Starting Point: Echo Canyon Trailhead, elevation: 10,000 feet
Peaks in order of ascent: Bull Hill (first and last, but not the least), Mt. Elbert, South Elbert
RT Distance: 10.6 miles
Elevation Gain/Loss: 5,790 feet
When does Colorado's highest mountain become an “incidental” peak rather than the main attraction? That certainly was the case today as I set out to climb not Colorado’s highest mountain but Colorado’s highest hill! Bull Hill at 13,761 feet above sea level has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the state’s highest hill. I grew up in a city where they called hills mountains (still do, as a matter fact), so this is a little strange to me. Of course, its proximity to Mt. Elbert meant that I had to also visit the state’s highest point and throw in another significant summit above 14,000’, South Elbert, as what the French would call lagniappe, ie. “For good measure”.
My hike started at the Echo Canyon trailhead, if you can call it that, as it is on private property, unmarked and has just enough space for two vehicles. The turn-off is 12.5 miles on highway 82 from the junction of US 24/Hwy 82 and that distance is important since it is not only inconspicuous but also virtually identical to several other private driveways that adorn the north side of Hwy 82.
Turn-off on Hwy 82 to Echo Canyon TH
The trail starts out from across the parking area as a 4WD drive road and soon hits a stream crossing.
The trail narrows from here and winds through some dense aspens, quickly gaining elevation as it climbs the steep hillside. The next shot looks down a steep gully on the hillside.
Looking down a steep gully
The next landmark was an unexpected trail junction that had me a bit confused especially since I couldn't find the mapped track on my GPS (more on that later). The trail going straight heads northwest while the correct trail which is well cairned heads right (northeast).
I picked up my pace a bit as the trail weaved through the forest, not wanting to lose too much time in the event that I was on the wrong trail and needed to retrace my path.
Any lingering doubts that I might’ve had about being on the wrong trail were put to rest as soon as I spotted the next landmark, an old mining cabin aka Bill’s house!
For those unfamiliar with the context, Bill Middlebrook has stated that he could live here of course, as long as it had a tarp for a roof and a big screen TV for his MASH re-runs. Not much of an accommodation but one certainly can’t complain about the views!
Now above treeline, the wagon road makes a steep climb as it approaches the Golden Fleece mine.
Final stretch of road
This is where the niceties come to an end, as the remainder of the hike is on a climber’s trail aka “make your own path” territory. First order of business was the steep rock and scree face which I ascended heading directly up to the higher set of wagon tracks seen in the shot below.
Steep face leading to ridge
I scrambled up to the boulder field near the top of the ridge before pausing to look back at the steep face I'd ascended.
Looking down the steep face
This face was easier on the way up as I would find out a few hours later. Once I gained the ridge, Bull Hill came into view. About 800 feet of elevation gain lay before me and the summit, NO trail and none required as I set out on the high grassy meadow directly toward the mountain top, I mean, hilltop. On this traverse I encountered the only other hiker on this relatively obscure trail today; he was returning after having summited Bull Hill.
First look at Bull Hill
I made good time on this section, reaching the top 2 hours and 15 minutes after the start; not one of my better ascent times but I’d squandered precious minutes in the early stages hunting for the track on my GPS which had mysteriously disappeared. So the dog's status as man's best friend still holds!
I surveyed the two high peaks that were still on the agenda for the day.
Surveying the Elberts
Elbert was up first and after inspecting the approaches to the ridge from either side, I went left, descending Bull Hill’s northwest face. I surveyed the two nearest large mounds on the ridge and tried for once to plot my route, figuring I would skirt the first on the right and bisect the second down the middle.
Ridge route to Elbert
This worked out, sort of. I’m always envious of climbers that can inspect a connecting ridge or a rock face and precisely map their path from point A to point B; I usually just rush headlong into the first obstacle and then try to figure my way out of it. Sort of!
Sorry! Didn't mean to run into you like that!
Incidentally, this section of the ridge is narrower than the remainder and with some careful “route-finding” the difficulty can certainly be raised a notch or two! Not that I would ever do something like that intentionally but it just may be something the more hard-core climbers may want to take note of.
Once on the saddle, I took a long look at Elbert; from this vantage point, the monarch of the Rockies still stretched almost 1,100 feet skyward. I had nearly 4,000 feet under the belt already so I took a deep breath of the precious thin air to prepare for this pitch.
It's all uphill from here!
I found it easier to mentally break this traverse into two segments: first one to the 13,900’ saddle with South Elbert and the second from the saddle to Elbert’s summit.
Surveying the route from the sadlle
Having already hit one nasty boulder outcropping on the ridge, I chose to cover this stretch by skirting just to the right of the ridge. Stopping only momentarily for a couple of pictures, I launched a steady assault to gain the saddle.
On Elbert's high saddle
Atop this lofty perch, I paused briefly taking in the views around me. I should have been contemplating life, its nuances, and its depths. Instead, I contemplated the work that still lay ahead, the heights that I needed to gain and lose: up 533' to Elbert then down the same, up 234’ to S. Elbert then down the same, down 560’ to lower saddle, then up 421’ back to Bull Hill! Waxing philosophical is just going to have to wait!
And why is it that these ridges seem to sprout new humps even as you climb them?
I dropped off the ridge to avoid those pesky false summits, which worked out fine as the rocks here were quite stable.
Staying below the pesky ridge bumps
I knew I was looking at the summit, when I looked up again and saw signs of human, and canine, life. Elbert’s eastern slopes are not only Class I but also classic in their popularity and relative ease of hiking.
People? Dogs? That's the summit!
Atop the highest point in the Rockies, the views were great but the smoke-filled skies didn’t make for crystal clear imagery.
I didn’t linger long on the summit for, you guessed it, there was still much work to do. South Elbert is not technically a ranked 14er as it doesn’t meet the criterion of rising at least 300 feet from the saddle with its neighbor, but I was going to stand atop it today for what it was worth. I’d traveled the seven seas, swum across rivers, crossed valleys galore, and doggone it, I’d even climbed one very tall hill for this!
The saddle between Elbert’s peaks is very broad and I skirted wide off the ridge on my descent to it.
Saddle between the Elberts
From this point, the elevation gain to S. Elbert’s peak is less than half of the gain to Elbert, but the distance is about equal. This made for a very gentle traverse and I stretched my legs into a relaxed run, no more like a trot, no make that a lope, no...you get the idea!
Ridge route to S. Elbert
No matter my pace, I still had to endure the false summits.
Approaching S. Elbert
As expected, I was alone on the summit and took a picture with Elbert’s southwest ridge and summit in the backdrop.
Atop S. Elbert
I made it back down to the saddle just as two other hikers were coming down Elbert’s southwest ridge. They were headed back to the Black Cloud trailhead, another long and less traveled route.
Back to Elberts' saddle
The drop to the lower saddle went fast as I stayed in step with the two quick footed hikers.
The endless ridge
I tried but couldn’t talk those hikers into climbing Bull Hill, so we parted ways at this point. ”What’s a little hill when you’re climbing mountains?”, I said, but clearly wasn’t convincing!
A hill though it might be in name, I still had to earn every step of this last stretch to stand atop its summit for the second time, and it was all worth it!
Views to the Northwest
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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