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LoJ: #617 (G & M: #616) / 13,035' West Elk Peak

Range › Elks Range
Quadrangle › West Elk Peak
Summit Location › Peak Route Icon N 38° 43' 05.00", W 107° 11' 57.92" (Not Field Checked)

Peak Summary

West Elk Peak is a very isolated 13er located in the West Elk Wilderness, northwest of Gunnison. The peaks central location in the middle of the wilderness makes day hike access difficult and long. The route provided here we believe is the shortest mileage route to the peak, which is still a long day. Fortunately the hiking is very easy an a majority of tundra terrain with no major obstacles. The trailhead, which is west of Gunnison on US50, can be accessed by most passenger vehicles, driven slowly and carefully on a wash-boarded road. 

West Elk Pk South Ridge Approach Route

Class 2
Long Day // Back for Dinner
RT From Rainbow Lake TH: 15.2 mi / 4,400'
  • Trailhead
    • Rainbow Lake TH

      From the center of Gunnison, drive west on US50 for appx. 15.1 miles and turn north (right) onto FR724 (also known as the Rainbow Lake Road or County Road 3037). The dirt road is not well marked. There's just a small sign so it's easy to go breezing by.

      If coming from Montrose, after US50 crosses Blue Mesa Reservoir on the bridge, continue driving east another 7.1 miles and turn north (left) onto FR724 as above. Again, the road is poorly marked. 

      From the turnoff for FR724, it's appx. 11 miles of graded, dirt road driving to the trailhead. The road begins by passing through the open sagebrush foothills north of the reservoir and climbs steadily, but not too steeply. We were a little surprised to find the road fairly narrow and nearly a one-lane path at times, even though the maps indicated it should be better quality. It was not rocky however or too rough, just terribly wash-boarded. On our drive in we spotted a bear briefly and a deer along the road farther up in the aspen forest. The 11 mile drive required about a half hour. The actual trailhead is about a quarter mile past the turnoff for Rainbow Lake. Also, there is a much smaller pond on the right shortly before reaching Rainbow Lake. Do not confuse it with the larger Rainbow Lake. The trailhead parking area is sizable and can accommodate probably a couple dozen vehicles. One could easily car-camp here overnight, but there's good camping back at Rainbow Lake and the smaller pond. 


      Camping

      Several at-large, primitive sites can be found on the drive in to Rainbow Lake, mostly along the last few miles, once you get up into higher altitude forest. The best camping will be at the small pond located on the east side of the road, shortly before reaching the turnoff for Rainbow Lake, and at Rainbow Lake itself. There is no official Forest Service CG, hence no facilities. 


      Campsite Locations

      Rainbow Lake › N 38° 37' 58.99", W 107° 10' 46.35"
      Elevation 10,900 ft.
    Peak Icon Route Map Photos

    Route Info West Elk Pk South Ridge Approach

    Route Description

    Year Climbed: 2013

    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.


    Additional BETA

    Links to other information, routes & trip reports for this peak that may be helpful.
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