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On Walkabout On: Mt. Elbert via the Black Cloud Trailhead

Basic Information

  • Name: Mt. Elbert
  • Where: Leadville, Colorado
  • Max Elevation: 14,433 feet
  • Distance:  11 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 5,300 feet
  • Time: 7-9 hours round-trip
  • Difficulty: EasyModerateHardDifficult
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Mt. Elbert

Mt. Elbert Route

Topographic Map of the Route

Mt Elbert Topo Map

Elevation Map of Mt. Elbert

Mt. Elbert Elevation Map

Narrative

Over the Independence Day weekend I thought it would be cool to climb the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, the 14,433 foot Mt. Elbert.  Realizing that many other people probably were thinking the same thing I wanted to avoid the standard trail up the mountain that would be sure to be packed with hikers.  So after doing a little research I decided on hiking up Mt. Elbert via its Southeast ridge from the Black Cloud Trailhead off of Highway 82:


View 14er Trailheads in a larger map

It was pitch dark out as I turned on to Highway 82 just South of Leadville.  I was expecting to see a large sign along the side of the road designating the trailhead.  As I drove up Highway 82 I could see many other large signs designating trailheads, however as I neared the 10-mile mark up the highway I did not see a Black Cloud Trailhead sign.  I ended up turning around and driving past it 3 times before I finally spotted the trailhead.  There is no trailhead sign visible from the road; instead there is this small sign that is only visible if you stop right in front of the small entrance in the trees that leads to the trailhead:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Early in the morning when it is pitch dark out, it makes finding this sign very difficult.  Because of this I highly recommend that at the 10-mile mark for drivers to slow down to a crawl and look for this small turn into the trees:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The trailhead parking is located immediately after pulling in.  There is room for maybe 10 cars at the trailhead.  When I pulled in I saw two parked there that morning.  The trail up Mt. Elbert began on the right side of the parking area.  The trail is designated by this small sign:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

In the early morning darkness I did not even see this sign and only saw it when I returned.  However, due to the route description on 14ers.com I knew where the trail started from.  Despite being seldom used, the trail was actually in good shape.  This picture from later in the day shows that the trail is quite wide as it begins with a number of switchbacks up the side of the mountain:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Here is the first picture I took that morning as the sun was rising and I could see the 14,336 foot La Plata Peak poking out over Ellingwood Ridge across from me:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

About a mile up the trail is where I came across the first creek crossing:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

From there I began a short walk through the forest on a still easy to follow trail:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

In less than half a mile I came to yet another creek crossing:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

After the creek crossing I came to a clearing where I had a great view once again of the sunrise hitting La Plata Peak:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I would find that incredible views of La Plata Peak and its famed Ellingwood Ridge would be constant companions for me as I hiked up Mt. Elbert’s Southeast Ridge.  I next entered into a small aspen forest that appears to have grown over an area that had been previously logged:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

After the aspen forest I next came to the site of an old mine:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The only building left standing at the old mine was this outhouse:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I took a peek inside the outhouse and could see that the miners had stacked up rocks to make a toilet and used an old piece of metal as the toilet seat:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

From the mine the trail continues to ascend and approach treeline:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The views of La Plata Peak in the early morning sunshine continued to be incredible:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Here is a panorama of this fantastic view:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I could also see this big red spot on the side of the appropriately named Red Mountain:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

To break through treeline the trail began a series of long switchbacks across the side of Mt. Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

After breaking through treeline I could see the 14,134 foot South Elbert Peak above me:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

To the West I could see the 13,761 foot Bull Hill make an appearance in the early morning sunlight:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

After the long switchbacks the trail rose above treeline where it became very steep as it went straight up the side of the mountain to reach the ridgeline:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Once on the ridgeline there was little evidence of a trail, but the route finding is easy considering I just needed to follow the ridge towards the West where Mt. Elbert is located:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

As I followed the ridgeline I could see South Elbert Peak ahead of me and for the first time I could see the summit of Mt. Elbert looming in the distance:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

There was some snowfields on the ridgeline, but all of them were easily avoidable:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The walk up to South Elbert wasn’t too strenuous.  The summit is marked by this wooden stake:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

South Elbert is one of Colorado’s unofficial 14ers.  It rises above 14-thousand feet, but its connecting saddle with Mt. Elbert does not drop more than 300 feet thus regulating it to its unofficial status much like the 14,238 foot Mt. Cameron in the Mosquito Range.  Regardless I was happy to take this less traveled route and bag another unofficial 14er. Here is a panorama view from the summit of South Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Here is the view of the connecting saddle with Mt. Elbert that lied ahead of me:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The drop to the saddle from South Elbert was about 250 feet while the climb up Elbert was about 550 feet.  Here is a panorama photo from the saddle that shows South Elbert on the far left and the summit of Mt. Elbert on the far right:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The hike up to Elbert was also where the trail became its rockiest:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The Southeast Ridge climb up Mt. Elbert is considered a Class 2 hike simply because of this section of talus rock that needs to be crossed to access the summit:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I made sure to be more careful with my footing, but overall this is an easy Class 2 hike up the ridge to the summit of Mt. Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I took me about an hour to do the traverse, but before I knew it I was standing on the summit of Mt. Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

One of the first things I saw on the summit was this US Geological Survey marker that I stumbled upon:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

If it wasn’t for the fact that I was on the highest mountain in the Rocky Mountains this would actually be a slightly boring summit.  The views though were not boring especially when looking towards the West where I had a great view of the Elk Range:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Easily the most noticeable peak in the Elk Range was the snow covered 14,092 foot Snowmass Mountain:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

What a peak Snowmass is!  I cannot wait to attempt to climb it one day.  To the North I spotted the 2nd highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, the 14,421 foot Mt. Massive:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

To the Northeast I could see the city of Leadville down below in the Arkansas River Valley backdropped by the Mosquito Range:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The Mosquito Range has a collection of five 14ers which I have all hiked.  You can read about all of my prior hikes up these mountains at the below link:

Here is a closer look at the Mosquito Range where even the 14,265 foot Quandary Peak in the Ten Mile Range is visible on the left:

Mosquito Range

Click the below link to read my prior trip report about my hike up Quandary Peak:

To the Southeast I could see the Twin Lakes lying below Mt. Elbert that I drove by earlier in the morning to access the Black Cloud trailhead:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

To the South I could see the 14ers Mt. Oxford, Mt. Belford, Missouri Mountain, Huron Peak, and La Plata Peak in the near distance:

Southern Sawatch Range

Four of these 14ers I have already climbed which you can read about at the below links:

Even farther into the distance looking towards the South I could see the 14ers Mt. Yale, Mt. Antero, Mt. Shavano, and Tabeguache Peak:

Extreme Southern Sawatch Range

I have climbed all four of these peaks and the trip reports for each one can be read at the below links:

Here is a panorama from the summit of Mt. Elbert that is framed by La Plata Peak on the far left and Mt. Massive on the far right:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Here is a final summit panorama that has Mt. Massive framing the photo on the far left and La Plata Peak on the far right with hikers visible on the summit and the Arkansas River Valley down below:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I only spent about 30 minutes on the summit because of how packed it was getting up there.  By the time I left there had to be about 40-50 people on the summit.  There was one group I spoke to who hiked up Mt. Elbert as their first 14er which I congratulated them on.  They were in awe that Elbert was my 23rd fourteener which to me did not seem like that many, but to them it was.  Anyway I carefully began my descent down the talus rock covering Mt. Elbert’s southern slopes and quickly found myself back on the grass covered saddle looking up at South Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The walk up to South Elbert was quite nice since there were so many wildflowers in bloom now:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I quickly made my way up South Elbert and took one last photo looking back at Mt. Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Looking back at Mt. Elbert is when it dawned on me that this mountain needs a name change.  According to the book “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners: Twentieth Anniversary Edition“; Mt. Elbert was named after former interim territorial governor Samuel Elbert who served for less than one year in office in 1873 which is hardly a reason to name the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains after him.  He did go on to serve for 20 years on the State Supreme Court after statehood was granted in 1876.  However, for unknown reasons some maps before 1873 had the peak labeled as Mt. Elbert.  Considering that  Samuel Elbert clearly does not deserve to have such a peak named after him I propose it be named after someone more worthy like, Jabba the Hutt!  You can’t tell me that Mt. Elbert does not look like Jabba the Hutt with the mountains Southeast Ridge looking like Jabba’s tail?

Image of Jabba the Hutt from Captain Toy.

I think Mt. Jabba is a bit catchy.  What does everyone else think?

Anyway after descending South Elbert I began my descent down the steep trail I had previously ascended the ridgeline from:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

The wildflowers covering the hillside were quite scenic:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Here is a closer look at some of the bigger yellow wildflowers:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Here is a closer look at some of the purple wildflowers on the side of Mt. Elbert as well:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

From the steep hillside I then began to descend back into the lush forest below:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I then passed the old mining site again:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

From the mine I continued my descent down the mountain:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Behind me I could see South Elbert with rain clouds beginning to build around it:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I next came to the second creek crossing:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Here is a picture of the beautiful creek flowing down the slopes of Mt. Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I short while later I came to the first bridge crossing which meant I only had one more mile to go before I reached the trailhead:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

It was a pleasant walk down the last mile of switchbacks:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Eventually the trail leveled out which meant I was near the trailhead:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Near the trailhead I did spot a number of old mine sites along the trail:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

I then found myself walking back into the trailhead parking lot that now had a total of five vehicles park in it:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

As I began to pack my gear into my truck it began to rain.  So I quickly finished packing my stuff and began the long drive back to Colorado Springs.  I pulled over off of Highway 82 to take this picture looking back at Mt. Elbert:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Looking at this unassuming mountain it is hard to believe that it is the highest point in the Rocky Mountains.  Here is one final picture I took that shows the Twin Lakes on the left backdropped by Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive on the right:

Picture from Mt. Elbert, Colorado

Conclusion

In total it took me four hours to summit Mt. Elbert and two hours and 45 minutes to descend including breaks.  This meant I was able to cover 11-miles and 5,300 feet in elevation gain in under 7 hours with much of it being at very high altitude since I followed the Southeast Ridgeline to the summit.  For anyone taking the standard trail expect to do this hike even faster since it is 9.5 miles long with 4,700 feet in elevation gain.  However, I did not mind hiking further and higher to reach Mt. Elbert’s summit.  The hike up provided stunning views and the solitude on the trail was quite nice.  I do not mind sharing a summit with 50 people, but hiking with them all up the mountain gets old.  So for those looking for solitude and great views while still bagging the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains, I highly recommend hiking up Mt. Elbert’s Southeast Ridge.  Maybe this great hike will inspire more people to call it Mt. Jabba as well?

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