This is a counterclockwise loop getting the hard part over first followed by 9-ish miles of downhills and flats. The views are worth the effort and crowds.
The trailhead parking lot was full at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday (in July).
The trail going down is officially called the S Mt Elbert Trail (#1481) - according to the sign at the bottom, but there is no sign at the top. I have also seen it referenced as the East Trail on AllTrails. There is some construction and minor re-routes on this part. (July 2020).
I am a middle-of-the-pack east coast trail runner, rarely getting over 5,000' in elevation. I was pretty conservative dealing with the altitude and coming off an injury (and stopped to take lots of pictures), and it took me just under 5 hours to complete the loop. Locals can no doubt take at least an hour off that.
The North Mount Elbert Trail was by far the most crowded of the 3 trails. I only saw about 5 people on the South Mount Elbert Trail #1481
, and 3 on the Colorado Trail.
The first five miles (North Trail) is all uphill. It is well marked and starts at the Mt. Elbert
Trailhead. It goes for about a mile on the Colorado Trail, then turns right on the Mt Elbert North Trail. You spend a little over another mile in the trees, where the trail is in good shape and isn't that technical (at least compared to trails in the east).
Above the tree line, there is an exposed section for about another mile with a lot of grass and brush. The trail is in good shape here too, and isn't too technical. The last section gets very steep and is very rocky. Going up it was ok, but I can see how going down that part would be challenging.
Don't forget to look behind you periodically after you emerge from the tree line. There are some fabulous views.
The second five miles (South Trail) is all down. From the top, go back (north) maybe 100 meters, and you'll see an unmarked trail to the right. Take that. The terrain and trail conditions match the North Trail, except the top section isn't as steep or technical as it is on the North Trail. There was some maintenance and a few minor reroutes in the grassy section (July 2020). The views looking towards Twin Lakes and Leadville are awesome.
The last 4-ish miles are pretty flat on the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide Trail. The trail is all below the treeline, in great shape, and most of it was pretty fast (again, compared to east coast trails).