Hiking Mount Elbert | Colorado’s Tallest Mountain

Summiting a 14er, the coveted goal of most hikers in the USA and around the world. Similar to hiking a 4,000 footer in New England, a 14er is any mountain whose summit stands over 14,000 feet in elevation. But don’t let that staggering elevation discourage anyone from trying. Most 14ers have trailhead that start at 10,000 feet or higher, making the elevation gain only around 4,000 feet, similar to the hikes in New England. Well, Courtney and I are just like the rest of the ambitious hikers in Colorado with a goal of summiting Colorado’s tallest mountain, Mount Elbert!

On our summer, COVID-safe, road trip through the ski and mountain towns of Colorado, we made a stop in Leadville. Sitting at a whopping 10,000 feet, and surrounded by 14ers on all sides, this place is a hiker’s dream! Planning to hike Elbert the day after we arrived, we prepared all our gear and clothes the night before so that we could get a quick, alpine start. The main reason for the early start is that Colorado, during the summer months, receives rain and Thunder storms every afternoon so regularly, you can set your watch to it. So the goal was to get up, and off the mountain before 2PM. This seemed reasonable, since our route was going to be around 11 miles and 4,000 vertical feet gained.

When the alarms went off at 5am, we quickly squirmed out of our warm sleeping bags, unzipped the tent, only to have a rush of Colorado’s dry cold air come swooping in. We hustled our way into the truck and headed to the East Trailhead in the dark of morning. What we didn’t realize, is that most people hike the 1 mile section from the road to the trailhead because it is a pretty aggressive 4×4 road. Slowly but surely, we reached the trailhead a and were able to get going on time.

Nervous, and excited, the two of us, with Gregor in tow, headed up the trail. First, we wandered along a beautiful section of the Colorado Trail, just as the sun was coming up through the Aspens. Then, it was a left turn when the climbing started, and didn’t stop all day until the summit. We took the new section up the trail which switchbacked over and over again to help ease the elevation gain through the dense forest. But it wasn’t long before we reached our way above tree line and it was nothing but open alpine views.

This was going to be Courtney’s second time above 12,000 feet, first time above 13,000 feet, and both of our first times above 14,000 feet. With the trailhead starting at 10,400 feet, the elevation was being gained rather quickly, so we decided to keep a slow pace and kept drinking water throughout the hike. And thankfully, even though this is the tallest mountain in Colorado, the hike itself is pretty mellow as far as how steep the trail climbs.

When we looked above us, we kept seeing false summit after false summit, which would be discouraging if a friend hadn’t warned beforehand. Especially, when some of the steep sections left us feeling exhausted and out of breath, over and over again. But as we kept moving, we eventually got in view of the summit on the final set of rocky switchbacks. Fully in the pain cave, more like oxygen deprivation cave, we pushed onto the summit. Meanwhile, Gregor was having the time of his life running around as if we were at sea level. Sure, he needed more water than he normally drinks, but otherwise happy as can be.

Late in the morning, we reached the summit of Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado and the 2nd highest in the lower 48. Standing at 14,439 feet, we couldn’t be more stoked. And I’m sure the other 50 people on the summit also felt the same way! From there, we broke out our lunch, and took a break on the southern side of the ridge, enjoying the views and the warm sun. We had made it! And enjoyed it the entire time!

The way back down was much better, getting warmer, more oxygen, and safer from the pending storm with each step downhill. Of course, being Colorado, people like to take it one step further and a group of Mountain Bikers, who hiked their bikes up to the summit, were now blasting downhill passed us. It was pretty rad to see and I was very jealous of the fun descent they had ahead of them.

And just as the storms rolled in, we reached the lower section of the trail, below tree line, safe from the dangers above. And a few hours, we were off the summit, and back to the truck for a celebratory beer and snack. Mt. Elbert was an incredible time and had some even more incredible views!

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