America’s Mountain beckons to the intrepid from all sides


Photo by Jim Bensberg

America’s Mountain! It sounds like a hopeful marketing slogan, but it happens to be true. Visible for more than 100 miles to the east, Pikes Peak has for more than 200 years symbolized the beauty, adventure and promise of the American west.

“America the Beautiful” was inspired by Katharine Lee Bates’ trip to the top in 1893. Its profile is quickly recognizable, and millions of visitors have stood on its summit. Yet it can still be a place of quiet beauty, solitude, and discovery.

That’s because Pikes Peak isn’t just a peak, but a mountain range by itself. Extending for dozens of miles from the southern slopes of its sister summit, Almagre, to the quiet streams and lakes of the North Slope, the mountain offers visitors dozens of options. You can hike to the summit on a strenuous 13-mile trail, drive there on the Pikes Peak Highway or take the Cog Railway from Manitou Springs. There’s great fishing in Crystal and Catamount reservoirs, as well as in the high-altitude lakes of the South Slope (where you might catch a glimpse of the mountain’s herd of Bighorn sheep). The restored mining camp of Cripple Creek beckons, with its casinos, summer events, mining museum and melodrama. You won’t run out of things to do in a day, a week, a month or a lifetime.

A storied history
The modern history of Pikes Peak begins with two botched expeditions to the American West. Dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson in July of 1806 to explore the southern and western portions of the Louisiana Purchase, an expedition headed by 27-year-old Army Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike reached the base of the “Great Mountain” in November. He stumbled around the foothills, trudging through deep snow in a vain effort to find a route to the summit. Turning back, he estimated the mountain’s height at 18,000 feet, opining that it might never be climbed. Whether he exaggerated both the difficulty of the climb and the height of the mountain is uncertain, but the expedition’s woes continued. Straying into Spanish territory, Pike and most of his men were captured, transported to Mexico and eventually ransomed by the U.S. government.

In the fall of 1818, a massive expedition to the West was launched under the command of Col. Henry Atkinson. Bogged down by bad luck and mismanagement, it hadn’t made it past Council Bluffs on the Missouri two years later. Fed up, Congress refused further appropriations.

Enter the bureaucrats of the War Department, who pulled an end run around Congress by ordering Maj. Stephen Long and 20 men to depart Council Bluffs and head west in search of the sources of the Platte and Red rivers. They made it as far as Colorado’s Front Range, where expedition artist Samuel Seymour painted the first view of the mountain.

Undaunted by the already-legendary summit, expedition botanist Edwin James climbed the peak, which Major Long promptly renamed James Peak.

A few years later, military cartographers quietly renamed it Pikes Peak, perhaps preferring to honor one of their own rather than a civilian botanist.

Did they know that Native Americans had named the mountain many centuries before? Probably not — in common with most early explorers, they regarded the West as a blank slate, and its inhabitants as unlettered savages.

The Utes called it Tava, or sunlight. Get up early, watch the mountain turn into fire when first illuminated by the morning sun and you’ll understand why.

By the early 1850s, substantial numbers of migrants were crossing the Great Plains. Then as now, Pikes Peak was a beacon for westbound travelers. Gold fever brought thousands of migrants to Colorado, but the promise of vast empty lands brought many more.

The covered wagons that brought people west in 1859 may have carried the slogan ”Pikes Peak or bust!” but the gold strikes were farther west, in South Park and the Blue River. Colorado City, a small settlement at the foot of Pikes Peak, was founded in 1860 as a supply hub for the mines and miners. That didn’t work out particularly well, but the mountain drew adventurers, settlers, investors, artists, and colorful scoundrels.

Julia Archibald Holmes made the first recorded ascent of Pikes Peak by a woman in 1858, signaling the imminent transformation of the Pikes Peak Region from remote frontier outpost to a safely romantic and civilized destination. In 1871 Gen. William Palmer brought his railroad south from Denver to his newly founded city of Colorado Springs, then a treeless stretch of prairie on the east bank of Monument Creek. A year later, he founded Manitou Springs directly below Pikes Peak at the base of Ute Pass.

Palmer was a brilliant speculator. He may never have heard today’s real estate mantra (“location, location and location”) but he certainly understood it. He brought water to his new city, planted trees, laid out streets, and made sure that everybody had a Pikes Peak view. That’s what he was selling — the beauty, serenity, tranquility and mystery of America’s mountain.

The railroad brought tourists, and the tourists needed things to do. The mountain beckoned canny 19th-century entrepreneurs who contemplated the mountain’s majesty and asked themselves a simple question: How can I make a buck out of this pile of rocks?

First things first: figure out how to get visitors to the summit. Hiking was too strenuous for most, and trails were free to all.

In the early 1880s a rough carriage road was opened from Cascade. Horses brought passengers as far as Glen Cove, where they mounted mules and continued to the summit. It was a strenuous trip, one that apparently convinced one Midwestern visitor that there must be a better way.

Recovering from the trip with a soak in one of Manitou’s mineral springs, Chicago mattress magnate Zalman Simmons came up with an elegant solution, a cog railway from Manitou Springs to the summit. It was a brilliant idea — so much so that the Cog, 128 years after making its first trip, is still going strong. And unlike any other American railroad, it has never ceased operation, never gone bankrupt and always made a profit.

The Cog put the road out of business for a while, until mining magnate Spencer Penrose took it over, fixed it up, and launched the annual automobile race up the mountain in 1915.

Pikes Peak railcar

The Cog Railway, Photo by Evan Meyer

Driving up the Mountain
Take Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs to Cascade, and turn left to the Pikes Peak Highway. In a few miles, you’ll get to the toll gate — $10 for adults, $4 for kids and $35 for a carload (five or more). The weather can be changeable — if it’s 85 in Manitou, it’ll be 55 on the summit. Thunderstorms, hailstorms and “popcorn snow” are common above timberline, especially in the afternoon. Leave enough time for a couple of stops before you get to the top.

Crystal Reservoir is fun — good fishing and great views of the north face of the peak. Leaving Crystal, you can stop at Glen Cove a few miles farther on, or continue to the Elk Park Trailhead (forest service trail 652) just to your left at mile marker 14. The views are amazing, and if you feel up to a five-mile round-trip hike at altitude, walk down the trail to the oil creek tunnel, a long-abandoned mine on the mountain’s north face. Along the way, you’ll see some ancient mining equipment, left in place when the speculators who funded the venture ran out of money. Poor guys — they drilled 800 feet into solid granite, and never found a speck of gold.

After Elk Park, it’s a relatively easy drive to the summit. The views are spectacular, the summit house not so much (it’ll be replaced within a couple of years).

Bike, Walk, Run
There are two trails to the summit. Barr Trail covers 13 miles and 7,000 feet of altitude gain from from its base in Manitou Springs. It’s a long, tiring slog — strong hikers can make it in seven hours or so. And then, of course, you have to turn around and head back down.

Some suggestions:
• Arrange for a ride down on the Cog Railway.
• Hike from the Crags campground, accessed from State Highway 67 seven miles south of Divide. You start at a higher altitude, and it’s a much easier trip.
• Reserve a cabin at Barr Camp, halfway up Barr Trail, and make it a two-day trip.

Of course, there are other options. You can ride a bike up the Pikes Peak Highway, or sign up with Challenge Unlimited (719-633-6399, for a downhill ride. You ride up early in the morning in a van with your fellow adventurers, and the group rides back down on mountain bikes provided by Challenge.

Finally, you can sign up to run in next years’ Pikes Peak Marathon. This year’s race is already full. As longtime participants will tell you, it’s challenging, unpredictable, rewarding and somewhat addictive, kind of like the mountain itself.

Whatever you choose to do on and around America’s Mountain, one word of advice: Have fun!