The second highest mountain peak in the lower 48 states is just a three-hour drive and a four-hour hike from Steamboat Springs. Anyone who can hike to the summit of Storm Peak at the Steamboat Ski Area should be able to attain the 14,433 summit of Mount Elbert (only California's Mount Whitney is higher in the lower 48). The rewards include views of some of the most rugged country in the Rocky Mountains and a sense of accomplishment.
Though Elbert is the tallest of Colorado's fourteeners, it is far from the toughest to climb and represents a reasonable goal for first-timers.
The hike begins with a series of moderate switchbacks, then eases into a section of rolling terrain where it shares its route for three-quarters of a mile with the Colorado Trail. Upon leaving the Colorado Trail, North Elbert climbs more steeply through the timber, but the footing is always favorable -- anyone who has tackled the Gilpin/Gold Creek lakes loop in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area will be undeterred by this section of trail.
During the first half of the hike, it's worth monitoring the sky through the canopy of evergreens. The upper section of the Mount Elbert hike is completely exposed to the elements and it's no place to be caught in a lightning storm. Hikers who undertake a Colorado fourteener should consider making a pact in advance to turn back and wait for another day if a storm threatens.
Nearing timberline, backpackers will see some obvious camp sites. After walking through a high meadow, the last stand of timber on the mountain offers a few more camping sites. The San Isabel National Forest urges campers to use cook stoves instead of campfires on heavily traveled Mount Elbert, and to practice low impact camping techniques.
From timberline, the false summit of Mount Elbert appears close at hand and offers false hope. It quickly becomes apparent how difficult it is to judge distances in this Alpine environment when tiny moving specks on higher ridges reveal themselves to be other hikers.
The great bulk of Mount Massive affords changing views to hikers' right, and Turquoise Lake is visible beyond.
At 12,500 feet the Twin Lakes, in the direction of Colorado Highway 82 and the route to Independence Pass, come into view.
Small Alpine rodents called pikas announce themselves with a "beeping" cry and fortunate hikers will spy well-camouflaged ptarmigan in the rocks.
The toughest section of the hike begins at about 13,000 feet -- not only is the air thinner than any Routt County hikers are accustomed to, but the climb becomes steeper and the footing becomes rocky. Some hikers will notice their fingertips have begun to swell and tingle from poor circulation.
The good news is that once the false summit is reached, the climb to the summit isn't much more than a stroll -- there's no need to hoist oneself up large boulders on the approach to Elbert's summit. Nor are climbers exposed to any sheer drops.
From the summit, another fourteener, La Plata Peak, is readily identifiable to the south. But the most stirring views are to the west, where it's possible to spot Mount Sopris south of Glenwood Springs far off to the right, or north. From Sopris, people who are familiar with Colorado geography will quickly recognize, in order, Snowmass Peak, Capitol Peak (still holding more snow than any of the others), the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak, all in the Aspen area.
Hiking up Mount Elbert is no great feat of mountaineering. But the snapshots people send off upon their return are almost guaranteed to impress relatives in far away states, where the scenery is flat and the air is rich with oxygen.
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