Ready to conquer one of Colorado’s famous 14ers? In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike Mount Elbert, the highest point in Colorado!
Colorado is home to 58 mountain peaks that are over 14,000 ft, which are nicknamed 14ers. Despite visiting Colorado multiple times before, we had never attempted one and the highest elevation we had ever hiked was Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, at 13,161 feet. Which kicked our butts BIG time!
But during our most recent visit to Colorado, one of our biggest goals was to finally conquer a 14er. And not just that, we decided to go for a two for one special and not only hike a 14er, but hike to the highest point in Colorado…Mount Elbert.
Want to see us hike our first 14er? Watch our video from hiking to the highest point in Colorado: Mount Elbert!
So after over a month of being in Colorado and almost a week at 10,000+ ft of elevation, we hit the trail very early one summer morning and successfully attempted to summit this beast. And it was hands down the most difficult hike we have ever done, but also the most rewarding!
And in this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike Mount Elbert, including the different route options, safety warnings, when to hike, and what to expect beforehand. While this hike may test you mentally and physically at times, if you’re looking to summit a 14er, we couldn’t recommend this one more!
Want to see more of Colorado? Read more of our Colorado Guides:
- 4 Days in Colorado Itinerary: Denver, Boulder, RMNP, & Colorado Springs
- A Complete Guide to Visiting Mesa Verde National Park
- Driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado
- Things to do at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
- 12 Day Southwest Colorado Road Trip Itinerary
- Read all of our Colorado guides
- Watch all of our Colorado vlogs
- About Mount Elbert
- Safety when hiking Mount Elbert
- Where is Mount Elbert?
- The different routes to hike Mount Elbert
- When to hike Mount Elbert
- What to Bring to Mount Elbert
- Things to know before you hike Mount Elbert
- Our experience hiking Mount Elbert
- Where to stay before or after you hike Mount Elbert
- Other things to do near Mount Elbert
About Mount Elbert
Mount Elbert is not only the highest point in Colorado, but it is also the second highest peak in the lower 48 behind Mt. Whitney in California, by only 65 feet!
Although currently measured at 14,440 ft, its height is disputed. Mount Elbert was originally reported as 14,433 feet, but after a recalculation in 2002 it was adjusted to 14,440 feet. However, we see many people referencing 14,433 feet and even 14,439 feet as well, which is VERY confusing. The official height is a hot topic for some Coloradans, which we learned about first hand in our YouTube comments. But since the USGS says it’s 14,440, we’re going with that one!
What makes Mount Elbert so appealing as a 14er, besides it being the highest point in Colorado, is that it is considered one of the “easier” 14ers to summit (in quotes because NO 14er is easy given the high elevation). The hike is not technical and there is no crazy scrambling or climbing required, just lots of steepness and a ton of mental and physical fortitude to keep pushing to the top!
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
Safety when hiking Mount Elbert
Before sharing more about Mount Elbert, we want to stress a couple very important things to know when it comes to staying safe on this hike.
Acclimate to the higher elevation
With a starting elevation over 10,000 feet and an ending elevation of 14,440 feet, the entire hike up Mount Elbert is considered high altitude and being acclimated to the elevation is highly recommended before you attempt Mount Elbert.
When hiking at altitudes above 7,000 feet you may start to experience some significant differences in the way your body performs physically and mentally. At 7,000 feet, the atmospheric pressure and oxygen percentage start to decrease. And less oxygen in the air means less that your body can use, which is obviously an essential ingredient when hiking in strenuous conditions.
If you don’t give your body adequate time to adjust to the higher altitude, you may start to experience altitude sickness. Everyone’s body is different so this might not affect everyone, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.
Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, nausea, lack of hunger or thirst, difficulty breathing, confusion, and vomiting. If you start to notice these symptoms, it is best to stop where you’re at and begin descending to lower elevation. The only way to treat altitude sickness is to get to lower elevation, drink lots of water, eat something, and get rest. Ignoring altitude sickness can lead to more dangerous side effects.
Before you attempt to hike Mount Elbert, we suggest getting to the Leadville area (10,151 feet above sea level) a couple days before your hike to help your body adjust to the higher altitude. And during these days, focus on less strenuous activities, eat a few more calories, drink lots of water, and get lots of sleep.
Despite spending almost a week in Leadville and weeks beforehand at or above 7,000+ feet, we still struggled with breathing on this hike (but felt fine otherwise). We saw many people on the trail that turned around before the summit and there is NO SHAME in doing this if you do not feel well. It’s not worth the risk!
Beware of afternoon thunderstorms
Another big safety concern for this hike, and for all 14ers or exposed hikes in Colorado, are afternoon thunderstorms. The summertime in Colorado is notorious for afternoon thunderstorms, which can be extremely dangerous if you’re above the treeline.
These storms can sneak up quickly and a good rule of thumb is to plan to be below the treeline by noon. What this means is that you WILL need to start your hike up Mount Elbert, or any other very exposed hike, early to ensure you’re back down from the summit in time.
This article has some helpful tips on what to do if you find yourself stuck in a storm.
Our favorite safety device
We love and highly recommend the Garmin inReach Mini. While not cheap (and it also requires a monthly subscription), this satellite device allows you to send messages and your location to your loved ones when out hiking, lets you request weather forecasts, and has an SOS button in case of emergencies. It gives us and our families so much peace of mind when out on the trail and is worth every penny!
Where is Mount Elbert?
Mount Elbert is located 16 miles southwest of Leadville, Colorado (the highest incorporated city in North America!) in the Mount Massive Wilderness, which is just under a 3 hour drive from Denver and a little over 3 hours from Colorado Springs.
Mount Elbert is located near several lakes and a few other peaks that rise over 14,000 feet, so the area is a great place to visit if you want to crush a couple 14ers and see some beautiful scenery. Plus the mining history and local shops and restaurants in Leadville make for a fun basecamp too!
The different routes to hike Mount Elbert
There are three main routes to reach the summit of Mount Elbert: the North Mount Elbert Trail, Southeast Ridge Trail, and East Ridge Trail.
The North Mount Elbert Trail and East Ridge Trail are classified as class 1 routes which means that it is a hike on a well defined trail. While the Southeast Ridge Trail is classified as class 2, which means you may need to use your hands at times to climb some sections of boulder or scree fields.
Note: As you do research for your hike, you’ll likely see that there are several names for each route depending on where you look. For simplicity, we are referring to each route by the name that is listed on AllTrails.
North Mount Elbert Trail
Miles: 10.4 miles
Elevation: 4,468 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
This was the route that we took to hike Mount Elbert and will be the route we focus on for the majority of this guide. It is the most popular of the three main approaches, which means that it is the busiest, but on a Friday morning in late June, we didn’t find it to be too bad at all crowd-wise.
This route goes up the north side of Mount Elbert and while it is the shortest route of the three options, it gains more elevation per mile than the East Ridge Trail mentioned below, making it the second hardest option of the three listed. Our hike on the North Mount Elbert Trail took us a total of 7 hours, 45 minutes, including multiple stops to eat snacks and a short amount of time on the summit.
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
One thing this route is notorious for is the false summits, which may or may not have caused us to yell several curse words as we approached them and realized we were NOT at the top like we had hoped. But even with these morale crushing false summits, we are super happy we did this route and highly recommend it!
Note: When we did this hike, the road to the trailhead was partially closed and we had to park near the Halfmoon West Campground and walk the remaining 1 mile (each way) to the trailhead which made our hike closer to 12 miles. We have heard that this road is open again though!
Southeast Ridge Trail
Miles: 11 miles
Elevation: 5,111 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
The Southeast Ridge Trail is said to be the most difficult of the three routes, as it is steeper and has some scrambling involved, but nothing too intense. This trailhead is located on State Highway 82 just a few minutes west of Twin Lakes, Colorado. The trail starts on the southern side of Mount Elbert and heads north up a ridge before curving northwest to follow the southeast ridge to the top.
Because it is the hardest route, this is also the least busy route to hike Mount Elbert. So if you’re in great shape and are up for an extra challenge, this is a good option to have more solitude on the way up.
East Ridge Trail
Miles: 14.7 miles
Elevation: 4,895 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
The East Ridge Trail is considered by some to be the easiest of the routes, but you’re still climbing almost 5,000 feet so “easy” is all relative. One thing to note for this trail is that it is also called South Mount Elbert Trail on some maps, which is very confusing as it is not south.
The trailhead for the East Ridge Trail is located just a couple minutes east of Twin Lakes, near some great free camping. You’ll first come to the lower trailhead which if you do not have a high clearance or 4×4 vehicle is where you’ll want to start. The downside of this is that you have to hike around 3.6 miles (round trip) to the upper trailhead, which is included in the mileage above (some say the hike ends up being closer to 16 miles though).
If you have a 4×4 vehicle, you can turn onto 125.1B (right at the trailhead) for 1.8 miles to the upper trailhead. There is a rough patch about 0.5 miles into this section that many 4×4 vehicles can clear and at about 1.5 miles there is another really rough section. There is parking just before this spot so if you can’t get past this, you can park here and only have to walk about 0.3 miles on the 4×4 road to the upper trailhead. There are also some camping spots sooner on this road that could be reached by more types of vehicles if you want to camp part of the way in and have a little less to hike.
Due to our van’s size and not being 4×4 we decided against this route despite camping right by it. Walking an extra 3.6 miles on the road didn’t sound super appealing to us, but if you have the ability to drive to the upper trailhead, this is a great option!
When to hike Mount Elbert
Mount Elbert is technically accessible year round, with the ability to hike up in the snow via the East Ridge Trail, which has the lowest avalanche risk.
However, the most popular time to hike Mount Elbert would be from early summer to early fall, when the trail is mostly clear of snow and ice. We hiked in late June and we had mostly snow free conditions except for at the very top. It was manageable to get through even without wearing spikes, but it could be a good idea to carry them with you just in case.
The summertime will be the busiest time on the trail, so we recommend going on a weekday if possible. We hiked on a Friday and didn’t see too many people on the trail itself. At the top, a handful of groups summited around the same time, with some coming from the other routes, so the summit was not empty, but there is a decent amount of room to spread out.
We also highly recommend starting early! This is not only so you can maybe beat some crowds, but more importantly, to beat the afternoon thunderstorms we mentioned. We started the hike at 4:30 AM and were definitely not the first ones on the trail, which is kind of rare in most other places for that hour! We could hear others starting before us and even ran into some guys who started around 1 AM to make it up there for sunrise, which would be gorgeous!
What to Bring to Mount Elbert
To see everything we recommend packing for hikes, check out our hiking gear, where we share everything we bring with us when we hike, including the 10 essentials. But for this specific hike, we have a few items we really want to stress bringing with you.
We don’t typically use hiking poles because we just do not have enough hands with filming and walking Kona, but we can definitely see how these could be helpful on this trail. If we were to buy some we’d most likely have these, as they are super light.
We started our hike up Mount Elbert before sunrise, so if you do the same (which we recommend), you will want to bring a headlamp.
We’d highly recommend downloading the AllTrails map before you go. While the trail is easy to follow, we like to use the map to track our progress along the trail. Which is good and bad on this one, as you’ll likely feel defeated a few times when seeing how much further you have to go. You will need an AllTrails+ membership to download maps, which is $35.99 a year (but you can get 30% off with our code aplusk30) and so worth it!
Make sure to bring plenty of water! Between hiking at a higher altitude, experiencing lots of sun exposure, and the difficulty of this hike, you’ll be very thirsty and will need to stay hydrated.
We love our Camelbak bladder for hikes because it stores a ton of water and it’s easy to drink from while moving.
Due to the higher altitude, this hike can get chilly, especially in the morning. After hiking for a bit you most definitely will break a sweat, so you’ll want to be able to remove a layer, but once you reach the top you’ll be reaching to put those layers back on! It was SO windy for us and we were freezing.
Gloves and hand warmers
As we mentioned, it was very cold at the top and gloves really helped! Hand warmers would also come in handy (see what we did there?!).
Things to know before you hike Mount Elbert
Before you hike Mount Elbert, here are a few more things to know about the trailhead and hike to ensure you’re prepared!
Weather conditions can change rapidly
As we mentioned a few times above, afternoon thunderstorms are a concern in Colorado during the summertime, but in general, the mountains are known for having variable weather. It is always a good idea to check the weather before you head out on any hike (we have had good luck using Mountain Forecast), but do know that weather conditions out in the mountains can change quickly and be prepared for any type of weather.
Dogs are allowed
Dogs are allowed on all of the trails to the summit of Mount Elbert, but it may not be a suitable adventure for every dog. Each route is pretty lengthy and you will encounter many different types of terrain including smooth, but steep trails, lots of rocks, and a bit of scrambling.
With this varying terrain, plus the altitude and lots of sun, not all dogs will do well on the routes. Our pup Kona is basically part mountain goat and didn’t seem to struggle whatsoever on the hike (she made us look bad!), but she had also been acclimated to the altitude for a month and has a ton of hiking experience. Only you know your dog best, so make sure your furry friend can handle it before you begin.
Fees and permits
There are no fees or permits required to access any of the routes to the summit of Mount Elbert.
Each trailhead offers parking, but for the North Mount Elbert trail specifically, you will drive down a dirt road for a while (it’s easy for any vehicle) and there is a dirt lot at the trailhead that can hold a decent amount of cars. Since the road to this trailhead was closed for us, we had to park near the Halfmoon West Campground in a dirt pull off with a bunch of other cars.
There is free camping along the main road to the trailhead, as well as two campgrounds, but we slept in our van where we parked for the hike, along with many others. This appeared to be allowed, but at the actual trailhead parking lot there are signs stating that you cannot camp at the trailhead, so you’d need to go to one of the free spots down the road instead.
There are restrooms at the Southeast Trailhead and at the North Mount Elbert Trailhead. If you decide to use the restroom on the trail, please pack out any toilet paper and make sure to use a trowel to dig a hole for human waste.
Our experience hiking Mount Elbert
Want to see our full experience? Watch our video from hiking to the highest point in Colorado: Mount Elbert!
After spending the night near the trailhead, we woke up very bright and early to get a little bit of caffeine into our system and get ready to conquer what would be the hardest hike we have ever done. I (Kathryn) was especially anxious about this hike, as our hike up Wheeler Peak was super tough for me, but knowing that we were MUCH more acclimated this time eased some concerns.
We could hear others hitting the trail before us, which was kind of a weird concept since usually we are some of the first on trails, especially very early in the morning. But we were finally ready to go around 4:30 and strapped on our headlamps and began our adventure to conquer our first ever 14er.
Almost right after walking the road to get to the actual trailhead, some sort of animal darted out in front of us and scared the you know what out of us. We still to this day have NO clue what it was, but since no one else was around and we still had another hour or so of darkness ahead of us, we made as much noise as possible and sang poorly to alert any other animals of our presence.
For the first part of the hike in the woods we were feeling super good and at one point even thought to ourselves “wow, this is pretty easy,” thinking that maybe our acclimation in Leadville really paid off, but we quickly ate those words.
The trail was all uphill from the beginning, but the incline and the thinner air as we climbed started to get to us a bit. We stopped for a snack while still in the forest to give ourselves some extra energy and then kept pushing to get above the treeline.
When we got above the treeline, we finally got a glimpse of where we were going and boy…does it look far away! But thankfully there are amazing views of Mount Massive, the neighboring 14er, as well as the surrounding area, which was looking gorgeous in the morning light, to distract us a bit from how much higher we had to climb.
Once above the treeline, the terrain gets a lot rockier, with some switchbacks, but also a lot of straight, steep sections. And it also got a LOT windier and colder! We were already struggling to breathe a bit, but having wind hit our face made it even harder and made our mouths drier, so drinking lots of water was key.
We kept climbing and climbing, thinking that the peak we saw once exiting the trees was the summit, but surprise…it wasn’t! We had read about false summits beforehand, but nothing truly prepared us for the feeling of defeat when we thought we were almost at the top and then realized we still had a ways to go. We definitely said a lot of bad words, but we were determined to make it to the top.
Breathing only got tougher and tougher as we kept climbing and our legs were getting tired, but most of all, we were mentally drained. We had to take many breaks as we trekked to the top and the trail got a bit rockier and also started to have some snow, which wasn’t hard to traverse. But the views only get better the higher you climb, so there is a reward for your efforts.
After two major false summits, we finally could see the true summit, which wasn’t too much further. We made the final push and reached the summit and there were no words to describe how accomplished we felt.
The wind was wild and it was freezing cold, but even in our frigid, slightly numb state, we were amazed and proud that we were standing on the second highest point in the lower 48. And the views of the Rocky Mountains were INSANE as well, with peaks as far as the eye could see. It was such a special moment and one we will cherish forever.
As many do, we had made a cardboard sign with the name of the mountain and elevation, which is a common tradition for those that summit 14ers. We aren’t totally sure what started this trend, but it’s a popular photo prop when you make it to the summit. However, we want to stress that if you plan to bring a sign PLEASE bring it back down with you. We had heard that these signs often litter the summit, which we didn’t see firsthand, but 100% believe. So please leave no trace.
Our celebrations were short, as we were very cold and saw some clouds moving in, so we took a bunch of photos and videos and then started the hike back down. It is pretty funny how much more cheerful our moods were going back down versus going up and as we looked back at the false summits, we couldn’t help but laugh at how we thought those were the summits on the way up.
The hike down, while steep, was a breeze, as it became easier and easier to breathe. And shockingly, we hardly saw any people on the way down, which made it even easier to book it down the trail without having to let anyone pass.
When we finally reached the official trailhead, we were so beat from the day, but still had the 1 mile walk along the road (a real slog!) to get back to the van. But as soon as we made it back to the van, we headed to Leadville for a much deserved reward (and a new state high point tradition for us), pizza at High Mountain Pies! We couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate our first 14er and hiking to the highest point in Colorado.
Where to stay before or after you hike Mount Elbert
Leadville is a great basecamp for this hike and has all the amenities you will need, with various outdoor shops, a grocery store, and restaurants. Plus other things to see and do.
For the majority of our time in the area we boondocked at Twin Lakes North Dispersed, which was an AMAZING spot! We had a spot perched up on a hill with unobstructed views of Twin Lakes (pictured above) and the surrounding mountains, plus we had just enough cell service to work. This was one of our favorite boondocking spots of the year and there are plenty more like it in the area.
If you’d like to stay at a hotel, FREIGHT offers super unique rooms that have more of an Airbnb vibe and are dog friendly.
If you’re looking for an Airbnb these are a few nice options:
Historic Newly Remodeled Loft on Main (1 bedroom, 1 bath)
The Pine Street Retreat (1 bedroom, 1 bath)
Historic Loft w/ a Beautiful View + Sauna (2 bedrooms, 2 baths)
As we mentioned above, there are also both free and paid campsites right by the trailhead.
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Other things to do near Mount Elbert
If you’re looking for more things to do in the area before or after you hike Mount Elbert, here are some suggestions!
- Hike some of the other 14ers in the area! Mount Massive, which is right next to Mount Elbert, is listed at 14,429 feet, only 11 feet shorter than Mount Elbert. However, some people thought Mount Massive should be higher and built large piles of stones on the Massive summit, but Elbert supporters went and demolished these piles. Mount Harvard and La Plata Peak are also closeby!
- Explore Leadville! Leadville was a mining town, starting with gold in the 1860s, but ultimately booming with silver and becoming one of the world’s largest and notorious mining camps. It is one of the most well preserved towns in Colorado, with extremely old, authentic, charming historic buildings.
- Learn mining history at the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum in Leadville.
- Drive the Top of the Rockies Scenic and Historic Byway, which takes you through multiple towns and has great mountain views. This road is open from Memorial Day weekend to early Fall.
- Take a scenic train ride on the Leadville, Colorado, & Southern Railroad!
- Ride a bike on the Mineral Belt Trail, which is a 11.6 mile path that is basically an outdoor museum showcasing mining history from the area. You can rent a bike from Cycles of Life.
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