Pikes Peak is a constant presence looming on the western horizon beyond Colorado Springs. Thanks to entrepreneur and businessman Spencer Penrose, a spectacular toll highway is open for all to make the heart-pounding 19-mile journey to the 14,115-foot summit.
An earlier road, the Pikes Peak Carriage Road, opened in 1888 and was available for transportation of visitors to the summit until it closed in 1902. Penrose, a mover and shaker, financed the construction of the new highway in 1915 to the tune of $500,000. Today the road is entirely paved, and weather permitting it is open year-round.
A trip up America’s Mountain is like no other drive in the world. Visitors encounter a wide variety of wonderment, including lush forests, historic stopping points, a variety of hiking trails, colorful wildflowers, miles of stark, boulder-strewn tundra, and incredible views.
A stop at Glen Cove, at 11,450 feet, beckons visitors to savor the scenery, perhaps stepping away from the highway for a brief sojourn into the quiet of the forest nearby. In the 1880s, a way station for travelers on the carriage road was constructed here at the site of a log cabin. Rumor has it the building and surrounding area are haunted, causing Glen Cove employees to be wary of spending time there alone.
Any vehicle in good repair can make it up the mountain on the paved road, as long as the driver keeps his or her eyes looking ahead. Frequent stops are encouraged to appreciate the incredible scenery. At mile marker 13, the highway gradually climbs out of the trees, above timberline and onto the tundra. Boulders are strewn everywhere, resembling the aftermath of a toddler’s tantrum. The road climbs skyward, zigzagging through hairpin turns and switchbacks. At times, the edge of highway seems to to disappear into the abyss of the valleys below. Without a doubt, the drive is thrilling!
Until the new parking lot at the summit is completed, likely in late September, visitors will continue to be shuttled to the top from Devil’s Playground, located at 13,000 feet. The Devil’s Playground and Crags trails pass through the area, and hardy hikers can be observed forging along the trails while eyeing the summit as their destination.
The tundra wildflowers — including moss campion, alpine paintbrush, clover and gentian — bloom in profusion during their short summer growing season. The rock formations frame the forever views, vistas and sprawling boulder fields as the sun warms the faces of visitors. Wandering over the rocky hillside reveals forever views of Colorado Springs, Denver and even Kansas, when the skies are clear.
The icing on the cake is the brand-spanking new Summit Visitor Center that opened to the public on June 24. Finishing touches are in the process of being completed, including an asphalt parking lot that will be colored to match the surrounding rocks; and landscaping designed to keep the focus on the incredible views.
Parks Operation Administrator Sandy Elliott, who was involved for the past 12 years in envisioning and creating the state-of-the-art facility, said, “I’m really proud of the team and everything they are doing. We designed the new facility to reduce our impact.”
The Visitor Center is a marvel of engineering that honors its environment through preserving and protecting the nighttime environment via the Dark Sky Initiative, conserving energy and promoting water sustainability. A soaring window wall overlooks the peaks to the south including Mount Rosa, and the Arkansas River Valley.
The informative hall of interpretive exhibits reminds visitors that Zebulon Pike, for whom Pikes Peak is named, climbed Mount Rosa with his explorative team but never actually climbed his namesake mountain. Another interesting fact: the first woman to document climbing Pikes Peak was Julia Archibald Holmes, who wore scandalous bloomers during her five-day hike in 1858.
Although the Visitor Center is expansive inside, it maintains a cozy ambiance. There is plenty of space for visitors to enjoy the views, pick up a unique souvenir and grab a snack in the large dining area, where the star-of-the-show is the freshly made doughnuts. The doughnuts are a tradition that was started with a special high altitude recipe at the Summit House in 1916. Today a new doughnut-making machine has the capability of cranking out plenty of the treats for visitors to sample.
To get the total experience, visitors are encouraged to spend as many hours as possible making frequent stops along the highway on the way to the summit, or on the way down. These diversions may include a drive around the Catamount Loop Road leads to to the North and South Catamount reservoirs. The sparkling waters reflect the towering peaks and forests to people who are fishing, hiking and biking as they spend quality time at a lower altitude.
As autumn approaches, crowds driving to the summit will diminish as the aspen trees turn golden yellow. This is the perfect time to experience a drive up America’s Mountain.
The City of Colorado Springs recomments listening to TravelStorys Audio Tour before, during or after the journey. Find information at coloradosprings.gov/travelstoryspikespeak?mlid=46621.