Length: 12.5 miles round-trip and 4,900 vertical feet (or 8.5 miles and 4,100 from the 4WD trailhead)
Difficulty: Most difficult
Why we love it: It’s your chance to snap a selfie standing on the roof of the Rockies.
When to go: Late spring through early fall, once most of the snow has melted from the trail
Pre-hike Buzz: Forgo your morning buzz and get a crack-of-dawn start to avoid thunderstorms and leave plenty of time to get back to your car.
Restrooms: None available
Dogs: Must be leashed

At 14,433 feet, Mount Elbert is not only the tallest peak in Colorado, it’s also the highest in the entire Rocky Mountain range. If you’re gunning for the roof of the Rockies, the East Ridge route offers a shorter alternative to the standard path up the Northwest Slopes—especially if you have a 4WD vehicle and are able to make it to the upper trailhead. Beginning here shaves several miles off the hike and about 800 vertical feet.

From the 2WD trailhead at 10,400 feet, the East Ridge Trail initially follows the Colorado and Continental Divide trails, which wind through one of the many large aspen groves on Elbert’s lower slopes. After about 0.25 mile you arrive at a trail junction; stay left to head uphill on the South Mount Elbert Trail.

As you continue onward and upward, the trail enters a healthy evergreen forest and then passes through a series of meadows. At treeline (11,700 feet), the trail briefly levels out before climbing again toward the mountain’s east ridge, which you join at an elevation of about 12,400 feet.

If the weather looks stable, continue up the obvious trail as it climbs the mountain’s East Ridge and then at 13,600 feet begins to switchback up the southern side of the summit block. As you approach the summit, the trail bends to the west and then veers again to reach the top of the state, where you’ll enjoy fabulous views of Mount Massive, the second-highest fourteener, Mount Harvard, the Twin Lakes, and the Continental Divide. After enjoying a well-earned summit snack, carefully retrace your steps back to your car.

Standing on the roof of the Rockies. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Getting There: From Leadville, take US-24 south toward Buena Vista for about 15 miles to the junction with CO-82 (Independence Pass Road). Turn right (west) and follow CO-82 about 4 miles to County Road 24. Turn right onto Road 24 and follow it 1.2 miles uphill to the South Mount Elbert trailhead, where people with 2WD cars should park. Those with 4WD can turn left a few feet after the trailhead onto County Road 125B and follow this rough road another 1.5 or so miles to the 4WD trailhead, where the road ends. We were able to reach this with no great difficulty in our Subaru.

Logistics: Dispersed, low-impact camping is allowed near the trailhead. For safety considerations, detailed route descriptions, and recent access and trail conditions, visit 14ers.com.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.