Your Child’s first fourteener can also be Colorado’s highest peak.
Not a technical climbing route, it is one of the easier nearby mountains to climb, but don’t let this fool you. To get safely to and from the summit, you need to be prepared for emergencies and changes in weather. Before even picking a weekend for this, you need to know that you and your kids are truly ready for prolonged exertion at altitude .
This is not a “ jump off the couch” adventure. Start with other longer hikes. Lost Man Loop and Buckskin Pass are all good warm-up hikes with less exposure, where you can make sure that your family can sustain the efficient pace needed for this kind of commitment. A kid’s bonk factor is way more noticeable and potentially problematic at altitude, so wait until your children are old enough to monitor their own fluid and calorie intake. We bring Carbondale Middle School students up Mount Elbert every September, and these kids sign up for it. They want it. My advice is to be the parent who makes this a rite of passage trip after years of fun on longer and longer trails, rather than pushing your kid, and potentially setting yourself up for a situation that isn’t easy to get out of.
The following info is not intended to replace detailed trail descriptions. It can inspire you to start planning this trip. This map might be easier to interpret than a topo map, which you will also need. Remember – no matter which route you choose, plan an early, pre-dawn-at-trailhead start, so you can reach the peak by 11:00 AM, a mandatory turn-around time because it’s essential to descend below treeline before afternoon thunder storms typically set in.
1. Green: Northeast Ridge – North Elbert Trailhead
9.5 miles round trip. Class 1. Low exposure, low rock-fall potential and easy-to-follow route.
This route and its adjacent campground make it convenient to summit nearby Mount Massive on the next day. The downside? This trailhead is an hour farther away from Aspen than the other routes up Elbert. So, if you are not camping, leave your house 2-3 hours before sunrise to make it to the trailhead by dawn. Also, this is the closest route for front-range visitors wishing to bag this well-known peak – so expect heavy foot traffic during summer weekends.
How to get there:
From Aspen, drive over Independence Pass. Go past Twin Lakes to U.S. 24, also known as the “Top of the Rockies Byway.” Drive 11 miles. Just before reaching Leadville, turn left onto State Highway 300. Cross the railroad tracks and drive 0.8 mile and take a slight right onto County Road 11, which runs along Halfmoon Creek. Drive 5 miles to the parking area. The Halfmoon West Campground will be on your right (details below). The Mt. Elbert trailhead will be on your left.
2. Green: East Ridge – South Mount Elbert Trailhead
10 miles round trip if you can drive the 4WD approach; 14 miles from the end of pavement. Class 1. Low exposure, low rock-fall potential and easy-to-follow route.
How to get there:
From Aspen, drive over Independence Pass. Just past Twin Lakes, turn left onto “24 Road.” Drive 1.2 miles up a paved road to the main trailhead parking. Beyond this, the 4WD stretch requires high clearance, and offers little opportunity to turn around. So, if in doubt, park it and walk up to the South Elbert Trailhead. This route follows the Colorado / Continental Divide Trail for the first .4 mile, where you go straight at the South Elbert juncture. Note that an old juncture was closed in 2017 – hike until you reach the clearly visible signage.
3. Blue: Southeast Ridge – Black Cloud Trailhead
11 miles round trip. Class 2. Low exposure, moderate rock-fall potential and moderately hard-to-follow route. Not recommended for less experienced hikers.
How to get there:
From Aspen, drive over Independence Pass. Slow down when you see signs for Mount Elbert Lodge, before you get to Twin Lakes. The somewhat hidden trailhead entrance is immediately before the turn off for the lodge, with a dirt parking area with room for around a dozen cars.
4. Black: Box Creek Couloirs (winter only)
This is a winter-only snow route rated Difficult Class 2, with considerable exposure and rock-fall potential.
Camping at Mount Elbert
Here are some base-camp options perfect for getting a crack-of-dawn start, while also offering fun for other family members who are not ready to hike Mount Elbert. This way, you can make this a guilt-free all-ages getaway.
Twin Peaks Campground (1 on map, above) and Parry Peak Campground (2)
These are best for East Ridge and Southeast Ridge Routes.
Clear signage off of Highway 82 near Twin Lakes. First-come, first served; no reservations. Tent or trailer camping. No plug-in. Picnic tables, fire rings, drinking water, vault toilets. Look for nearby Twin Lakes Bike Trail or bring your SUP for a float after your summit.
Halfmoon West Campground on Emerald Lake (3).
Best for North Ridge Route. See directions to trailhead above. First-come, first served; no reservations. Tent or trailer camping. No plug-in. Picnic tables, fire rings and pit toilets. Note: this campground area is more shady and secluded than the areas near Twin Lakes. Emerald Lake is known for its beautiful water and fishing.
More to Know Before You Go
Provided by the U.S. National Park Service
San Isabel National Forest, Leadville District. (719) 553-1400
This site offers extensive information about trails, routes and what to expect, with photos and topo maps. Created by Bill Middlebrook, this site frequently updates info about conditions with trip reports from individual climbers and hikers.
With trained mountaineers guiding your group, you can learn from experts and trust their experience reading the weather, understanding the terrain, and making decisions for a successful backcountry trip.
Stephen began guiding with Aspen Alpine Guides in 2008 after moving from Switzerland where he spent the previous seven years training and working. In the summer, Stephen guides the regional 14,000 ft peaks, day hikes, rock climbs, as well as altitude training coupled with trail running. In the winter, he is a backcountry ski and snowshoe guide, avalanche educator, and has worked for five years as a ski instructor.