Mt Elbert is Colorado’s tallest mountain, at 14,400 feet, and second tallest in the lower 48 of the United States. Although it is the highest 14er in Colorado, it’s one of the easier Colorado 14ers to get to the summit to watch sunrise.
Arrived at the North Mt Elbert trailhead around 2:45am. My Toyota Corolla 2WD made it down the road just fine but there are a few big potholes along the way. Temp at the trailhead was around 30 degrees and there wasn’t much wind at the trailhead.
First half of the hike you will be going through a forest on a well marked trail. Several switchbacks at the beginning and then it’s pretty straight forward until you hit the halfway point. Very easy to navigate the trail with a headlamp.
We knew we were close to leaving the forest and beginning to ascend on Mt Elbert’s rocky trail to the summit. Took a 5 minute break and pulled out my tripod to photograph the night sky full of stars, on this night full of clear skies.
This is where the treeline ends and the hike gets more challenging. Not just because of the elevation gain, but mostly because before sunrise the wind is blowing and temps get frigid. Which is pretty much guaranteed when you are hiking above treeline before sunset, anywhere.
Stayed on trail about 3/4th of the way up, and then somehow got off trail for quite a bit. We had to do a lot more scrambling than necessary, but after a few hundred feet of going straight up we finally go back on trail.
Finally started making up to the summit around 6:30am, right around when the sky was filling up with golden light.
Between the three of us, which are all in pretty good shape, were able to summit Mt Elbert for sunrise in a little under 4 hours. Despite getting off trail and doing a bunch of unnecessary scrambling.
The wind was more of a steady gust the entire time for sunrise. Probably 30mph+ for the entire 20 minutes or so we were able to stay on the top of Colorado’s highest mountain summit.
I took a bunch of pictures with my Nikon D750 and Nikkor 24mm 1.8, along with the heavy aluminum Manfrotto 055 tripod.
It was absolutely freezing at the 14ers summit for sunrise. You can see my buddy leaving in a hurry from the summit in the picture below.
We were the first ones to summit Mt Elbert that day. The trail was pretty crowded on the way down with hikers coming up. Noticed all of the false summits on the way down, especially when people kept asking how close they were to the summit.
Main Takeaways and lessons learned from my first sunrise hike up a 14er…
- Hiking up Mt Elbert at night/before sunrise is great because you don’t see all the false summits on the way up
- A 6-7lb tripod starts to weigh you down – will be upgrading asap before my next. The winds can get brutal though so you definitely want a sturdy tripod for summit sunrises.
- Pay better attention to the trail at night. This is easier to do if you’ve previously completed it in daylight.
- If your a photographer, warm gloves that allow you to operate your camera controls is so, so important at the top of the summit of 14ers and above. You want to prepare for the worst so have a game plan on how your going to operate your camera before reaching the top. For instance your aperture, ISO should be set. So you only have to adjust shutter speed to get the correct exposure. Auto ISO can come in handy to although I like to keep mine at 100 or lower for sunrises.
- Don’t wear trail running shoes for 14er sunrise hikes. Even with wool socks your feet will freeze. Mine did. They should be fine though if you are hiking early morning in the summer or early fall.