Mount Elbert - South Halfmoon Creek
Ski rating: Advanced D8
While the Mount Elbert Trail is probably the standard for summer hiking as well as ski touring Mount Elbert, if you seek a steeper direct line on snow this is it. (Not recommended for summer or winter, only spring snow season with good coverage.)
Spring snow season: As a Sawatch classic for snow climbing and skiing, it's best to climb this couloir from a camp at 11,200’ in South Halfmoon Creek. Fit mountaineers, however, can take advantage of a late western sunhit and perhaps do this route in one day from the trailhead (depending on snow closure of the Halfmoon Road.) Later in spring the Halfmoon Road may be open to its intersection with the South Halfmoon valley. In that case this route can be done as a day trip by most competent parties. This side of Mt. Elbert, when devoid of snow, is a huge scree field. Thus, other routes are better for summer climbs.
Depending on snow closure, from Halfmoon Campground follow the Halfmoon Road to parking at the South Halfmoon Creek Trailhead (section introduction). Cross Halfmoon Creek (usually by wading, bring running shoes you can leave at the crossing) and climb an old jeep trail 2 miles to 11,400’.
Look up to your left and spot a prominent break in the timber at the base of the spectacular gully leading to Elbert's summit. Climb through the break then up the gully. Descend your ascent route.
Safety notes: This avalanche gully is only safe with compacted spring-season snow.
Winter climbing: This can be a reasonable winter route provided you use wind scoured ribs for avalanche safe travel. The gully may be filled with wind hardened avalanche safe snow, but don't count on it. The East Ridge and Mount Elbert Trail routes are more accessible winter lines, and include ridges that may provide safety from avalanches. See below.
Mount Elbert - Northeast Ridge
[Lou 10-29-04 use book date block, with following change]Start summer/spring: Mount Elbert Trailhead on Halfmoon Road 10,060’, ski rating Intermediate, D6]
This is an excellent summer hike/climb or winter ascent of Mount Elbert. It’s a good summit ski descent if the upper reaches have not been wind scoured. Observe from valley to evaluate snow cover, for evaluation of avalanche danger as well as need for skis or snowshoes.
Summer after snow melt-off: Begin from the Mount Elbert Trailhead on Halfmoon Road (see section introduction). Park your automobile and hike south on the Colorado/Main Range Trail 3/4 mile to a high point (10,600’) in the timber (you are actually on the true East Ridge of Elbert). Continue south on the trail as it gradually drops.
Look for a well used trail (could be signed) turning off to the right about 1/4 mile after you begin the gradual descent. This is the main climber's trail. Take this trail (it starts as a wide trail which gradually narrows and becomes rougher as it climbs) and follow it up the right (N) side of the Box Creek drainage to timberline.
When you break through the trees, identify the Box Creek Cirque above you. Your route continues up the right side of the Box Creek drainage, gradually gaining the crest of the East Ridge at 12,600’ near the base of the Box Creek Cirque. Follow the ridge to the summit, and descend your ascent route.
Spring snow season: To begin, use the summer route above. If the Halfmoon Road is closed, consider the southern Mount Elbert trail route.
From the Mount Elbert Trailhead on Halfmoon Road (see section introduction) follow the Colorado/Main Range Trail to the first high-point at 10,600’ on Elbert's east ridge. Instead of dropping south as the summer route describes, simply turn right off the trail, climb the northeast ridge through timber to treeline, and stick with the ridge to the summit. If you’re not skiing, descend the ridge. Skiers can make turns down the ridge, perhaps dropping more to the south for better snow between the ridge crest and Box Creek.
Experts can ski Box Creek Cirque. To do so drop east from the summit towards the descender's right (S) side of the cirque. At about 13,800’ drop into the cirque and ski an obvious couloir on your right (D10). This route avoids a steeper cliff area in the middle of the cirque headwall. With good snowcover the steep sections of the cirque have routes as well (Extreme D11).
Winter: Drive to the Halfmoon Road snow closure, then ski the Halfmoon Creek Road to the Mount Elbert Trailhead parking area on Halfmoon Road (section introduction). On heavy snow years this trailhead may be difficult to spot. It's important to use the trail from here because it leads through dense dark timber.
From the summer trailhead, ski up the trail as it traverses the North Flank of Mount Elbert. At the two mile point (10,400’) leave the trail and climb SW through a forest up to the crest of the wide and lower angled portion of the East Ridge (12,400 foot level). From here follow the East Ridge to the summit.
Descend the ridge. Or if you feel avalanche conditions allow you can descend the huge East bowl or the North flanks of the peak. In winter, stay out of the Box Creek Cirque. In both cases you'd take the Colorado/Main Range Trail back to the Halfmoon Road.
Safety notes: During any season, be prepared for wind and cold on this exposed ridge route. For snow season climbers, avalanche problems are minimal because the route sticks to a ridge. But you may encounter dangerous cornices. The steep pitch just below the summit can avalanche given extremely unstable snow. You can avoid this pitch by sticking to the ridge rocks.
Mount Elbert - Mount Elbert Trail (standard hike route)
[Lou 02-16-05, use existing data block, ski rating D6]
Mt. Elbert has seen ascents by almost every conveyance known to man—automobile, bicycle—you name it; they have all been to the highest point in Colorado.
Most "novelty" ascents have used The Mount Elbert Trail. The route is now closed to combustion motorized use, and is a nice hike with obvious tread all the way to the summit. What is more, this route is external of legal "big W" wilderness and is thus utilized for bicycle travel (though you'll have to push your bike up most of the upper part.)
Historical note: While internet research draws a big fat zero on this, it's known to folks who've been around a while that in the 1960s Chevrolet put together a stunt ascent of Elbert with Blazer model 4x4 trucks. We can only pray that eventually some footage of this debacle would make it to Youtube.
Due to the relativly mellow "hiking" trail that reaches the summit via this route, this thus makes a good first fourteener for youth or folks with physical limitations. It also makes an attractive route for hardcore bicyling.
Enjoy this route during a clear blue autumn day in September or October, you won't be disappointed.
Summer after snow melt-off: Drive to the Mount Elbert Trail Trailhead via Highway 82 and Lake County Road 24 (see section introduction). From parking, hike the Colorado Trail (marked with small white triangles nailed to trees) as it follows a jeep trail (or starts with a foot trail that leads to the jeep trail, depending on your exact starting point). At 2 miles the jeep trail becomes a foot trail, which then crosses a small bridge over a creek. Just after the footbridge take an imediate left at a fork, then follow easy grade up and a bit down though elegant aspen forest for 1/8 mile to a left fork with good signs indicating the Mount Elbert Trail (GPS N 39 degrees 06.572’ W 106 degrees 23.641’.
Pause to enjoy the beautiful aspen forest, then head up (W) up the famous Mount Elbert Trail.
You immediately know this trail's purpose as it climbs up a steep hill W through forest to cross a creek at 10,960’. The trail swings north after the creek and climbs out of Bartlett Gulch 1/2 mile to 10,400’ on Mt. Elbert's grand East Ridge. After 1/2 miles up through sparse trees on the ridge you break timberline at 11,600 feet. Looming ahead is the summit.
Take heart, the obvious trail you're standing on continues up the ridge one mile to a shelf at 12,400’, then climbs steeply to the base of the summit scree-dome (13,600 feet). For map practice, stop here and decide whether you can see the true summit from your position. Continue up the trail as it traverses a short distance around the southeast side of the summit dome, then climbs a series of switchbacks to the top. Descend via the same route.
Enjoy the terrific view from the summit. Mount Massive looms to the north over the deep chasm of Half Moon drainage. La Plata Peak is the huge rocky fist to the southwest. You can easily spot a dozen fourteeners from the top of Mount Elbert (hint: many are to the west in the Elk Mountains).
Spring Snow Season: Use the route above. During early spring you won't be able to drive the dirt road portion of the auto route. Skiers will enjoy the ascent route provided the East Ridge is not too wind scoured. For more consistent (but steeper) skiing, try the upper basin in Bartlett Gulch. This option is rated advanced. Extreme skiers can try Horseshoe Cirque. Terrain in Horseshoe Cirque is in the D9 range.
Winter: Use the summer route described above. Park at the overlook turnout on Lake County Road 24.
Safety notes: Don't let the mellow nature of this route lull you into false security. You're still above timber where the weather can change by the moment. Winter climbers, provided they use wind scoured areas for safe passage, will find this route is reasonably safe from avalanches. For sunhit, use standard sunrise minus about one hour.
Mount Elbert via Black Cloud Gulch
[Lou 02-16-05, use existing data block, ski rating Advanced D8]
This route is slightly more direct than the Echo Canyon route. Summer climbers use it for variety, but first-time Elbert climbers are better off using the Mount Elbert Trail . Skiers will find plenty of vertical on the Black Cloud Gulch route, but it doesn't usually allow a summit ski descent.
Summer after snow melt-off: Drive Highway 82 to the Black Cloud Gulch Trailhead (section introduction). Park, then take care to find a steep trail leading up the right side of the creek. Follow this trail 1 1/2 miles to 11,600’—a grunt. Continue to follow the creek up the valley through beautiful alpine terrain, pass a small tarn (12,400’), and climb NW to an obvious saddle (13,360’) northeast of Bull Hill. From the saddle head NE along the ridge 1 1/4 miles to the summit. Don't let the first false summit fool you, it is a long ridge! Descend via the same route, or nip over Bull Hill and descend the Echo Canyon (1.2.9) route. For a steeper climb, you can climb N from the mining area at 11,600’, then follow the southeast ridge to the summit.
Spring snow season: Use the route above. For a good ski or snow-climb variation break right N) at about 11,700’ and ascend a gully system to Mount Elbert's south summit (14,134’). Continue to the main summit if time allows. Ski or downclimb the gully you ascended. You must have advanced ski and snow climbing skills for this option.
Safety notes: Winter climbing on this route is not recommended. During summer, as with many other Sawatch fourteeners you'll be cresting a ridge for some time so beware of lightning.
Mount Elbert from Echo Canyon
[Lou 06-30-05, use data block from book, no ski or snow ratings]
Climbers who like technically easy routes will enjoy this fine hiking tour with plenty of high-ridge vistas. The route is not recommended for snow seasons.
Summer after snow melt-off: Drive Highway 82 to the Echo Canyon Trailhead (section introduction). Hike up a driveway (avoid private property), then continue up Echo Creek to 10,600’. Leave the drainage here and climb NE up through the Last Chance mining area 1 1/2 miles and 2,000 vertical’ to 100 vertical feet below the summit of Bull Hill. Skirt around the right (E) side of Bull Hill 1/2 mile to the NE ridge connecting to Mount Elbert. You'll need to descend this ridge a bit to Black Cloud Saddle (13,360’) at the head of Black Cloud Creek.
From Black Cloud Saddle, continue NE up the obvious ridge a mile to the summit. Beware of false summits—a mile of ridge at this altitude can seemingly last forever. Descend the same route, or do a traverse of the peak with a descent of any other route in this section.
Safety notes: This is a long, arduous journey. Start early and watch the weather.
La Plata Peak –South Fork Lake Creek Trailhead
Turn off 82: N 39 04.073 W 106 30.308
Trail leaves dirt road: N 39 03.835 W 106 30.243, GPS elevation 10,200’
Footbridge over gorge: N 39 03.798 W 106 30.187
La Plata Peak, Oxford, etc. Vicksburg –Winfield
Turn off Hwy 24 on County Road 390 N 39 W 01.582’ W 106 14.763
Missouri Gulch Trailhead Parking (just before Vicksburg) N 38 59.897 W 106 22.486
N 38 59.104 W 106 26.455
Right turn off FSR 390A on to spur for La Plata trailhead
N 38 59.558 W 106 28.144
Trailhead signboard, La Plata from Winfield
N 38 59.536 W 106 28.281
Pine Creek Trailhead
Hwy 24/CR-388 39 00.161 106 14.183
trailhead parking 38 59.901 106 13.826
Mount Elbert Trail Trailhead (at Lakeview Campground on Hwy 82
Turn left on HWY 82 at
N 39 05.784, W 106 20.708
Turn off to Lakeview CG
N 39 05.0934, W 106 21.704
Actual trailhead within CG
N 39 05.883 W 106 22.045
GPS elevation 9,572’
Overlook past CG
39 05.953 106 22.028
gps elevation 9,673’
End of 4x4 road
N 39 06.337 W 106 23.718
gps elevation 10,500’
Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, Half Moon Road
Hwy 24 and Hatchery Road
N 39 13.304
W 106 20.964
Hatchery Road and Lake County 11
Right turn at 1.1 miles
Half Moon Campground at 4.9 miles
Elbert Trailhead on left at 6 miles
GPS elevation 10070
Massive Trailhead on right at 6.3 miles
GPS elevation 10065