At only eighteen feet shy of being the tallest peak in Colorado, hiking the Mount Massive Loop can seem like a gargantuan undertaking. While its neighbor Mount Elbert (14,439′) is officially the highest mountain in Colorado it is a singular peak rising above the terrain. Mount Massive on the other hand has five summits all above 14,000 feet. The highest of the five peaks rises to 14,421 feet above sea level. Mount Massive is well named as its girth reigns supreme over the landscape west of Leadville, Colorado. The mountain is a part of the Sawatch Range which is the highest point along the Continental Divide. In many ways, Mount Massive’s five peaks (and Mount Elbert) are the crest of the continent and a journey to its highest summit is an epic adventure.
The Mount Massive Loop Quicklinks
- Alternative Trail Stats
- Parking & Access
- The Trail
- Backpacking Alternative
- After the Hike
The Mount Massive Loop Route
There are several routes up mount massive but this article will cover the two most common. They are referred to as the East Slopes Route and the Southwest Slopes Route. While many hikers choose to do an out-n-back on either of these two routes we recommend taking on the journey as a loop. This will provide a variety in scenery and has other benefits as well. We list each route separately in the stats below but will focus on the combined Mount Massive Loop hike in the details.
Stats for the Mount Massive Loop
- Trailhead: Mount Massive TH (10,070′)
- Type: Loop (Clockwise)
- Rating: Very Strenuous
- Class Rating: Class 2
- Colorado’s 14ers are rated by Class. Class ratings are in reference to climbing. A Class 2 means you might have to use your hands in addition to your feet. Class 4 would indicate that you need ropes.
- Distance: 13.75 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 4,505’
- Highest Elevation: 14,421′
- Recommended Time: 8 hours
- Season: Late June thru Late September
Alternative Stats (East Slopes Route)
Trailhead: Mount Massive (10,070′)
Class Rating: Class 2
Distance: 14 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 4,561’
Highest Elevation: 14,421′
Recommended Time: 8 hours
Season: Late June thru Late September
Alternative Stats (Southwest Slopes Route)
Trailhead: North Halfmoon TH (10,533′)
Rating: Very Strenuous
Class Rating: Class 2
Distance: 8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 3,914’
Highest Elevation: 14,421′
Recommended Time: 7 hours
Season: Mid-June thru Early October
Season & Weather
While many adventurous soles take on Colorado’s highest peaks throughout the frigid winter months most who reach these lofty heights will do so during the short summer season. Snow lingers on 14ers (Mountains that rise above 14,000′) throughout much of the summer but typically the14er hiking season gets underway by Mid-June. However, throughout June you should anticipate having to cross snow banks. We recommend carrying micro-spikes at least until early July when hiking Mount Massive. Likewise, snow typically starts to return in early September but in most years it will not start to pile up until October.
Summer weather in Colorado is something to behold. Most days will start with clear blue skies.
There won’t be a single cloud anywhere on the horizon. As noon approaches, clouds will start to build over the peaks, and by early afternoon lightning and torrential rains will come in periodic waves lasting 15 – 30min.
The brief but violent afternoon storms are the #1 danger when hiking Mount Massive and other Colorado 14ers. It is not uncommon to see a plague or memorial atop a 14er’s summit dedicated to an adventurous soul who was struck down by lightning while hiking one of the state’s 53 highest peaks. The best way to mitigate this risk is to keep an eye on the forecast and to start really early when hiking Mount Massive. The best rule of thumb is to leave out early enough to summit and be back at the treeline around noon. To do this while hiking Mount Massive means setting off in the dark a few hours before the sun rises.
Bears are present in Colorado and there are bear encounters in the camping areas near the trailhead found along Halfmoon Road. It is best to hike with bear spray especially considering you will be hiking in the pre-dawn hours. That being said the likelihood of an encounter with a bear is very slim but it is best to be prepared just in case.
One of the biggest risks when hiking Mount Massive is exposure to a fall which might not lead to death but could result in a crippling and painful return to civilization. When compared to other 14ers in the state there is little exposure found on the Mount Massive Loop. However, the terrain is very steep on the Southwest Slopes Route which if you lost your footing could result in a serious injury. As you near the summit the risk of falling to your death does increase but so long as you take it slow and be cautious there is little risk of this happening.
The last and most likely risk when hiking Mount Massive is altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is nothing to mess around with. The last thing you want is to be on a mountain top, 7 miles from a vehicle and many more miles from civilization and find yourself too ill for the return journey. The best way to prevent this is to drink lots of water and to give yourself time to acclimate to the higher elevations before attempting to hike Mount Massive.
Parking & Access
A journey of hiking Mount Massive typically starts with a trip to the highest incorporated city in the United States; Leadville, Colorado. You then make your way into the rugged wilderness via the 6-mile-long Halfmoon Road (Forestry Road 110) west of town. This dirt road is wide and well maintained, throughout the summer season, until you reach the Mount Massive Trailhead Parking Lot. However, the road is well traveled and deteriorates quickly, especially after a strong rain. 2-wheel drive vehicles can typically make the journey. Just drive cautiously, especially after intense rains.
The Mount Massive Trailhead Parking Lot
The Mount Massive Trailhead Parking Lot is fairly small and very popular. Only about 15 vehicles can fit in the lot. Plan to arrive at least an hour before the sun rises during the summer to secure a spot. Otherwise, you will find yourself looking for a spot along the road.
Road to & Parking at North Halfmoon Trailhead
Beyond the main Mount Massive Trailhead Parking Lot, the dirt road continues for an additional 2.6-miles to the North Halfmoon Trailhead. Immediately after passing the main trailhead, the road becomes less maintained and much narrower. For the majority of the season, high-clearance 2-wheel drive vehicles can traverse 2 miles of the remainder of the road. The road is very busy in the early morning and early afternoon. Finding room to pass oncoming traffic can be very challenging. There are several areas that are good for not only turning around but also boondocking. There is an especially wide area for camping and parking located right at 2 miles past the main Mount Massive Trailhead. This area makes for a great starting point for those looking to do an out-n-back on the Southwest Slopes Route.
The final half-mile section of the North Halfmoon Road should only be attempted by 4-wheel drive vehicles with a narrow wheelbase. I wouldn’t recommend attempting this section in anything less than a jeep wrangler. It is very rutted. There are also very few opportunities where this half-mile section of road is wide enough to allow oncoming traffic to pass making it very challenging during busy times of the day.
While hiking the Mount Massive loop can be done in either direction we recommend taking it on in a clockwise direction. This allows you to hike up the steepest sections found on the Southwest Route and down the slightly more moderate East Route. While those unaccustomed to hiking steep terrain may think hiking up it sounds less preferable than hiking down it, trust us it is not. Hiking down steep terrain not only is harder because of the potential for a fall but it is extremely rough on the knees.
Disclosure: We hiked the loop in a counter-clockwise direction because we didn’t intend to hike the loop when we set out hiking Mount Massive. We had intended to hike the East Slopes Route from the main Mount Massive Trailhead but upon reaching the summit realized that we could get some variety by hiking down the Southwest Slope Trail and would actually reduce the overall mileage.
The Mount Massive Loop is well defined and fairly well signed along the entire 13.75-mile traverse so there is little chance of getting lost. However, this is remote terrain where cell service will be minimal at best. It is best to hike with a GPS or cell phone app that can work offline. We almost exclusively use maps.me and love the real-time location that it provides with the downloaded trail maps.
Hiking Halfmoon Road (Forestry Road 110)
Setting off from the Mount Massive Parking Lot turn right (west) and continue up Halfmoon Road. It is a 2.6-mile hike that gains a meager 490′ feet. The road will be busy in the early morning with vehicles headed for the Halfmoon Trailhead. Stick out a thumb and see if you can catch a lift up the road. This section of the loop does have some nice scenery as it follows the creek up stream but as you will be hiking in the dark you will be hard-pressed to see much.
Army Copter 26378 Memorial
At the end of Halfmoon Road, you will find the North Halfmoon Trailhead and the path leading into the wilderness. Shortly after stepping onto the trail, there is a memorial dedicated to the crew of Army Copter 26378 which crashed into Mount Massive on August 19th, 2009. A reminder of how unforgiving the Colorado Mountains can be.
North Halfmoon Trail
The first 1.75-miles of the Southwest Slope Route of Mount Massive is officially known as the North Halfmoon Trail which continues up the valley to the North Halfmoon Lakes. While on this trail you will follow the stream through the forest and climb 650 more feet. The sound of the rushing water is never far off but the creek itself is rarely seen until you reach the 1.25-mile mark and the trees start to thin out and the mountainous landscape starts to reveal itself. The creek cuts through the valley floor and rugged rocky South Massive Peak reigns over the landscape. A section of the main Mount Massive Peak can be seen from the trail but the very top is shrouded by its false summit.
The Southwest Slope Trail
At 1.75-miles from the North Halfmoon Trailhead, you will find the intersection with the Southwest Slopes Trail. The sign at the intersection simply states Mount Massive Summit with an arrow pointing to the right. From here the real hike begins. Over the next 2.25-miles, the trail switchbacks up the terrain climbing a staggering 3,200 feet.
First, you will cross through a steep boulder field before leaving it and the trees behind. Ahead is 2-miles of exposed steep mountainside that is covered in wildflowers. The mountainside is so steep that you rarely even catch a glimpse of the false summit above. The best way of gauging your progress is in relation to the surrounding peaks like Mount Elbert and South Massive Peak (14,132′) both of which are constant companions during the relentless climb. The views back across the North Halfmoon valley and the high Sawatch Range become increasingly wonderous as you make your way slowly upwards.
As you approach 3.6-miles since leaving the North Halfmoon Trailhead you will round the top of the first false summit and see a more rugged and exposed ridgeline trail to the second false summit ahead. This is also where you will intersect the East Slope Trail. The path ahead is less than a quarter of a mile long and less steep than the switchbacks you now leave behind. It is however the most exposed section of trail with near vertical dropoffs to the east. This is where the Class 2 rating comes into effect and a few sections will have most hikers using their hands and feet.
The Peak of Mount Massive
Before long you will find yourself atop the false summit (12,404′) looking at the real summit about 100yards away. It is a quick descent of about 25′ to then finish the ridgeline crossing to the fairly small but prominent Main Mount Massive Peak. From here many of Colorado’s Highest Peaks can be seen. Directly to the north is the Mount of the Holy Cross with its distinctive squared top, the white slopes of Snowmass Peak are easy to spot the west. La Plata Peak stands out amongst the dense collection of 14ers to the south. On the east side across the upper Arkansas River Valley rises the compilation of Quandry, Lincoln, and Democrat peaks which reign over the town of Leadville, Colorado. From this lofty perch surrounded by countless high mountains, you really start to feel like Mount Massive is the heart of the Colorado Rockies.
Before you head out download the PeakVisor app (one of our favorite outdoor apps) and the data for the area so you can easily distinguish all the other mountains from the peak of Mount Massive.
Don’t linger too long on the peak of Mount Massive as the safety of the treeline lies over 3 miles away. The descent begins by retracing your steps a quarter of a mile back across the ridgeline. The junction for the Main Massive Trail #1487 (AKA: East Slopes Route) and Southwest slopes is not marked but is easily distinguishable as the East Slopes trail continues to descend the ridgeline sharply another quarter of a mile to the saddle found between the main peak and the South Massive Peak.
The Upper Meadow
Once in the saddle (13,920′), the trail turns directly to the east and crosses a high meadow plain covered in rocky outcropping, the homes of countless yellow-bellied marmots, and alpine wildflowers. From atop Mount Massive Peak, this meadow looks almost flat in comparison to the rest of the trail but sadly it is not. It is nearly as steep as the ridgeline and you will drop more than 1,500′ as you make your way across the mile-and-a-half stretch.
The Lower Meadow
Once on the other side of the meadow, the path switchbacks down the mountainside as it heads east towards Leadville. Here the wildflowers start to give way to small bushes and at the bottom of the switchbacks, the trail’s steepness starts to moderate slightly as it cuts across another meadow and towards the treeline. Make sure to take in these last views of Mount Massive’s Peaks and Mount Elbert before dropping into the safety of the dense trees.
Once safely in the trees, the steepness of the trail continues another mile to the junction with the patriotic #1776 Colorado Trail. Here you will turn right and find a much more subtle descent. It is only a few hundred feet before you find yourself crossing over Willow Creek (11,010′). This is the only reliable source of water found on the trail since leaving Halfmoon Creek about 8.5-miles earlier. It is also a popular backcountry camping area for those hiking the Colorado Trail and/or those choosing to use it as a base camp for hiking Mount Massive.
South Willow Creek
Once across Willow Creek, it is a moderate half-mile descent to the South Willow Creek crossing (10,821′). There are a few additional established campsites in this area as well. On the other side of this smaller tributary, you will be required to stretch out those weary climbing muscles and regain 60′ before finding a nearly flat half-mile section of trail.
Finish Hiking the Mount Massive Loop
The final mile and a half of the Mount Massive Loop Trail drops 750′ and emerges from the dense evergreen forest at the same Mount Massive Trailhead Parking Lot that adventurous hikers left 13.75-miles earlier.
If a 13.75-mile journey up and over Mount Massive sounds like too much for one day there is an alternative to make summiting the mountain slightly easier. You can backpack the standard East Slopes Route (Main Massive Trail #1487) as an out-n-back. Backpack the Colorado Trail (#1776) to Willow Creek and set up a base camp for a night or two in the woods. This will shave off over 3-miles and nearly 1,000′ of the East Slopes Route. Base camping at Willow Creek leaves about 3,300′ of gain with an 8-mile return (4-miles each way).
Logistics forHiking the Mount Massive Loop in Colorado
Hiking the Mount Massive Loop is a journey with nearly 4,500′ of elevation change. You will want to dress in layers to help stave off the cold found during the dark and on the windy peak. We recommend a down jacket, rain jacket, a long sleeve shirt, pants, merino wool socks, and good-fitting hiking shoes. You will also want trekking poles, especially for the steep descent.
Finding reliable water sources on the steep slopes of Mount Massive can be difficult. It is best to carry all the water you need for hiking the entirety of the Mount Massive Loop. However, Willow Creek is a reliable source on the east side and Halfmoon Creek likewise is reliable on the southwest side. Make sure if you intend to source water on the trail that you bring water treatment or a filter to purify it.
About 8 miles of the Mount Massive Loop is utterly exposed and without shade. One of the nice features of hiking in a clockwise direction is that much of the morning the Southwest Slope is shaded by the mountain itself. Still, you will want to bring plenty of sunscreen and wear long sleeves to keep the unrelenting Colorado sun off of your skin.
There are no toilets found anywhere on the entire 13.75-mile loop and that includes the trailheads. Come prepared with a poop trowel should you need it and bury your waste atleast 6″ deep. The nearest drop toilets can be found at the Elbert Creek Campground located a short way to the east on Halfmoon Road.
Colorado summers are full of annoying mosquitos. The forested sections of the Mount Massive Loop are no exception. Once you rise above the treeline the exposure to the wind will keep them at bay. However, you should wear long sleeves and bring a bug net as well as bug spray to help keep them from feasting on your blood.
AfterHiking the Mount Massive Loop in Colorado
After a long challenging Colorado hike, I am almost always craving a pizza. Nearly every one of Colorado’s small mountain towns has a great pizza place and Leadville is no exception. Mountain High Pies rivals many of the state’s best pizza joints and is a great way to refuel after taking on the Mount Massive Loop.
There is no shortage of camping options found along Halfmoon Road. There are several forest service campgrounds (Elbert Creek, Halfmoon East & West Campgrounds) with fire rings and drop pit toilets. However, there is also an enormous amount of boondocking locations found along the entirety of Halfmoon Road. The number is so abundant that at times you feel like the entire dirt road is little more than one giant campground, especially on a summer weekend.
Leadville, Colorado is the closest town in which to find a comfy bed. The town dates back to the 1860s when gold was found in the area. The Delaware Hotel building is nearly as old predating the establishment of the town itself by nearly a decade. Located in the heart of the town, this hotel was renovated in 20121. It has a lot of authentic history and charm making it one of the best places to stay when visiting the area.
The Mount Massive Loop in Colorado
Colorado has no shortage of amazing trails that lead to the top of lofty peaks. While Mount Massive is just shy of being the highest peak in this glorious state, it is an epic journey through the very heart of the continent. There are many ways to go about hiking to the top of this gargantuan mountain. The Mount Massive Loop combines the East and Southwest Routes to create an epic and scenic loop that reveals the best that a journey up this iconic mountain has to offer.