Mt. Elbert – Colorado
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” John Muir
Why This Mountain?
Hitting some peaks in the Rocky Mountains was high on our lists. Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains so we had to do it! In fact, after Mt. Whitney in California, it’s the highest peak in the contiguous United States!
Mountain & Route Facts
Mt. Elbert has an elevation of 14,439′. It is in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. Despite being the highest point in Colorado, it is not as well known as some of the other Colorado 53 fourteeners such as Pikes Peak, Longs Peak and the Maroon Bells. It is located in the San Isabel National Forest about 2 hours east of Aspen and about 2.5 hours southwest of Denver. The closest city is Leadville.
Weather conditions often change rapidly, and afternoon thunderstorms are common in the summertime; hailstorms and snow are possible year-round. An electrical storm on the mountain’s summit was considered remarkable enough to be reported in the July 1894 issue of Science.
There are three main routes (East, North and South) all which gain over 4,100′. There is also a Class 2 climb called the Black Cloud Trail that takes ten to fourteen hours to ascend 5,300′ and is technically tricky. We took the South Mt. Elbert Trail and were able to drive our 4×4 truck up to the high camp. This cut off about 2 miles and 800′ of elevation gain from the final hike. We camped at high camp and started off on the trail about 4:30am. The first third and last third of the trail are fairly steep. In the middle the hike is more even. All in all the terrain was pretty easy to hike. The summit was one of the most beautiful views from any summit we had seen. Mt. Elbert is surrounded my high mountain lakes and other peaks in the Rocky Mountains. We ended up hiking 8.5 miles with 4,003′ of elevation gain.
Historical and Cultural Information
Mt. Elbert was named in honor of Colorado statesman Samuel Hitt Elbert, who was active in the formative period of the state and Governor of the Territory of Colorado from 1873 to 1874. Henry W. Stuckle of the Hayden Survey was the first to record an ascent of the peak, in 1874. The easiest and most popular climbing routes are categorized as Class 1 to 2 or A+ in mountaineering parlance. Mount Elbert is therefore often referred to as the “gentle giant” that tops all others in the Rocky Mountains.
A matter of some contention arose after the Great Depression over the heights of Elbert and its neighbor, Mount Massive, which differ in elevation by only 12 feet (3.7 m). This led to an ongoing dispute that came to a head with the Mount Massive supporters building large piles of stones on the summit to boost its height, only to have the Mount Elbert proponents demolish them. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful and Mount Elbert has remained the highest peak in Colorado. The first motorized ascent of Elbert occurred in 1949, when a Jeep was driven to the summit, apparently to judge suitability for skiing development.
Mt. Elbert is located in the state of Colorado which became a state on August 1, 1876. The capital is Denver. Colorado is the 8th largest state.
The U.S. acquired a territorial claim to the eastern Rocky Mountains with the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803. This U.S. claim conflicted with the claim by Spain to the upper Arkansas River Basin as the exclusive trading zone of its colony of Santa Fé de Nuevo Méjico. In 1806, Zebulon Pike led a U.S. Army reconnaissance expedition into the disputed region. Colonel Pike and his men were arrested by Spanish cavalrymen in the San Luis Valley the following February, taken to Chihuahua, and expelled from Mexico the following July.
The U.S. relinquished its claim to all land south and west of the Arkansas River and south of 42nd parallel north and west of the 100th meridian west as part of its purchase of Florida from Spain with the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. The treaty took effect February 22, 1821. Having settled its border with Spain, the U.S. admitted the southeastern portion of the Territory of Missouri to the Union as the state of Missouri on August 10, 1821. The remainder of Missouri Territory, including what would become northeastern Colorado, became unorganized territory, and remained so for 33 years over the question of slavery. After 11 years of war, Spain finally recognized the independence of Mexico with the Treaty of Córdoba signed on August 24, 1821. Mexico eventually ratified the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1831. The Texian Revolt of 1835–36 fomented a dispute between the U.S. and Mexico which eventually erupted into the Mexican–American War in 1846. Mexico surrendered its northern territory to the U.S. with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the war in 1848.
On February 28, 1861, outgoing U.S. President James Buchanan signed an Act of Congress organizing the free Territory of Colorado. The original boundaries of Colorado remain unchanged today. The name Colorado was chosen because it was commonly believed that the Colorado River originated in the territory.
The United States Congress passed an enabling act on March 3, 1875, specifying the requirements for the Territory of Colorado to become a state. On August 1, 1876 (28 days after the Centennial of the United States), U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant signed a proclamation admitting Colorado to the Union as the 38th state and earning it the moniker “Centennial State”.
The discovery of a major silver lode near Leadville in 1878 triggered the Colorado Silver Boom. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 invigorated silver mining, and Colorado’s last, but greatest, gold strike at Cripple Creek a few months later lured a new generation of gold seekers. Colorado women were granted the right to vote beginning on November 7, 1893, making Colorado the second state to grant universal suffrage and the first one by a popular vote (of Colorado men). The repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 led to a staggering collapse of the mining and agricultural economy of Colorado, but the state slowly and steadily recovered. Between the 1880s and 1930s, Denver’s floriculture industry developed into a major industry in Colorado. This period became known locally as the Carnation Gold Rush.
Colorado suffered greatly through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but a major wave of immigration following World War II boosted Colorado’s fortune. Tourism became a mainstay of the state economy, and high technology became an important economic engine. The United States Census Bureau estimated that the population of Colorado exceeded five million in 2009.