Hiking Mount Elbert
near Twin Lakes
Colorado's Highest Fourteener
Part of the Sawatch Range in the San Isabel National Forest, Mount Elbert at 14,440' elevation is Colorado's highest fourteener and the second highest mountain in the contiguous US (California's Mount Whitney is 65 ft. taller). Mount Elbert's majesty is somewhat stifled by the high terrain which surrounds it. Leadville, a city about a dozen miles northeast lies 10,000' above sea level. But the upside is that many people of reasonably good fitness can tackle the easiest of the five trails to the summit, the moderately challenging South Mount Elbert Trail along the east ridge. The biggest obstacle is the thin air toward the top.
Mount Elbert is next to the small town of Twin Lakes where fortunate photographers take beautiful photos of the lakes when they are perfectly still, reflecting a stately mountain backdrop. I wasn't so lucky. The winds were constantly creating a light chop on the lakes while we were there. Greg is standing where the two lakes meet (above).
We stayed at the Black Cat B&B , a newer house with two guest rooms and private baths sitting atop a hill overlooking the lakes. I took the photos above and below from the deck outside our room as the sun came up.
Our host served us a large delicious breakfast and offered to drive us to the upper trailhead of the South Mt. Elbert Trail since he had a Jeep and our car couldn't handle the rough two mile road beyond the first parking lot. He said he led hikes up the mountain as a side business, but wasn't charging us. I guess he just wanted something to do that day.
It's best to leave shortly after sunrise if you plan to reach Mt. Elbert's summit and avoid afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. We left sometime midmorning since there was no threat of a storm that day and I knew I didn't have the stamina to reach the top anyway. I'd been in Colorado only a few days, having flown in from Michigan for Thanksgiving of 2007 and I wasn't accustomed to the higher elevations.
We passed the Lakeview Campground and left our car at the first parking lot where the elevation is 9560', leaving 4,900' in elevation gain to the summit along a 12 mile round trip trail from there.
I was glad we could ride up the 4WD road in the Jeep to the upper trailhead which is at 10,440', leaving 4,100' in elevation gain along an 8 mile round trip trail. The road ahead was full of rocks and large potholes, making a high clearance vehicle mandatory, but I had no idea what a rough ride I was in for.
Since my husband wasn't driving, I didn't feel like I could holler repeatedly for the driver to slow down. Greg enjoyed the bouncing while I gripped whatever I could for dear life with one hand and I did my best to keep my camera from banging around with the other. When I spotted a very large puddle and stream ahead, I closed my eyes and hoped we wouldn't tip over. Our driver plowed through without hesitation and I exhaled with relief when we made it through safely.
I was so happy when we reached the upper trailhead so I could get my feet on solid ground. We saw many bare aspens along the 4WD road and the first portion of the path. I imagined it must be beautiful in the fall with all of the bright yellow leaves fluttering about.
In September of 2008 I took this photo showing the yellow aspen dotting the mountainside. The South Mt. Elbert Trail is along the far right ridge. Note how the aspen near the base of the mountain are just starting to turn color.
The moderate climb quickly warmed us to the point that we didn't need our coats. Only a few sections were steep. Most of the path was easy to ascend.
Having flatlander lungs, I had to stop frequently to catch my breath when hiking at over 10,000' elevation. Our guide told us about the time he led a father and son from Texas up the mountain. They had only been in Colorado a few days, but were determined to run all the way to the summit. They did manage to run all the way as the guide struggled to keep up. I felt like such a weakling in comparison. I had only ascended about 800 ft. when I wanted to quit, but our guide told me the views would be worth the effort if I could just make it past the tree line. My constant appetite for spectacular views kept me going. It was a joy to see we were finally nearing the tree line (below).
I made it to 11,800' and discovered it was definitely worth the added pain to take in the views from above the tree line. The mountain ranges seemed to go on and on.
We could see Twin Lakes to the southeast.
Always in better condition than me and having lived in Colorado's higher elevation for a few months by that point, Greg still had some energy and went a bit further. I was satisfied that I could clearly see Mount Elbert's summit and stayed where I was. It was strange that it was still another 2,640' in elevation change to the summit because it didn't look very far. The path didn't seem terribly intimidating, but I had slept less than five hours, was short of breath and needed to save my remaining energy for the descent, so we turned around.
In the photo below, Mt. Elbert's summit is on the far right and lower peaks are to the south (left).
With the constant downslope, my knees bothered me a little and we stopped to stretch occasionally. I was surprised we had seen only one other person on the trail the whole time and no wildlife. Even though I was a bit tired when we reached the Jeep, I had found the ride so distressing that I preferred walking two more miles to our car rather than be tossed about in the backseat again. When we came to the stream and large puddle, we had to cross along slippery, snowy logs to stay dry.
Walking along the 4WD road allowed us to take in the scenery more, so I photographed a lake with beaver dams. I grew somewhat anxious to reach the car as a snowstorm started to brew just west of Twin Lakes. My legs were aching by the time we reached our car.
It was an enjoyable hike overall and an excellent workout. Maybe someday we'll get our own 4WD and leave earlier to reach the summit.