From the Rainbow Lake TH, head NW on trail 449 (Rainbow Lake Trail). In under 15 minutes you should encounter the Wilderness boundary and a small stream crossing. This part of the trail passes through tall forest. After crossing the creek, the trail remains on the edge of the forest and follows along an open meadow (where we hoped to see some deer or elk grazing but saw none) for over a mile before reaching the junction with the West Elk Rim trail - #446. Continue ENE on #446 for a brief while (perhaps 10 minutes) before leaving the trail and heading almost due north on a broad, grassy ridge to the summit of South Baldy Mountain. Along the way, we spotted a possible ptarmigan nest in the grass and paused to photograph the tiny eggs. We arrived at this first, easy summit in about an hour and a half. We think there was a summit register here. From this location, you can survey most of your route all the way to West Elk Peak, many miles north.
From South Baldy, lose about 600 feet in elevation dropping NE to a saddle at 12,877 ft. Gain another 800 to the summit of the first Middle Baldy (south summit). This is almost all easy, tundra/grass hiking except for lower down, where you may want to skirt a boulder field to the west side, passing up through some low trees. This is all perfect terrain for elk, but so far, we had seen none. Breeze on past the first Middle Baldy and continue on to the northern Middle Baldy summit, then continue on to North Baldy. It was here we finally spotted a large group of elk in the Mill Basin, less than 1,000 feet below us in the open tundra. The group may have numbered anywhere from 50 to 75, possibly more. At first, they seemed to sense our presence but could not spot us, so they became restless and after a few minutes began to run, first in one direction, then changing course to another direction, then stopping, then running again. We got a video of this behavior which we found amusing. Once we began hiking along the ridge again, they could see us and so began moving away from us.
From North Baldy, head north along the ridge where you will encounter some rockier sections. Aim directly for the prominent cliffband formed by the unranked summit of an unnamed peak directly ahead. This is the only problem on the entire route. Walk right up to the base of the cliff where it is clear you will not be able to ascend directly up. Locate a game trail (which we had seen plenty of this morning) heading off on the west side of the cliffs, contouring through ledges and across a couple of rocky ribs. Turn up a loose couloir that will lead up to the main ridge just NW of the unnamed peak. Near the head of this couloir, where it opens up, we had to scramble up past one very minor cliffband that was complicated some by ice that still remained frozen on the rocks. West Elk Peak is now just an easy stroll NW for a little over a mile and another 535 feet of gain. Along this final stretch, you may wish to stop and admire some spectacular, conglomerate cliffs to the west that ring West Elk Basin and also pause to photograph a needle-like spire of conglomerated rock at the head of a precipitous couloir. You can also now also see “The Castles,” a spectacular formation of spires and pinnacles NE of West Elk Peak along a long ridge. The east flank of the final ridge to West Elk had several large patches of snow still left over from the drier than normal winter.
A game trail leads almost all the way to the summit of West Elk Peak. We spotted a golden eagle that flew by us a couple of times. The vast expanse of wilderness that lay all around and below is mesmerizing. You may feel like you have it all to yourself.
There is not much sense in detailing the entire return trip, since most of it follows the approach route. We hiked back south all the way to the southern Middle Baldy Mountain and descended from there to intersect the Elk Rim Trail and avoid the climb back up South Baldy Mountain. We found the trail, had to pass along one very muddy section where a snowbank still obscured part of the trail and then continued on until we intersected the Rainbow Lake Trail. This last portion of the Elk Rim trail contoured us through a large bowl, adding some mileage and some extra ups and downs. Once back on the Rainbow Trail, it was just a relentless plod back to the vehicle.
Links to other information, routes & trip reports for this peak that may be helpful.