The road south of Leadville identifies the peak (although this angle actually shows Massive). The main/South (more gradual but longer) route follows the ridge to the left. The shorter (but steeper) Halfmoon/North route follows the ridge in the middle. Both routes have little bumps that are false summits that are not so little when you climb.
Leadville Ranger District
2015 North Poplar
Leadville, CO 80461
Estimated Time: 8 Hours
We climbed on Elbert via the North Trail on September 18, 1999.
Elbert is second to Whitney in height in the Continental United States -- Whitney is only 61 feet higher (the Rockies are collectively higher than the Sierras).
Colorado celebrates its high point like no other state. Although most people outside of Colorado will guess that Pikes Peak is the highest point, I found that every single person I met knew that Elbert was high point (I never encountered similar knowledge of any other state by residents except of course Alaska).
A scenic highway going around the base of the mountain from Leadville over the Independence Pass to Aspen is marked with signs proclaiming it "The Top of the Rockies."
Elbert also enjoys the historic importance of being at the headwaters of the Arkansas River which begins at its base by Leadville.
That all said, Elbert is also a mountain that gets little respect.
In a state obsessed with bagging its 54 peaks above 14,000 feet, Elbert is considered one of the state's easiest (only the drive ups of Pike's Peak and Mount Evans could really be considered easier).
Still the mountain is always full of climbers. When we climbed we encountered at least 100 people (and six dogs) going up the North Halfmoon route -- all this after a week of snow had turned the peak white.
The trail itself was relatively unremarkable. Leaving the last creek (Elbert) near the start of the hike, there was little in the way of landmarks to make the trip particularly interesting. There were no dramatic drop offs and the mountain lake above the timberline was Emerald Lake which I found to be relatively ugly by mountain lake standards.
Instead the climb consisted of a seemingly endless climb with few switchbacks straight up the ridge. And adding to the annoyance were the series of 4 false summits (the worst being the first one).
Of course there were spectacular views particularly of Mount Massive to the north (which was once considered the state's highest), the Arkansas River valley and Buena Vista to the south.
We were also rewarded with the Canadian Jays buzzing us up to timberline (folks feed them and they are remarkably dame). An elk whistled on the approach.
A canister on top contains the registry.
The recommended time for this 8 mile, 4,500 foot vertical climb is 8 hours. This is reasonable but beginners should add more time. Because of afternoon storms, it is recommended you begin the climb by 6 a.m. (which we did and were happy to find it relatively light at that hour -- and the days were long enough for it to be relaitvely light at 7 p.m.). Even though it was snowing on the summit we could hear thunder on the mountain in the afternoon.
There are 3 routes up the mountain. The traditional guidebooks all recommend the North Halfmoon route as the preferred route. It is shorter but steeper. This route was not even on the map I bought in Leadville. However, it was a super highway and when it branched to the right (south) from the Colorado Trail, it was quite clear and signed (that was the only sign I saw).
However, I found that all locals recommended the traditional main route from the south/Twin Lakes. It is longer (12 miles roundtrip) but more gradual. You can trim off 1,000 feet vertical and 2 miles roundtrip by taking a very rough road with a 4-wheel drive to Lily Ponds (which is on private property but permits you to park there).
The least used is the Black Cloud trail.
After warming up for this hike by climbing Harney, South Dakota (where I developed altitude sickness at 7,000 feet!), I was surprised that the altitude adjustment was not as severe as expected. I followed the traditional advice of taking lots of aspirin for the headaches, Rolaids for upset stomach, and keeping myself hydrated and munching on trail mix to keep something in my stomach)
We also spent 2 nights in Leadville. The route up still required stopping to rest after a few steps.
In my first climb of a Western peak in 30 years, I probably overpacked (after hearing tales of a couple of unequipped boys freezing to death on a summit in a September snow).
Many of the people I met on the trail were wearing shorts (some wore tennis shoes-- something I strongly recommend against on any rocky hike) and had small day packs. Conventional wisdom says you can climb with a minium of 2 liters of water, a change of warm clothes, a breathable windbreaker
Common sense really should apply. If you are not equipped for foul weather, do not keep plugging ahead.
Leadville, the highest incorporated town in the United States, is a strange town.
Signs proclaim it is the highest in all sorts of categories -- highest municipal airport, highest golf course, etc.
As a child visiting it with my parents, I remembered it for its Victorian charm and legends (the face on the barroom floor, the legend of the Tabor silver, etc.).
However, Leadville is now a very rough and tumble town. Virtually all of the mines in the area (including the giant Climax mine north of town) have closed. There is an extraordinary number of mobile homes and Section 8 housing in the area.
It is the last affordable place serving the ski areas (although houses now start at $100,000+). There are lots of blue collar types driving revved up and yelling at each other at night. We had to call the police twice after 3 a.m. after a drunk local spun around the parking lot threatening his girlfriend.
Gasoline was 20 cents/gallon higher than in Denver.
The cheap housing and small trees gives the town the all the charm of Point Barrow, Alaska -- except that Leadville at least has trees and the starting price for Barrow's "cheap" housing is $250,000.
But Leadville also has the rough and tumble charm of a hiking/climbing community. Hikers come off the trails so dirty that one of the motels had to post signs telling hikers to bathe before using any of the motel facilities!
Further, the town is full of wonderfully rough restaurants where spectacular food is served up with umpteen hot sauces. We were particularly pleased with the Columbine Diner on the Main Street and its tatooed waitresses.
I heard good things about the other restaurants in town.
I will be back.