Looking for a moderate distance trail run that climbs into the high alpine? Do you prefer loops to out-and-backs, so that you don’t have to travel along the same trail in both directions? Do you like 14ers and peak bagging in the wilderness? Did you know it was possible to get all of that on the tallest mountain in Colorado?
We’ve been making a somewhat annual trip to Mount Elbert because we love that kind of trailrunning loop as well. The 11-mile trail linkup with 4,400 feet of elevation gain starts from just outside of Twin Lakes (with a short drive up a somewhat bumpy jeep road). Whether you’re looking to go fast or just want a novel way to climb the state’s highest summit, this loop is worth checking out.
The setup is easy. Get to the South Elbert Trailhead and begin your run, or hike if that’s more your speed, heading north along the Colorado Trail. A couple of hundred yards after starting you’ll pass a sign for the South Elbert Trail on your left, which is your return route. Don’t turn there. Continue north for about 4 miles on the rolling Colorado Trail, a good warm up before beginning the steeper ascent up the peak. Before you know it you’ll reach a well signed junction with the Mount Elbert Trail on your left. You can’t miss it.
Turn onto the Mount Elbert Trail and begin the climb to the summit. It’s runnable in parts, but you’ll often find a power-hike to be more reasonable when the angle ramps up. Break treeline and continue up at whatever pace you can muster, and climb up the Northeast Ridge all the way to the summit. As you approach the summit take note of the newly signed intersection with the South Elbert Trail. That’s your route of descent.
Tag the summit, take in the views, and whenever you’re ready head down the trail to the aforementioned sign. Turn right on the South Elbert Trail, and follow it as it switchbacks down in the direction of Twin Lakes. Dirt and talus will become grassy slopes and eventually forest as you descend back down towards the trailhead. Before you know it you’ll be at the signed junction you passed soon after you started. Turn right and reach the trailhead, just a couple of hundred yards away.
And that’s our Mount Elbert loop. It’s a great linkup as a trail run, a hike, or if you’re just looking for a more novel way to climb Mount Elbert than a standard out-and-back. It is possible to run the loop in the reverse direction or to start and finish at the Halfmoon Creek trailhead as well. Have fun out there.