Standing Tall Through It All: Mt Elbert – Colo’s Highest
by Brennan Ruegg, Leadville Today contributor
Published June 2, 2016
Think of it as a portal to wilderness adventure – but which door will you pass through? The unincorporated village of Twin Lakes provides entry to the summit of Mount Elbert by several routes, acting as gateway to the highest peak in Colorado, and the Rocky Mountains. The perfect Lake County summer tradition, most every fit and able adventurer can reach the mountain’s peak, walking away with the impressive claim of literally standing at the top of the Rockies.
Mount Elbert is the unofficial mascot for Leadville and Lake County. With two flanking false peaks, an evenly pointed cap like a pyramid, with a giant bowl and four descending ridges etched on its northeastern face, it is maybe the most recognizable peak in the Sawatch Range.
While it stands tall at 14,439 ft, it is one of the most accessible fourteeners, having been ascended with virtually every type of vehicle since its first recorded summit in 1874 by H.W. Stuckle as part of the Hayden Geological Surveys.
For example, Dave Morrison rode a 24-year-old bicycle to the top in 1951, and orator Anna Elizabeth Dickinson reached the summit on a government mule. A helicopter delivered an issue of The Denver Post to the summit in August of 1959.
Over the years, there have been promotions to build a road to the peak and to develop ski resorts on the mountain, but all have failed, leaving Mount Elbert unmarked by mankind but for a few primitive campsites, fire-rings, and signposts along the trail. While it is decked with climbers in the summer, the majestic giant stays mostly a private conquest in winter.
The mountain was named for opportunist Samuel Hitt Elbert of Ohio, who came to Colorado in 1862 to work as secretary to Territory Governor John Evans. In 1868 Elbert married Evans’ daughter, and in the subsequent five years worked his new-found political muscle, making friends and enemies, and sacrificing his federal post to create the Colorado Republican Party.
In 1873, when the people of Colorado petitioned to remove Governor Edward M. McCook Territorial Legislature, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Elbert in his place. The new leader immediately arranged the first presidential visit to the Rocky Mountains and accompanied Grant in a meeting with Ute leaders to create a treaty that would open more than three million acres to the Union for mining and railroad development.
In fact, it is the miners who bestowed the mountain with Elbert’s namesake, and for this reason his favor among the people, initially. However, that first blush of popularity would not be enough to retain his power. Before serving a full year in office, in 1874 he was removed by President Grant without explanation and replaced by his predecessor, Civil War hero and fellow Ohioan, Edward McCook.
Mount Elbert’s height and even its status as highest Colorado peak has been disputed since it was named such in 1933. It’s northern neighbor Mount Massive, which sits only 12 feet shorter than Mount Elbert, lends itself to hardier enthusiasts for the mountain’s size and physical demands, and a war of building and destroying cairns on the summit of Mount Massive to manipulate its height has ensued between fan clubs of both mountains since the 1970s. Mount Elbert, with Class 1 trail accessibility, has kept its place as the tallest.
The most popular route to take to the summit is the East Ridge, Class 1, which starts at the South Elbert trailhead. Turn right onto County Road 24 from CO-82 heading west towards Twin Lakes. 2WD vehicles can park at the scenic outlook and take the lower trailhead which follows the Colorado Trail 1.8 miles up to the upper South Elbert Trailhead. 4WD vehicles however may continue up the cut road straight to the start. Round-trip clocks in at 8.5 miles from the upper trailhead, and 12.5 from the paved lot.
The Southeast Ridge is a Class 2 route with mild exposure, starting at the Black Cloud Trailhead. From US-24 South, turn west onto CO-82 toward Twin Lakes and drive about 10.5 miles before turning right at the Black Cloud Trailhead sign. The trail begins behind the first two parking spots on the right. This trail totals 11 Miles round-trip with 5,300 feet of altitude gain.
The most difficult route is referred to as Box Creek Couloirs, accessible by the same County Road 24 used to access the South Elbert Trailhead. Continue 50 feet past the lower trailhead, and turn left onto 4WD Forest Service road 125.1B, where 1.8 miles ahead the trailhead may be found. This is a Class 2 route with moderate exposure, so use caution.
When climbing any fourteener, always get an early start, heading off the trailhead at 6 a.m. at the latest, to avoid afternoon storms above treeline.
See Carl at the Twin Lakes General Store for questions, tips, tricks, and to fuel up before and after the hike. They have a new ATM, and a “Wookie Corner” of Bigfoot mystique and memorabilia. Happy trails, and always be safe and smart!
Brennan Ruegg is another Ohioan staking (small) claims in Colorado.