When I told Emerson about people biking 14ers, he joked that if we did it, we would complete a 14er triathlon of sorts, having already snowboarded Quandary and hiked Shavano this year. From whatever look I reacted with, Emerson knew we couldn’t not bike a 14er now.
We left Boulder Saturday of Labor Day weekend at noon, heading for the Upper South Mt. Elbert Trailhead to camp for an early start on Sunday. Mt. Elbert’s East Ridge looked to be the preferred route for bike hauling, though it’s been done via the Southeast Ridge too. The standard Northeast Ridge is unrecommended due to its popularity.
Everything went according to plan until about half a mile up Forest Service Road 125.1B. There, massive pot holes on a steep pitch stopped cars like a cranky toll troll. In our one attempt to get past them, our trusty Subaru Forester stalled and bottomed out as we reversed out. While contemplating our options, several other vehicles tried driving through the rough section and experienced the same outcome as us.
Unwilling to try driving up 125.1B again, and not wanting to bike up it in the dark, we decided to bike shuttle our gear up its remaining 1.5 miles, 720 feet. The first trip with just our day gear was uneventful. Numerous camping spots sat along the road and we opted for one right by the trailhead. The only cars we saw up there were big-ass trucks with high clearance.
After an exceptionally fun ride back down 125.1B to our car (wide road with lots of water bar hits), we grabbed our camping gear and headed back up. Despite an Colorado-original 5-minute thunder/hail storm on this second trip, we setup camp, ate dinner, and were in our sleeping bags by 7:30pm.
Sunday morning, we left the trailhead at 3:10am. Yes, that is painfully early. As much as I talk about leaving early for the sunrise, lack of crowds, etc., the main reason is that I lack confidence in myself to do what I set out to do within a reasonable amount of time. I give myself plenty of buffer and thank Emerson for letting me drag him out in the dead of night.
The first half mile to the Mt. Elbert trail sign can be easily ridden. So can the next two miles, with a little more determination, of mostly smooth dirt that persistently but gently climbs.
The casualness ends around 12000 with noticeably steeper and rockier terrain. You’ll probably be pushing, with frequent shoves to get over baby heads, by this point.
At around 12650, Emerson and I took wind cover behind a notable boulder right next to the trail. Up to then, I had been stubbornly pushing my bike because I couldn’t see the benefits of carrying it on my back; I was also scared of the whole loading and unloading maneuver. I tried pushing the next section, but couldn’t move more than 5 feet before stubbornly rooted rocks stopped me. So I accepted hurling my bike over my back and trucking on in tiny, 6-inch steps with the bike balanced across my shoulders like a squat bar.
The terrain doesn’t ease much above that shelter boulder. The last 500 feet were an absolute grind, taunted by the American flag at the summit barely getting closer with each switchback.
But we got there! 5.5 hours after we left the trailhead, we joined the Elbert summit party, perhaps the biggest party in Colorado this Labor Day weekend. 🤗 Since we only saw two other groups on our ascent, we assume most people hiked up the standard Northeast Ridge. Em and I spent close to an hour on the summit exploring the gorgeous ridge line, chatting with folks, extreme snacking, and napping.
It’s all downhill from here! Literally, because Mt. Elbert, at 14,439 ft., is the highest point in Colorado. We debated going down the longer, more technical Northeast Ridge and taking the Colorado Trail back to our campsite but based on the number of people we saw ascending it, we decided to go back down East Ridge.
Next, I pointed my front wheel down, gave a loud woop!, and let go of the brakes. Just kidding. As gnarly as I felt hiking up, I didn’t feel very gnarly for the first thousand feet of descent. The terrain was steep, rocky, and loose. Not wanting to be an asshole that takes out the trail (or gravely batter myself), I shamelessly walked a fair bit of it. The parts I did ride resulted in very tired arms from clenching the brakes and absorbing all the bumpity bumps. Going down this section was just as hard as going up it but it was much more exhilarating which, ultimately, makes it better.
As we descended, the ride got better and better. Options appeared for more confidence-inspiring lines.
Then, under tree line, crowds dispersed in time for incredible singletrack.
Not smiling wasn’t possible when we got back to our campsite. Em and I packed up our gear feeling 120% and rode down to our car double loaded with front and back packs.
So how hard was it? Going up and down had plenty of relentless sections but none that generated a “There’s no way” response like climbing Mt. Fairchild and Hague did. Nothing looked impossible, but many parts looked like they would suck a lot, and they did.
How fun was it? If you love mountain biking and like your fun earned and a little loose, then this was very, very fun.
How did hikers react? All the hikers we encountered (and there were a lot) were supportive, encouraging, and inquisitive. We made sure to slow down as we approached them and chat if they wanted. Undeniably, it felt good to have people ask how far we went with our bikes and then look at us in disbelief when we told them, the summit. One guy asked to shake our hands. Another said I had way more balls than him (heh, no need for those to shred). Many respectfully called us crazy.
Should you mountain bike Elbert? Sure! If you love mountain biking, then at least try. Mt. Elbert offers few consequences for trying. In my opinion, the funnest sections are the smooth, mellower bits below tree line so early efforts are well-rewarded. If you do try, please take care to respect hikers and the trail as mountain biking 14ers is still a point of contention.
Would I do it again? Well, I found hauling and then mountain biking Mt. Elbert a little cruel, pretty unusual, very much creative, and every bit fun (in hindsight). So give me a few weeks to think about it, but probably yes, on another 14er I haven’t done yet. Maybe I’ll see you up there.
What’s next? I’m not sure. Perhaps unicycling a 14er?
Resources that helped inform our decisions:
- Thin air on the roof of Colorado
- Biking Colorado’s Highest
- Bike the 14ers
- TR: Mt. Elbert Bike Descent
- Want to bike a 14er? Don’t be stupid
- Trail Peek Video