campground at 5.0 miles. The lower South Mount Elbert Trailhead is on the left in 5.4 miles, elevation 9,600 feet. 4WD vehicles may proceed another 1.9 miles. Turn left on FSR 125B located just beyond the lower parking lot. The dirt road climbs through an aspen forest. There are some ground clearance challenges, particularly at a creek crossing 1.6 miles up the track. There are many parking pullouts and dispersed camping sites, some quite large. At 1.9 miles the road splits. Most vehicles should park here, elevation 10,440 feet. It is possible to drive another very rocky 0.1 mile up 125B to the actual trailhead at 10,520 feet with limited parking. (Note that earlier editions of the Roach books describe a different route, which is no longer available.)
Distance and Elevation Gain: The described hike over South Elbert is 11.7 miles with 4,360 feet of climbing from the upper trailhead. It is 10.8 miles roundtrip with 4,000 feet of vertical on the standard Mount Elbert Trail. If you begin at the lower South Mount Elbert Trailhead, it is a 2.5 mile walk up the Colorado Trail.
Total Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; (optional) Class 2+ on the east ridge of South Elbert with mild exposure
Maps: Mount Elbert, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad, or Trails Illustrated No. 127, Aspen, Independence Pass, CO
Note on the Elevation: The 7.5' topo still shows Elbert's elevation as 14,433 feet. However, this was corrected to 14,400 in 1988 after some re-evaluation of the measurements. This sparked a bizarre war between proponents of Mount Massive versus Mt. Elbert for the title of highest mountain in Colorado; a contest which at one point involved people piling up rocks on Mount Massive's summit, only to be later knocked down by their opponents. The matter is now considered settled in the latter's favor.
Latest Date Hiked: September 30, 2018
Guest Author: Thomas Holt Ward
"It's colossal for sure, but if you look closely, it seems so tranquil. I can't help but believe it means us no harm."
— Mazli on Dinrall, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The top of Colorado as seen from South Elbert. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)
Route: From the upper South Mount Elbert Trailhead, follow the trail to 12,000 feet. Turn off-trail west contouring across Bartlett Basin to the base of the east ridge of South Elbert (use the blue line for more open travel). Climb this ridge and continue northwest to meet the south ridge of Mount Elbert, following that to the summit. Descend by the well-marked and engineered South Mount Elbert Trail.
The Hike: From the upper entrance to the South Mount Elbert Trail #1481 at 10,520 feet, immediately cross the creek draining Bartlett Gulch on a sturdy bridge and begin walking through a thick aspen forest. (Debra Van Winegarden, photo)
In late September, only a few brilliant leaves still adorn the white limbs. The ground is covered likewise with the dry red leaves of rose hips, fireweed, geranium, and myrtle blueberry, all half-covered in the golden confetti from above.
At this point, travel is actually along the Colorado Trail. In just 0.3 mile, meet the old turnoff for the peak trail. Dedicated crews have gone to great trouble to render this option as uninviting as possible. Respect their wishes. Continuing, at 0.35 mile, pass a right turnoff to the Lily Ponds and their impressive beaver lodges. At 0.4 mile find the new turnoff for the mountaintop, bearing left.
A sign here indicates extensive rerouting of the original trail currently underway in order to make the trail sustainable under the heavy load of 14er peak-baggers and other aficionados of high places. The work is to be completed sometime in 2019. (THW, photo)
Take note of signs indicating that this is now a no-poop zone for the remainder of the hike, another necessary measure to handle the great popularity of "highest" places. (311,000 people climbed Colorado's 14ers in 2017.)
The excellent new trail eventually leaves the aspens for conifers at 10,780 feet. While this reroute is less direct, and adds some distance, it provides a wide flat treadway on a gentle grade. Steeper sections also sport both stone and wooden stairs. Open also to bicycles and horses, these were necessary improvements. Beefy, well constructed log pole fences also protect many of the switchbacks from the temptation to shortcut. Some of these run for tens of yards--the most serious attempt I've seen at stopping this particular kind of trail abuse.
At 1.7 miles, the trail pops into the open briefly with views of Twin Lakes below and La Plata Peak on the horizon. (THW, photo)
At 1.95 miles, you emerge from the forest and your goal looms unmistakably in front of you.
At 2.6 miles, just over 12,000 feet, by a short stretch of new log fence, leave the main trail and walk south about 100 feet to a rounded ridge where you can see Bartlett Basin and the east ridge of South Elbert. Although this route is described in Roach's definitive 14ers guide, we found no sign of a social trail or cairn to mark this spot. However, the exact location is not critical. When you reach the rounded ridge, the view into the basin will open up and you'll be able to study your route from there. (DV, photo)
Approach the basin approximately as in the photo above, heading for a point in the basin a little to the right of the hiker's head. Try to reach the basin at around 12,200 feet. The terrain is mostly open, but it is helpful to avoid a very large boulder field just below this altitude. From the opposite side, you can see this more clearly. Try to penetrate the boulder field at a narrow point near the lake in the foreground below. (This is the blue line on the map above.) (THW, photo)
Once you've crossed the basin heading south, angle a bit to the east to meet the ridge itself near its base at around 12,000 feet. The basin is classic high altitude tundra without any trace of the crowds trudging up the main trails. It is tempting to forget the mountain entirely and enjoy the afternoon sitting by one of the peaceful ponds.
The ridge ascent starts easily on dirt and loose talus, but quickly transforms to larger and more solid blocks. Now definitely on route for the summit, I was surprised to find no trace of a trail or even a footprint. This ridge provides solitude climbing to one of the busiest peaks in the nation. (THW, photo)
There are some minor obstacles along the ridge, and one more significant one at a small prominence (Point 13,227') just before a saddle below the final climb to South Elbert. All of these can be easily bypassed on the south side of the ridge, which slopes away more gently than the steep north side. However, that final obstacle does offer some fun low Class 3 scrambling (passing almost directly over the peak, but slightly to the right). Passing this point, the view ahead opens up again. (THW, photo)
It is easy walking to the low point of the saddle, where a social trail surprisingly appears. The trail leads nicely up the center of the ridge for awhile and then disappears. You're on your own on a steep pitch after that, but the footing is excellent rock-and-tundra all the way up. The easiest path is in the center, or a little to the left in this section. Eventually, the slope rounds off until you're standing on the almost flat top of South Elbert (Point 14,134' on the 7.5' topo) at 5.1 miles.
The route from South Elbert to Elbert is shown on some maps as the Black Cloud Trail. As you drop 234 feet to the saddle at 13,900 feet, this trail appears intermittently, generally vanishing in rocky sections. There are maybe a few cairns, but the route is pretty obvious. This is a beautiful area of green tundra and rock ledges and fast easy walking on gentle inclines.
Once the climb begins, the final ridge is very rocky in large talus, but with no significant obstacles. At the bottom of this climb, there is no discernible trail at all. As you approach the summit, sections of trail appear, but you will pass through several areas of large talus with only occasional and seemingly random cairns. Just stick as close to the center as is practical and you will repeatedly regain the trail. (Looking back down the ridge. DV, photo)
There is never any doubt about the destination, however, which is always visible, and generally well populated with humanity. You may even hear them before you see them. (DV, photo)
A little over 500 feet of climbing later, and 1.3 miles from South, you will abandon solitude and join the infectious exuberance of the day's conquerors of Colorado's gentle giant. The day we summited was far from ideal, cold, with wind gusts exceeding 60 mph, but the throng of young and old did not seem to mind. (THW, photo)
Having climbed over 4,300 feet in 6.4 miles, you have reached one of the biggest views in the country. Magnificent hardly covers it. Not far away stands a somber company of 14er nobility--Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain, Castle Peak, La Plata Peak and the row of Collegiates--Mount Massive missing the crown by a mere 11 feet. (DV, photo)
The descent is by the heavily traveled, well-marked and increasingly engineered South Mount Elbert Trail that you started out on. The path is mostly gravel with wide open views and long switchbacks until you re-enter the krumholtz at around 12,200 feet and the forest proper soon after. The return path will add 5.4 miles, a little more direct than the ascent.