Climbing Mount Elbert, Colorado’s Forgotten King

Contrary to what one might think, the highest mountain in Colorado (and the Rocky Mountains) isn’t a gnarly, jagged ogre of a mountain. The 14,440-foot summit that stands as the highest point in Colorado is a rather unsuspecting monarch, and its majesty is somewhat diminished by having a rather ummm … unmajestic name: Mount Elbert.

Because they have been rounded and smoothed out by ancient glaciers, both Mount Elbert and its 14,428-foot neighbor, Mount Massive (second highest in the Rockies), rise like great domes from the high Alpine plateau. The upshot to all this polishing is both peaks make for wonderful, non-technical hikes. Elbert, in particular, is a classic Colorado ascent.

From its lofty summit, many of the highest peaks in Colorado sprawl north, west and south, while the high-altitude town of Leadville is comfortably entrenched in the valley between Elbert’s Sawatch Range and the Mosquito Range to the east. The summit views are impressive, and on early mornings, I’ve stood atop Elbert and gazed across blankets of billowy clouds thousands of feet below.

As the reigning king of Colorado “14ers” (14,000-foot peaks), Elbert has a trailhead that’s surprisingly easy to access, and there’s a well-worn path to the summit. Every year, thousands of people, as well as dogs, make the climb in all seasons. The nine-mile round trip is a good day hike for fit climbers, though I’ve hiked with people who weren’t used to the thin air, and they felt the effects of the altitude as we approached the summit – thanks to an elevation gain of about 4,500 feet.

As I mentioned, the mountain’s name doesn’t match its natural grandeur. Mount Elbert is named for Samuel Hitt Elbert, an Ohioan who served as governor of the Colorado territory from 1873-1874 and later was on the Colorado Supreme Court. While he never climbed the mountain, Elbert was given the naming honor by local prospectors after he brokered a deal with the Ute Indians to allow mining and railroads in Ute territory. To be fair, H.W. Stuckle made the first recorded ascent of the peak in 1874. So is Mount Stuckle a better name? Actually … it’s not bad!

Even though it’s hiding in plain sight, Elbert doesn’t have the western glamour of Pikes Peak nor does it have the hometown swagger of Longs Peak (featured on the Colorado U.S. quarter dollar). But Elbert is a magnificent hike and relatively secret summit, one worth visiting if you happen to find yourself in Colorado with a pair of hiking boots on your feet.

Traveler’s Notebook

Mount Elbert is in the Leadville Ranger District of the San Isabel National Forest. Its two most standard routes are the South Mount Elbert Trail for the east ridge route and the North Mount Elbert Trail for the northeast ridge. For route details and directions to the trailheads, visit the Forest Service site by clicking here.


James Dziezynski is a freelance writer based in Colorado, and the author of the best-selling guidebook “Best Summit Hikes in Colorado.” To read about more of his adventures, visit his blog at

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