Peak(s):  Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
Date Posted:  10/13/2020
Date Climbed:   10/11/2020
Author:  UTDOGS1997
 Columbus Day Weekend on Elbert, 2020   

Columbus Day weekend of 2020 we decided to tackle Mt. Elbert. My friend and his son had done Gray’s and Democrat during the Covid summer and had the bug to do another 14er before Winter. I had fallen in love with the town of Buena Vista and the Sawatch Range over the previous 8 years and was itching to do another one myself…the summer of 2020 didn’t afford me the opportunity to get up to CO like normal.

We loaded up the truck and our two sons and headed out of town (North Texas) Friday after work. We had done our research and had targeted Mt. Elbert. We knew there were multiple routes that all had their pros and cons. We decided that we would have a couple plans to shoot for and would scout things out when we arrived.

After a quick Friday night stay in the Best Western in Clayton NM, we were off again early Saturday morning. We got to Jan’s Diner (always a destination when I go to BV) around 11:30am. After a scrumptious meal that included the ginormous breakfast burrito (highly recommended), we were off to highway 82 and Twin Lakes. It takes about 25minutes to drive to TwinLakes from BV. Our Plan A was to do the Eastern Route of Mt Elbert (sometimes called the southern route—which I find odd, since there is another route that is actually further south…).

The reason for the Twin Lakes Eastern Route being our Plan A was pretty simple; the forecast called for a weather system to arrive Sunday midday which would bring 30-40mph westerly winds and the potential for rain and snow. We figured that if we were on the Eastern flank, that the behemoth that is Mt. Elbert would be kind and shelter us, at least a little, from the approaching storm. When we arrived at the Twin Lakes Lakeview campground, we found that it was closed. Fortunately, the 4wd dirt road that leads up to Lily Pond was open—this road is numbered 122 and can be found in the for NW area of the LakeView campground. I had my eye on that road during the planning stages of our trip anyway, so we headed up and hoped for the best. Our 4wd Ford F150 with 20 inch tires had no problem going up the 2mile switchbacks. I would have even been comfortable going up the road in my 2wd Ford Escape as long as it was dry. This road is not to be confused with the other 4wd road, 125B which parallels the Mt. Elbert hiking trail for the first 2 miles.

We arrived at Lily Pond around 2pm Saturday and found it to be utterly delightful. Parking spots were plentiful and several remote camping spots had been recently used. The 122 4wd road continues a little further than we went, but we would have needed a vehicle with higher clearance and less weight in the back. We saw one Toyota 4 Runner tackle the final steep up and down and over a rocky creek just past where we camped. But the road only went a ¼ mile more around the pond, and the 4 Runner was heading back after about 20 minutes anyhow.

We set up camp and then scouted the Lily Pond trail to the Mt. Elbert Trail. Everything I had read during our planning never explicitly explained how or even if the hiking trail would actually lead from Lily Pond to the Elbert Trail. As I mentioned the actual Mt. Elbert Trail starts two miles lower than Lily Pond down at the Lakeview Campgrounds next to the 125B dirt road. Hikers can start down there and head west and then gradually turn north to briefly join with the Colorado Trail. Ultimately the Elbert Eastern Ridge Trail breaks off from the Colorado Trail and heads up. Dan and I found the Colorado Trail and the Mt. Elbert Trail from Lily Ponds with absolutely no trouble at all. In fact, a well developed trail leads directly from the Lili Pond 4wd road all the way around the high mountain marsh area to the trail sign. There were plenty of beaver dams and other wildlife in the lakes as well. This certainly added to the tranquil beauty of the area. We were, however about 2 weeks late for the color of the Aspens, which was a little disappointing. The whole area would have been lit ablaze with golds, ambers and oranges had we been there about 10-14 days previous. But on a positive note, by driving up to Lily Pond we effectively shortened our hike by 4 total miles, and made it so we started 1000ft higher.

Saturday night the winds howled like a haunted Scooby Doo mansion. I was really surprised how strong they were since the forecast said the winds were not expected until noon on Sunday. There were several moments in my tent that night, that I thought maybe our hike was doomed from the start. When our alarms went off at 4:30am I was delighted to hear…absolutely nothing outside. It was clear, calm and cold. The moon was in last quarter, Venus was rising in the East, and Mars was standing vigil above Elbert. After a quick breakfast and adding several layers to keep us warm, we were off at 5:15am.

We once again found the Colorado Trail, and then the Elbert Trail signs and posted map easily even in the dark with our headlamps. At 10,400ft we began our ascent. And up we went on a delightful, dirt trail up through the bare Aspens. No hard rocky trail to start. Indeed an easy Class 1 trail. After about 1000ft of gain, the sun was beginning to make its presence known behind us. The trees began to thin a little bit and we were treated to a wonderful view of a crescent moon above us, the shimmering town of Leadville down below us to the North, and the alpenglow of the sunrise behind the peaks to the East. Around tree line, we reached a relatively flat area that could definitely serve as a camping spot for anyone wanting to do that. It is extensive and is quite flat along the trail for probably a quarter of a mile. This flat area is pretty identifiable looking on a topo as well.

Sunlight came and we were warm enough with 3 layers each. Gloves and caps were needed as it was in the 40s at this point. We slowly slogged along taking only a few short breaks the whole way up. At ~12,300 the trail veers as the forest service is doing restoration. It was obvious where we were supposed to go and where we not supposed to go. There was one final flat area along the treeless ridge, and then we started really going up. Up to this point, we hadn’t really started breaking a sweat. Granite stairs through small scree slopes greeted us, and the first set of switch back got our lungs pumping. But remember, we are from North Texas so it doesn’t take too much for us to huff and puff.

Up above 13,000ft the trail steepened a little more, but is still considered a Class 1—and I would agree with that rating. The trail is extremely well developed, and only mildly rocky. There is minimal exposure all the way to the top. The wind had picked up quite a bit, but I was glad that it wasn’t the expected storm yet. It was just the altitude and Mt. Elbert letting us know that atmospheric conditions are a little more dynamic up above tree line. The final set of switch backs to the summit were challenging but nothing that made us question our sanity. Footing was sure and I was never nervous for us or our boys. The wind was constant at the summit and there was a steady trickle of other climbers…half of them coming up the East ridge that we just came up, the other half coming up the steeper, but shorter northern trail. Unfortunately, the constant 20mph wind and a temperature around 40F made our stay at the summit no more than a photo op and a formality. I wish we could have sat down, had a sandwich and contemplated the complexities and beauties of the cosmos with our sons, but not that day…I checked my watch, and we had made it to the summit in 4hrs 45min. Dan’s GPS told us that we had covered 5.6 miles from the Lily Pond tent to the summit. I had three layers of clothes on top and two on bottom. My son (7th grade) had 4 layers of clothes on top. Neither of us busted out the heavy ski coat, which stayed in my pack for the entirety of the trip…but I had them if we had really needed them. Dan and his son (11th grade) had 3 layers each with the outer layer being a heavier ski jacket.

Down we went, and by the time we reached the “Granite Stairs” at 13,000 it had started lightly snowing. Yea! We had dodged the Mid October storm! I was elated. It was perfect timing. On the way down we passed a few people going up, including two guys pushing their bikes up to the top…I told them both that I thoroughly admired that level of commitment. They would later pass us zooming back down as we finished our descent through the Aspens.

The chest strap on my pack had broken, and my shoulders bared more of a load than they should have—I’ll be emailing Gregory about that, as the pack was brand new. By the time I made it back to the camp, the light flurry had turned into a decent snow storm. My back and my feet were tired and sore, but no time to lose…the snow was falling and our stuff was getting wet.

We got back to BV around 3:30pm on Sunday and headed to the “new” part of town along the Arkansas River and had pizza and beer at Eddyline Brew Pub. We definitely recommend this place as well; great food, neat vibe, friendly people, and delightful mountain art on the walls. The snow had turned to rain at the lower elevation and after lunch we started back south. A quick stay at the Best Western in Raton NM allowed us a short enough drive on Monday to get us back home by dinner. What a great, memorable adventure! Thank you Lord for the experience, the memories, and the ability to achieve our goals.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Thank you.
06/07/2021 11:16
Thanks for this excellent trip report. Looking to follow your lead and set up a "basecamp" at Lily Pond this coming August for Elbert, Massive, and La Plata. It will be a bit of drive for the other mountains but I'm willing to deal with that to avoid setting up/breaking down camp repeatedly and avoiding larger crowds of lower campgrounds. Our of curiosity, about how long was the drive from 82? Was it crowded on a holiday weekend? Planning on getting there mid week to ensure a decent spot. Scope out any prime real estate with views or easy water access? Any additional insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

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