How do you get to the summit of Pikes Peak? You can walk, run, bike, ride, drive, ski, snowshoe, take the cog railway, jeep or bus tour, or even crawl up a trail pushing a peanut with your nose. In any case, it’s steep, exhilarating and often challenging.
The first person to reach the summit was likely a Native American many centuries ago. Long before European exploration of the west, the Utes arrived around 500 A.D. and named the grand peak Ka-avi Tava—Sun Mountain. Then as now, the first light of dawn illuminates the summit as it has for tens of millions of years.
For more than two hundred years, it has borne the name of a somewhat feckless American explorer/soldier, Zebulon Pike, who first sighted it on November 15, 1806. Will the name stick for another millennium? No matter—the mountain will endure.
The first recorded ascent was made by four members of the Stephen Long Expedition on July 14, 1820, led by scientist Edwin James. The expedition had camped at the “boiling spring” (now Manitou Springs), and the famously impatient Major Long gave them three days to get to the summit and descend. Just thick forest, tumbled rocks, flower-strewn meadows and unscaled cliffs greeted them; there were no trails to follow. They were tough guys in their 20’s, and they made it. James’ account of the “Long Expedition,” From Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, is a fascinating document of American history—and still a great read.
Two centuries later, millions of us have stood upon the “ten or fifteen level acres” of the summit that James first described. Nowadays, there are many ways to reach the summit, but it’s interesting to note that the options available to climbers in the late 1800s, such as horses, mules and burros, are no longer available.
When Katherine Lee Bates journeyed to the summit in 1893, she took a horse-drawn carriage to Glen Cove and rode a burro six more miles to the Summit. Eight years later, the first automobile reached the summit and the burros and horses were soon put out to pasture. Springs entrepreneur Spencer Penrose built a proper road to the summit, and four wheels replaced four legs. Could you ride a horse to the summit now? You could try…maybe! But horse-deprived as we have become, there are lots of ways to get to the top.
The Barr Trail is easy to access from Manitou Springs, but it’s a long slog. Leave early (especially if you plan to walk back down), check the weather forecast and remember that it’s a 14’er—certainly not a walk in the park. You’d better be reasonably fit, be able to carry your own food and water, be prepared for the weather to really go bad and realize that it’s 13 miles each way, with 7,000 feet of altitude gain. The Crags is a trail on the backside of the mountain, accessed from Highway 67 about three miles from the town of Divide. It’s shorter and less crowded, but not necessarily easy. You’ll probably have to walk down as well.
The Pikes Peak Ascent marathon up Barr Trail is really the quickest and easiest way to climb the mountain on foot, but only if you’re superbly fit. You don’t have to carry a pack; there are water/food stops along the way and medics available if you collapse. Best of all, buses and vans take you back down. You must qualify for entry and that can be tough, so maybe consider just trotting up with a couple of friends on the bright summer day of your choice. No entry fee, no competitors, no need for speed.
The Pikes Peak Highway is a lot more than a winding road to the summit. It’s only open to the top from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., and tickets to the summit aren’t available after 3 P.M. It’s in high demand during the summer months, so you’ll probably have to park at Devil’s Playground and take the free shuttle the rest of the way to the summit. Once there, enjoy the views, the doughnuts and the sparklingly, unobtrusive summit complex. Reservations are required during summer months and are advisable the rest of the year. The highway is often closed in winter months, so be wary of scheduling a trip up the highway from November to April.
Yup, you can ride a bike to the summit via the Pikes Peak Highway. Best option: drive up the highway to Crystal Reservoir and bike the rest of the way. You can also sign up with local companies that will drive you to the summit and provide you with a bike for the descent. Ebikes are welcome, and a lot more practical for those of us who aren’t super fit. To rent an ebike, check out Ebiketoursandrental.com, a Manitou Springs company.
Several private companies provide jeep tours to the summit, either public or private. We’ve been impressed by the reliability, competence and experience of Adventures Out West and Buggy Tour, but there are several other good options. A private jeep trip is the best of both worlds for driving up.
Another good option. You don’t have to worry about parking or driving, and companies such as Gray Line/Pikes Peak Tours have decades of experience on the mountain. Given that the concessionaires on Pikes Peak need warm bodies to buy their wares, the buses and vans rule the summit. Reservations are advisable, especially in the busy summer months.
TAKE A TRAIN
The Cog Railway is much more fun than you might expect, and we should all thank Phil Anschutz and The Broadmoor Hotel for giving the venerable railroad a nine-figure rebuild. The views are amazing, bighorns graze near the tracks and you don’t have to do anything—just enjoy! It’s an experience that every visitor or resident should have.
STRANGE BUT MARGINALLY LEGAL
You could try bushwhacking up and pretend that it’s still 1820, but it won’t be easy. Or if you have technical mountain climbing skills, you could try the cliffy north face. It’s also theoretically possible to land a commercial helicopter on the summit, just as it’s theoretically possible to land a surveillance balloon on the roof of the Summit Complex. Don’t expect a ‘copter ride unless it’s on Flight for Life.
There’s a tenuous trail from the site of Gillett (a once-booming mining town that hosted the first bullfight in the United States in the 1890’s) that has been closed for years. It was once a popular trail, but it goes through Bighorn Sheep lambing grounds and reservoirs that provide water to Colorado Springs. Barred gates prevent entry, but high-altitude scofflaws still try to sneak in. Our advice: don’t ask us for a get-out-of-jail-free card!