Sunday, November 22, 2020

Explore America's Mountain

We saw it in the background driving into Colorado Springs, Colorado. We saw it through notched rocks when hiking in Garden of the Gods. We saw it and knew the mountain would have to be our next destination.

Just to prove you were there!
It’s almost impossible to view the grandeur of PikesPeak, elevation 14,115 feet, and not yearn to experience it firsthand. Fortunately, there’s a scenic highway to the top. 

Pikes Peak is called America’s Mountain because it is easily accessible with plenty of places to stop along the way, allowing visitors to enjoy the journey at their leisure.

The gateway to Pikes Peak Highway (7,800 feet elevation) is in Cascade, Colorado, just west of Colorado Springs. We wanted to be among the first to drive the 19-mile paved toll road to the summit, so we arrived before 8 a.m. Built in 1915, this winding road is the perfect scenic drive with views of lakes, mountains, wildlife, and an ever-changing landscape.

At about 9,160 feet elevation, we arrived at the North Slope Recreation Area, which includes fishing lakes, picnic areas, and hiking trails, as well as Crystal Reservoir, complete with gift shop. Because of our early start, the sun was perfectly positioned for us to witness sparkling, clear reflections in Crystal Lake—don’t miss it!

Reflections in Crystal Lake were outstanding.

The first six miles of the road was a teaser. The real start of the upwards climb to Pikes Peak began shortly after mile seven. That’s when the road became a succession of hairpin turns and switchbacks. We began to understand why driving 19 miles to the peak takes an hour or more.

As expected the scenery along the highway is truly spectacular. From the foothills, you ascend steadily through four of Colorado’s life zones. If you are observant you’ll notice changes in plants, animals, and climate when you stop at pull-outs along the way. Deer live in the Montane Zone, and wildflowers bloom profusely in the summer. In the Sub Alpine Zone, trees and plants must adapt to low water supplies and harsh weather conditions. The tree line stops in the Alpine Zone, and plants are sparse and short. If you are lucky you might see bighorn sheep wander across the highway.

Gotta pay attention on all those curves and switchbacks!

Because of construction of a new summit complex at the top, shuttle buses took most people from the 16-mile turnout. But we had requested to drive all the way ourselves and were lucky to be granted a pass—the better to experience all the mountain has to offer.

We made it! After the obligatory picture beside the Pikes Peak elevation sign, we headed into the Visitor Center to purchase their world-famous donuts. Served warm and crunchy, the donuts are made with special high-altitude ingredients.

Topography changes as you drive through various elevations.

Parking was hard to find because of all the construction vehicles and roped-off areas (hence the shuttle buses), but we still managed to spend a good bit of time wandering around and just soaking in the majesty of the views. The only problem was I left my puffy jacket in the car, and the temperature was in the low 40s. No matter, I trampled over large rocks and boulders and explored nooks and crannies as near to the edge as I dared.  And I took countless photos until my hands began to ache from the cold.

Spectacular views from the top of Pikes Peak

On the return, we stopped at Devils Playground at mile 16 and climbed more rocks until thunder warned of an impending storm (snow was expected that afternoon). Because lightening can be a severe danger at such altitudes, we decided to start the downward drive, putting the car in its lowest gear to navigate descending turns and switchbacks. At mile 13 (11,440 feet) there was a mandatory stop and temperature check to be sure brakes were not overheating. 

Wandering on rocks of Devil's
Playground, part of a hiking trail.

Things to consider: The temperature at the summit is usually 30 degrees colder than in the city, so bring a jacket even in summer. It’s possible to bike—or hike--both up and down Pikes Peak Highway, but it’s not a trip for novices. When driving, make sure your gas tank is more than half full as there are no service stations on the way. With speed limit at 25 mph or less, gas consumption is about twice the normal rate. The cog railway is currently undergoing renovation but should be in service for the 2021 season.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier





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