When Chris & I took our first trip to Colorado together and decided to tackle our first 14ers, we decided why not attempt the two highest peaks in the state?
Mt. Elbert (14,439′) & Mt. Massive (14,429′) are Colorado’s tallest mountains, and part of the “14ers,” or peaks above 14,000 ft. We spoke with some locals who told us that for years there was much debate over which peak was actually the tallest. Apparently, Mt. Massive supporters would stack boulders on the peak at night to try and fool the USGS and have it crowned as Colorado’s highest peak. Those attempts eventually failed.
If you’re interested in attempting both peaks like we did, accessibility is easy. We camped at Elbert Creek Campground, which sits at 10,000 ft. and is only a short walk from the trailhead for either mountain. The Halfmoon Campground is a bit further down the same road.
Day one: Mount Elbert (14,439′)
- Trail(s) taken: North Mt. Elbert Trail – Colorado Trail – North Mt. Elbert Trail
- Distance: 9.1 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: approx. 4,500′
Across from our campsite was the parking lot for the North Mr. Elbert Trail. After a few hundred feet the trail quickly intersects with the Colorado Trail, or Continental Divide Trail. This trail is essentially a highway through the state, full of thru-hikers and bike-packers. If you’re from the Northeast like Chris and I, you will probably be equally amazed at how flat and clear the trail is… roots or rocks in sight anywhere! This made for an easy walk on our legs. After a while the two trails split; from here, continue on the North Mt. Elbert Trail to the summit.
In terms of rigor, I would equate this hike to the elevation gain & distance of Mount Washington. There are many switchbacks on the lower parts of the trail, but the top portion is a bit more direct and rocky, just like back home! Much of this hike is above treeline, so keep that in mind if you’re hiking in the afternoon when thunderstorm risks are high.
Also, “summit signs” are a thing here. People make their own signs to hold when they reach the summit of high peaks. I had never seen or heard of this before! Someone let us borrow theirs so we could have a commemorative photo shoot:
Day two: Mount Massive (14,429′)
- Trail(s) taken: Colorado Trail – Mt. Massive Trail
- Distance: 12.8 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: approx. 4,500′
A bit further down the road from our previous day’s hike, we jumped on the Colorado Trail in the opposite direction. About halfway up, the Colorado Trail split to the right, and we continued to the left onto the Mt. Massive Trail. All in all this trail is a bit more mellow (similar elevation gain over an extra mile or so) and MUCH quieter than the trails up to Mt. Elbert. We crossed paths with probably 50 people during our trek up Elbert, and only 5 or 6 during our entire Mt. Massive hike. This summit was our favorite of the two.
Some things we learned from this trip:
Acclimation is important. As East Coasters, we often forget how low in elevation we live. Chris & I assumed that we could drive up to our campsite at 10,000 ft., get a good night’s rest, and be ready to go. We thought “hey, we hike similar distances and elevation gains all the time back home… how hard can this be?” Unfortunately the elevation took its toll on both of us. On the second day Chris wanted to turn around, but we instead adjusted our pace, took plenty of rest stops, and eventually made the summit. If you’re not used to hiking at high elevation, consider giving yourself a couple of days to acclimatize.
Set your own pace. It was admittedly frustrating to have trail runners bolt past us as we were struggling to breathe, but don’t forget that they’re probably used to it. We just laughed it off and took things slow. Just remember that if you’re anticipating taking a longer hike to get started early and be off the mountain before any thunderstorm danger pops up in the afternoon.
Treat yo self. After a long day on the mountain, who doesn’t love to enjoy a great meal? On both days we drove into nearby Leadville, CO and each ate our own pizza at High Mountain Pies. We deserved it, and also like to support local businesses when we can. Check them out if you’re ever in the area.
Have you hiked any 14ers? What are some of your favorite peaks? Any tips for Chris & I as we think about hiking other 14ers in the future? Let me know in the comments below! And don’t forget that you can find me on instagram @kaitohkay