Mount Elbert: The Highest Peak in the Rocky Mountains

Sunset Aspen Valley – at the foot of Mount Elbert (14,440 feet, the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains of North America) | Sean Xu

In the deep heart of the Rocky Mountains, just south of the alpine town of Leadville, a mountain known locally as the “Gentle Giant” overlooks snow-capped ranks of lesser peaks and hills. This is where she has lived for about thirty million years, and with any luck, the next thirty million years isn’t going to be any different.

Colorado’s Highest Peak

At 14,440 feet, Mount Elbert is the tallest point in the American state of Colorado, a place that is already teeming with jagged mountains that ride the border between heaven and earth. From the summit of Elbert, it is easy to imagine that you are on the actual highest point in North America, but you’d be living a lie. Elbert, for all its majesty, ranks 27th in height for all of the US and Canada. (Just don’t tell a Coloradoan that.)

Twin Peaks at Mount Elbert the Tallest Peak in Colorado and the High Altitude Gorgeous Twin Lake down below. A Summer Landscape high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado near Aspen in the Sawach Range | Roschetzky Photography

Samuel Hitt Elbert: Territorial Governor of Colorado

Samuel Hitt Elbert | Colorado State Archives

Mount Elbert’s namesake was one of the last territorial governors of Colorado before statehood was introduced, and he served at the personal appointment of President Ulysses S. Grant. However, despite his popularity as governor and his friendship with President Grant, he was removed with almost no explanation a short one year later.

A Tale of Dueling Peaks

One of Mount Elbert’s closest neighbors, Mount Massive, has been nipping on Elbert’s geological heels, so to speak. At 14,429 feet in height, it is only barely the shorter of the two. So narrow is the difference that in the 1970s, a group of Mount Massive Loyalists kicked off an effort to make their peak the highest in the state by carrying rocks up to the summit. They would add ten to fifteen feet, claim victory, and then wait for the Elbert Lovers to come and tear it back down in what sounds today like a cheeky rivalry.

Apparently, everyone got tired of hauling those rocks back and forth, as the tradition died out sometime in the 80s.

Hiking Mount Elbert

As the highest point in Colorado, you might assume that Mount Elbert offers up some of the most intense and rugged terrain in the state. On this point, you would be mistaken. The reason that Mount Elbert is sometimes called the “Gentle Giant” is because it is actually one of the more moderate hiking mountains in the area.

Fox on the hiking trial, Mount Elbert, Colorado | Barbara W

While by no means an easy walk, the hike up the slopes of Elbert is one of the safest 14ers in the state thanks to the rounded top and wide trails. There are even narrow jeep trails leading all the way to the summit, making it somewhat common to encounter motorized vehicles even on the summit.

Accessing Mount Elbert requires about a 2 hour drive from the Denver area, into the high mountains around Leadville and Twin Lakes. In all there are 5 different routes to get to the top, but the most commonly used route is from the North Mt. Elbert Trailhead just outside of Leadville.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris) on alpine Mount Elbert | Nikki Yancey

The way up is a moderately sloped trail that passes the bones of old mining cabins hiding among the lodge pole pine. Treeline is at 11,900 feet, which also happens to be about half the distance towards the peak. After a few frustrating false summits, the route becomes significantly steeper for the final 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

The views from the summit are nothing short of spectacular. Mount Massive stands large to the North and dominates the skyscape, but on a clear day one can face south and feel as if they are seeing clear into Mexico.

From here it is easy to understand why the famous 14er’s of Colorado have become something of a rite of passage for local mountain climbers. Standing there on the crest of such behemoths is the source of an existential perspective that is found in no other place, no dream, nor venture quite like the climbing of something larger than ourselves.

Mount Elbert | Brian Wolski

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