Subscribe!Get all the best of On Walkabout by subscribing.

On Walkabout On: The Pikes Peak Highway, Colorado

Basic Information

  • Name: Pikes Peak Highway
  • Where: Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Distance: 19 miles
  • Admission: $16 per adult, $6 for children, and 5 years old and under are free.
  • More Info: City of Colorado Springs website

Narrative

No tour of beautiful Colorado Springs would be complete without taking the time to visit the summit of the 14,111 foot (4,302 meter) Pikes Peak that can be seen towering over the city from just about every part of the Springs.  There are three ways to visit the summit of the mountain: hike to the top, take the cog railway, or drive up on the Pikes Peak Highway.


View Larger Map

I drove some relatives visiting the city to the top of Pikes Peak about two weeks before the recent Waldo Canyon Fire began.  Little did I know at the time that this would be the last view I would see of the Rampart Range without it being charred black by the wildfire.

The entrance to the Pikes Peak Highway is located about 15 minutes outside of Colorado Springs up Highway 24.  The turn off to the Pikes Peak Highway is well marked so it is near impossible to miss.  Admission to drive up the mountain costs $16 per adult, $6 for children, and 5 years old and under are free.  Alternatively people may choose just to pay $40 per carload.  More admission information can be found here.  From the entrance the highway immediately begins its long ascent up the mountain.  The entrance is located at 7,300 feet in altitude so the drive to the top of the summit is just under 7,000 feet in altitude gain.  The map pictured below shows the entrance gateway on the far left of the map:

This highway was constructed in 1915 at a cost of $500,000 which was funded by famous Colorado Springs philanthropist Spencer Penrose. The highway replaced a more primitive carriage route up the mountain that was constructed in 1889.  The first stop along the way on the Pikes Peak Highway is at Crystal Reservoir:

Some nice views of the north face of Pikes Peak can be seen in the distance.  The lake also appeared to be a popular location for fishing.  There is a gift shop at the reservoir for anyone looking to buy souvenirs, but what I found of the most interest are the various signs that provided historical and scientific information about the mountain.  For example this sign explained how the granite slopes of Pikes Peak was formed:

From Crystal Reservoir the highway continues to switchback and climb its way up through the thickly forested slopes of Pikes Peak:

Eventually the Pikes Peak Highway reaches Glen Cove where another gift shop is located:

This spot is also where when descending the mountain that park officials check the heat of vehicle’s brakes.  If the temperature of the vehicle’s brakes is too high the driver is directed to park his vehicle and let the brakes cool down.  All people have to do when descending Pikes Peak to avoid their brakes overheating is to drive in a low gear.  Anyway besides buying some of the same products at slightly higher prices than what could be found at the Crystal Reservoir gift shop Glen Cove does have some informative markers on display.  For example how could I have lived without knowing that someone rolled a peanut with his knows all the way up Pikes Peak?  It took the Texan Bill Williams 21 days to accomplish this feat back in 1929.  I also learned that Julia Archibald Holmes was the first women to “climb” Pikes Peak in 1858.  Even more interesting was that she climbed the peak in her scandalous bloomers.

Something of more recent interest is that the highway is still home to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb which began in 1916 and is the nation’s 2nd oldest auto race behind only the Indianapolis 500:

Here is just a taste of the many curves on this highway that these race car drivers have to navigate to win the race:

Fortunately for these drivers much of the Pikes Peak Highway used to be dirt road, but as of last year the entire highway has now been paved.  This was because the Sierra Club sued the city that the dirt road was damaging the environment due to erosion washing down the hill sides.  I don’t know if the gravel really was hurting the environment, but the paved road is now in my opinion much safer than it used to be.

Anyway at this lookout I was also able to get my first unobstructed look at the Rampart Range:

This view of the Rampart Range is no more today as the Waldo Canyon Fire has devastated this mountain range and the communities near it.  The below picture shows roughly the area of the mountain range that the fire affected:

The bottom of the redline is Ute Pass where the entrance to the Pikes Peak Highway is located.  Fortunately as of this posting firefighters have been able to keep the fire from spreading across the highway and thus protecting Pikes Peak.  This next picture shows the view looking towards the north where the open grazing land between the small cities of Woodland Park and Divide can be seen:

At the lookout I was also able to see what little snow remained on the mountain:

The snowfall this year was well below normal levels and usually in June much more snow can be seen on the mountain.  At another lookout I enjoyed the view of this rocky cliff face that descends down the mountain:

I next pulled over at another marker that said that this open and rocky area was a popular place to spot mountain goats along the highway:

After looking around for a few minutes we could not spot any mountain goats and thus decided to get back on the highway and drive the short remaining distance to the top of Pikes Peak:

At the top of Pikes Peak there is a large parking lot with plenty of room for all the cars visiting the summit.  From the parking lot we walked over to the Summit House on top of the mountain:

Before walking inside the Summit House we took a stroll over to the utility train that was parked up on the summit:

It was going to be a few minutes before the actual Cog Railway Train arrived so we went inside the Summit House.  Inside the Summit House there is a large shopping area where many of the same items for sale can be found for much cheaper rates at the bottom of the mountain:

Like I recommend to everyone visiting Colorado Springs, go visit the Garden of the Gods Trading Post where most of the items for sale at other tourist locations in the city can be found at much cheaper prices.  I didn’t buy anything in the gift shop and instead went over to the cafeteria area and try out some of the famed donuts that the Summit House bakes at 14,000+ feet in altitude:

Despite the donuts fame I found them to taste exactly like any other donut.  Something else we noticed while eating was the affect of the altitude.  Since I normally hike up mountains like this the change in altitude never made me lightheaded before.  Usually when hiking up a high mountain like this I am just breathing harder on the way up, but once on top I am not lightheaded.  However, since we drove up the mountain the change in altitude was too quick for our bodies to adapt and thus the feeling of lightheadedness.  The best thing to do when this happens is just to eat and drink a lot of water to help the body increase its red blood cell production to process more oxygen.

Anyway after eating my donut I then heard the Cog Railway train coming up to the summit.  So I walked outside and took this picture of it arriving:

Here is a picture of the side of the Cog Railway train:

I haven’t taken a ride on the Cog Railway train yet but I plan to do so at some point.

Anyway after taking a few pictures of the Cog Railway train I then decided to walk completely around the summit.  The first thing I did was walk over and read this plaque on the side of mountain:

The plaque was in honor of Zebulon Pike who is credited with “discovering” Pikes Peak in 1806.  I have discovering in quotations because obviously the Native-Americans had long ago discovered the mountain, but even the first Europeans to see the mountain were likely the Spanish conquistadors from the south or French or American trappers from the north.  Regardless Pike is credited with the peak’s discovery and thus the name of this great mountain has been given to him as well despite not being the first person to climb it.  Pike attempted to climb up the mountain but the difficulty of the terrain and poor weather prevented him from climbing the peak and instead he summitted what historians believe was Mt. Rosa to the south.  Here is how Pike described the mountain in his journal:

“…here we found the snow middle deep; no sign of beast or bird inhabiting this region. The thermometer which stood at 9° above 0 at the foot of the mountain, here fell to 4° below 0. The summit of the Grand Peak, which was entirely bare of vegetation and covered with snow, now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles (24 or 26 km) from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day’s march to have arrived at its base, when I believed no human being could have ascended to its pinical [sic]. This with the condition of my soldiers who had only light overalls on, and no stockings, and every way ill provided to endure the inclemency of the region; the bad prospect of killing any thing to subsist on, with the further detention of two or three days, which it must occasion, determined us to return.”

Considering the imposing challenge of climbing the peak back then I am sure Pike would be amazed that just over a 100 years later a highway was constructed to the summit.  The first person to “climb” Pikes Peak was credited to botanist Dr. Edwin James in 1820 who was part of the Long Expedition exploring and surveying the Rocky Mountains.  The expedition leader Major Stephen H. Long even named the mountain James Peak in his honor but by the 1850’s people were back calling it Pikes Peak again officially sending James back into historical obscurity.

Here is the view of the Rampart Range once again as viewed from near the plaque:

Here is the view of the Rampart Range as it descends down towards Colorado Springs:

Finally looking directly to the east is Colorado Springs:

It is easy to see how the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains from the summit of Pikes Peak.  Here is a closer look at the city where the Garden of the Gods can be easily seen:

As I continued to take pictures from around the summit I next spotted Cheyenne Mountain and some of the other smaller mountains that compose the foothills of Pikes Peak:

Looking towards the south I could see rounded summit of Almagre Mountain as well as the pointy summit of Mt. Rosa in the distance:

These mountains look so big from Colorado Springs and from the lofty summit of Pikes Peak they just look so small.  As I continued to walk around the summit I came to this memorial dedicated to Katharine Lee Bates who was inspired to write “America the Beautiful” after a visit to the summit of Pikes Peak on July 22, 1893:

She originally wrote the song as a poem that was published in the church periodical The Congregationalist in 1895 with the poem titled simply “America”.  However, a church organist and choirmaster by the name of Samuel A. Ward put this poem to music and published his work as “America the Beautiful” in 1910.  Since then the song has become nearly as popular as the national anthem for people looking to express their patriotic pride in our nation.

From the memorial I then proceeded to take in the views towards the west.  From the lofty summit of Pikes Peak the active gold mining operation at Cripple Creek was easily visible due to the top of the mountain being cut off:

Looking towards the northeast I could not see too much due to incoming showers:

Afternoon thunderstorms are a concern for climbing any mountain in Colorado during the summer.  That is why I typically start my climbs up mountains early in the morning to avoid being stuck on a mountain in a lightning storm.  I once got stuck on a mountain top in a lightning storm many years ago and it was not a pleasant experience.  So with the storm coming in that meant it was time to head back down the mountain.

Conclusion

Overall, anyone visiting Colorado Springs should really take the time to go to the summit of Pikes Peak.  It is easy to access by driving up to the top for people who do not have the time or ability to hike to the summit.  It is a smooth ride all the way up where you can contemplate what it would be like to fall off the road on one of the highway’s many turns and at the top you get to experience oxygen deprivation!  What better family fun than this?  On a side note I have heard hikers complain before that people should not be able to drive to the top of a mountain.  I think considering all the other mountains out there to hike that don’t have a road to the top that building a highway to the top of Pikes Peak is not that big of a deal.  This highway allows everyone to enjoy the view from the summit what is rightfully called “America’s Mountain”.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *