Mount Massive, Mount Elbert area Introduction and Trailheads

 

Mount Elbert (14,433’), Mount Massive (14,421’), North Mount Massive (14,370’)

Mount Massive and Mount Elbert form one of Colorado's great massifs --the highest altitude terrain in the state -- apex of the Colorado Plateau. Stately Mount Elbert is a classic peak with one prominent sub-peak. Massive is a gigantic three mile long ridge with three summits lofting over 14,000 feet. It would not be far fetched to call all three summits separate fourteeners! Indeed, in this book North Mount Massive is treated as a separate peak. Massive and Elbert provide good hikes and skiing on almost every flank and ridge. Just lay out a map, cover your eyes, and point—you'll come up with a hike or ski route. For snow climbers the two peaks are rather plain, but they are excellent winter climbs.

As the highest peak in Colorado, Mt. Elbert is a popular climb. The traditional routes, Mt. Elbert Trail and the Northeast Ridge, get crowded on weekends and holidays. You'll see fewer souls on the Echo Canyon route. Elbert is a popular ski tour in spring, when you'll probably see others there during most sunny days.

Several befuddling aspects arising from trail naming and marking add spice to routes on Massive and Elbert. First, portions of the Main Range Trail as shown on USGS maps are not accurate. Second, the Main Range Trail is used for part of the Colorado Trail, which extends from Durango to Denver. As a result, the names Main Range Trail and Colorado Trail are often synonymous. To reduce confusion, these sections are called Colorado/Main Range Trail herein. The Colorado Trail is marked with small white triangles that say “Colorado Trail.” Because the Colorado Trail was recently established, these markers may be more obvious than Main Range Trail markers.

Adding to the confusion, in legal Wilderness these trails are usually marked with tree blazes (marks made with a hatchet in the bark of trees).

If you're headed for Mount Elbert or Mount Massive, you have plenty of choices for lodging. In summer and late spring, you can camp at several Forest Service campgrounds on the Halfmoon Road near the Colorado/Main Range trailheads described below. Several Forest Service campgrounds are located on Colorado State Highway 82 near the Black Cloud Gulch and Echo Canyon trailheads. These open in late spring. A good bet for deluxe lodging in the same locale is the Mount Elbert Lodge near the Black Cloud Gulch trailhead.

Leadville (10,152’) is the highest city of its size in the United States. This charming old mining town was created in 1800s by the gold and silver boom that civilized much of Colorado. Lodging and dining in Leadville are both fun and affordable. Harrison Avenue is the main street through the historic part of town ("oldtown"). Here you'll find the fabulous restored Hotel Delaware as well as other affordable motels. For authentic mining town dining try the Golden Burro on Harrison Avenue, or chow on Mexican food at The Grill at the west end of Elm Street.

ROADS AND TRAILHEADS

USGS Maps: Mount Elbert, Mount Massive, Leadville South
USFS Forest Visitors Maps: White River National Forest, San Isabel National Forest

Halfmoon Road

After snow melt-off the Halfmoon Road (dirt, medium clearance 2-wheel-drive until last several miles) leads deep into the heart of the Northern Sawatch.

To reach the Halfmoon Road, start on Harrison Avenue (Highway 24) in old-town Leadville. Drive S out of Leadville 3.7 miles on Highway 24 to the Fish Hatchery Road (State Road 300). Take a right (W) on to the Hatchery Road, drive .8 mile, and take a left turn onto County Road 11. Drive 1.1 mile S on Road 11 to the actual Halfmoon Road (good sign). Take a right on Halfmoon Road (enjoy a good view of Mount Massive straight ahead) and drive 4.4 miles to Halfmoon Campground. (Don't confuse this with Halfmoon Campground near Mount of the Holy Cross).

Mount Elbert and Mount Massive Trailheads on Halfmoon road
From Halfmoon Campground, continue about 2 miles and look for Mount Elbert Trailhead’s obvious parking and signboards on the left (S) side of road. For the Mount Massive Trailhead, continue .3 miles and look for obvious parking and signboards to your right. The Halfmoon Campground is huge, so the mileages referenced from the Campground are approximations.

South Halfmoon Creek Trailhead
For the South Halfmoon Creek Trailhead, from the Mount Massive Trailhead continue 1.9 miles with high clearance 2-wheel-drive to an obvious fork (possibly marked with a Forest Service road stake with the number "110.3A"). The South Halfmoon Creek Trailhead (10,330’) is next to the river a short distance down the left fork. This trailhead may have no signs, and you'll find plenty of parking.

North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead
To reach the North Halfmoon Creek Trailhead park 2-wheel-drive at the South Halfmoon Creek Trailhead mentioned above. Continue on foot (or with 4-wheel-drive) up the right fork .6 miles to the trailhead (10,530’) which is to the right (N) up off the road. If you cross a bridge over the creek you've gone too far. The trailhead is marked with several signs.

Snow closure varies on the Halfmoon Road. Early winter snow closure can be as far as Halfmoon Campground, with the road again open to Halfmoon Campground by mid May. Winter and early spring closure may be several miles from Halfmoon Campground and trailheads, frequently just after the turn from County Road 11. Melt-out is complete by mid or late June. Mining activity or cabin owners can change this. The Halfmoon Road is a designated multiple use trail shared in winter by skiers and snowmobilers. Check road conditions with the Forest Service in Leadville (see Appendices).

 

Colorado State Highway 82

Highway 82 is a classic Colorado mountain road connecting Glenwood Springs (Interstate 70) with the Arkansas River Valley (Leadville and Buena Vista). You use Highway 82 to access Mt. Elbert from near the town of Twin Lakes on Colorado State Highway 82, via Black Cloud Gulch, Echo Canyon, and the Mt. Elbert Trail.

To reach Twin Lakes, drive Highway 82 for 40 miles E from Aspen (over scenic Independence Pass), or 6 miles W from U.S. Highway 24. Twin Lakes has all-season gas, food, and lodging. If you come from the west remember that Independence Pass is closed during winter. In that case reach U.S. 24 via Interstate 70 or U.S. 50.

Twin Lake's history will interest backcountry skiers. In January of 1962 a gigantic avalanche fell from Gordon Gulch on Mount Elbert, wiped out several homes, and killed nine people. Old timers in the area could recall that the Gordon Gulch slide had run that far about 70 years before, but to the untrained eye the area where the homes were built appeared to be secure forest. If you look sharply as you drive Hwy 82 near the west side of town you can see the foundations of the homes that were wiped out. The trees are growing back.

Black Cloud Gulch trailhead

Drive 4.1 miles W from Twin Lakes on Highway 82. The trailhead (9,690’)is marked by a small sign on the north side of the road. Watch carefully or you’ll miss it.

Echo Canyon trailhead
Drive 6.1 miles W on Hwy 82 to a sign and driveway on the north side of the road near several buildings. Possibly drive up the driveway a short distance to a small amount of parking on public land(9,967’), or park near the highway. Avoid private property.

Southeast Mount Elbert Trail Trailhead

(Don't mistake this for the Elbert trail leaving from Halfmoon Creek.)

Drive easterly from the town of Twin Lakes on Highway 82. At 2.4 miles turn left(N) onto Lake County Road 24 (paved). If you're driving a low clearance vehicle you have two choices for parking. One choice is to drive road 24 for .9 mile to Lakeview Campground and find the trailhead in the campground, which is a confusing array of loop roads. Ask the campground host for directions to the trialhead. As well as being the Mount Elbert Trail, this is also the Colorado Trail, and starts on Loop G (9,572’). Another choice: Instead of turning into the campground, continue up the paved road .2 mile past the campground to an overlook parking area on the left (E). Park at the overlook and then walk the 4x4 trail as described below.

With a high clearance or 4-wheel-drive vehicle, the following variation for the Mount Elbert Trail Trailhead knocks about 2 miles and a bit of vertical off the climb: A few feet past the overlook parking described above, take a left on FS Road 125.1B (may have a sign of some sort, sometimes indicating “South Mt. Elbert Trailhead”).

Drive this moderate jeep trail 1.8 miles to parking at its terminus near a signboard and footbridge over a creek (10,545’), (GPS N 39 degrees 06.337’ W 106 degrees 23.722’). The start of the trail is obvious (it’s a continuation of the road). While this road may be suitable for high-clearance 2-wheel-drive, it has several rough sections, a creek crossing, and may be slippery when wet. Numerous unimproved campsites and parking spots are located along the road.

Road 505 (A.K.A. Upper Fryingpan Road)

Road 505 is used to reach North Mount Massive from the west, as well as beautiful 13,000 foot peaks such as Deer Mountain. This approach requires a great deal of driving for people from the Eastern Slope, but Western Slope climbers enjoy this convenient trailhead.

Road 505 is a dirt spur off the paved Fryingpan Road. It was built for maintenance of the Fryingpan Arkansas water diversion project. In winter, Road 505 remains snowcovered and is shared by skiers and snowmobilers. Early in spring (early May) the road is plowed 6 miles to its end in the Upper Fryingpan Drainage (skiers take note). After it's plowed it is gated on occasion, but usually open.

To reach Road 505, drive to Basalt on Highway 82 between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Drive E through Basalt on Midland Avenue (the main street), which soon becomes the Fryingpan Road (county road 104). Drive the Fryingpan Road from Basalt 26.5 miles to the Biglow fork. Take the right (S) fork and continue 5.9 miles up pavement. Here Road 505 is obvious as it turns to the right off the pavement. A small sign has the numerals "505," and there may be a larger Forest Service sign here as well, indicating "Fryingpan Lakes." Drive Road 505 6 miles to parking at road's end near a valve station (10,000’). In winter, park on a widened part of the Fryingpan Road near the start of Road 505, or slightly farther up the main road at the plow turnaround. (Mileages above are measured from Alpine Bank in Basalt).

 

Thanksgiving snowcave on top of Mount Elbert.