Forget Longs Peak or even Pikes Peak: The lesser-known Mount Elbert is Colorado's highest point at 14,433 feet above sea level.
The second-highest point in the lower 48 states, behind California's Mount Whitney (14,494 feet), Elbert is a peak bagger's delight. It is as little as a 4.5-mile one-way hike, only climbs 4,358 feet from the trailhead and is scaled too in the winter by experienced mountaineers, because its gentle slopes moderate avalanche dangers.
Located in the Sawatch Range, about 10 miles southwest of Leadville, Elbert isn't as impressive looking from below as its nearest neighbor, Mount Massive (Colorado's second highest at 14,421). However, on top is one of Colorado's best panoramas, and unlike Pikes Peak or Longs Peak — both on the Front Range — there's far less trace of civilization nearby.
"Fourteeners" (14,000-foot or taller mountains) are common in the Centennial State. There are 53 Fourteeners in Colorado, none in Utah. (For comparison purposes, Utah's tallest summit, Kings Peak, is more than 900 feet shorter at 13,538.)
But despite the abundance of impressive peaks, "Wow" is still a common adjective heard among hikers who reach Elbert's summit.
Dozens of people a day reach the summit in the summer, with about half coming from the two longer routes: Black Cloud Trail (5.5 miles, one-way) or the South Trail (6.2 miles, one-way). There are also two other more obscure paths to the summit.
Ideal hiking time is June through the end of September. The only potentially disappointing factors in the hike would be stormy weather or getting "psyched-out" by the several false summits.
With the treeline in central Colorado in the 12,000-foot elevation range, surprisingly the first third of the hike up is through pine and aspen forest. The trail is well-defined, though one of the steepest sections before the summit does have an ample supply of loose rock — worse on the downhill return.
As with any high-altitude hike, carry plenty of liquid, have warm clothing on hand, beware of altitude sickness symptoms and watch the skies for potential lightning danger. In summer, it's a good rule to summit by noon to avoid storms.
• "This was our first Fourteener and a really great experience! . . . The aspen leaves were yellow, the sky was a dark blue and there was no snow or rain in the morning. Thanks to experienced hikers who gave us a lot of good tips for planning." — Tom Briscoe, Matt Briscoe, Michael Briscoe, Fort Collins, Colo.Mount Elbert was named for Samuel Elbert, territorial governor of Colorado in 1873. It had other names, but Elbert stuck. A feud with lovers of nearby Mount Massive meant hikers used to stack rocks on that peak, hoping to elevate it above Elbert. Apparently, most of these efforts were abandoned when the U.S. Geological Survey declined to recognize any increase in height.
For part of the 19th Century, Pikes Peak was believed to be Colorado's highest and Elbert was undiscovered.
Unlike Kings Peak or Mount Whitney — totally covered with large slabs of rock on top — Elbert actually has a fair amount of true dirt on top. What rock is on the peak has been used to create a few rock wall shelters from the gusty winds that frequent Elbert.
On top is a truly panoramic, eye-candy view that could only be exceeded in an airplane.
Most hiking guides consider this a good day hike, with three hours up and two hours down as the norm on the south trail. Like Mount Whitney, this is one of those long walk hikes, with no special skills required.
Although you can drive to some other 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado (Pikes Peak and Mount Evans), this may be the easiest hikeable-only Fourteener in the country.
Consider this sampling of personal summit entries this past summer, taken from an on-line after-the-summit Web site, www.peakware.com/wsl/logs/elbert.htm: