Purple Mountain Majesties Along Pikes Peak Highway

Explorer Zebulon Pike said ascent of this mountain was impossible. But his name was attached to the peak anyway.

Pikes Peak - America's Mountain

Retired Pueblo firefighter Bob Falcone, a man accustomed to rushing toward crisis, remembers the mild profanity he uttered on a harrowing first drive up the Pikes Peak Highway in 1989, when the toll road was not yet paved above tree line. Falcone recalls how dicey it seemed to steer so close to a cliff edge, without a guardrail to catch him short of a deadly plummet.

Falcone, now a hiking enthusiast who resides in Colorado Springs, enjoys watching first-timers’ eyes “get big,” just as his once did. He recently drove up the highway again, this time to begin a new adventure, a largely downhill hike all the way into town from the Elk Park Knoll, near Mile Marker 14 on the 19-mile road. The hike included “Missing Link,” a path through more than 4 miles of the mountain that, until late last summer, the public had never seen. That section crosses watershed owned by Colorado Springs Utilities, and the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad right of way – opened up after years of negotiations.

The mountain has long lured explorers and natural-resource extractors. Pikes Peak rises as a lone snow-covered peak at the center of a region spanning counties – El Paso, Teller and Pueblo among them – that benefit from the mountain’s fame.

It all began with Zebulon Pike, the explorer for whom the mountain is named. President Jefferson sent him to find the sources of the Arkansas River around the same time he dispatched Lewis and Clark farther north. Jefferson ordered both river-based assignments to learn more about the land the U.S. acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Pike wrote a best-selling book on his expeditions around Colorado, and what he called the Grand Peak. His team tried climbing it, failed, and he said ascent would be “impossible.” He died in 1813, but his reputation endured so robustly that settlers and gold prospectors decades later named the mountain for him. The name stuck.

The discovery of gold just west and south of the summit further elevated Pikes Peak’s reputation. Gold mines in Cripple Creek and Victor have yielded more than $30 billion at today’s per-ounce price. Mining continues in Victor on a large scale, with enormous haul trucks carrying ore to a processing pile. The walls of the open mine reveal small-diameter holes – the narrow tunnels that yesteryear’s prospectors perilously chipped and scraped by hand through the mountain.

One of the men who built his fortune through ownership of gold-bearing land in the area created the Pikes Peak Highway. Spencer Penrose spent $283,000 ($16.5 million in today’s dollars) to replace an outdated carriage road to the summit. The new road, completed in 1915, lured a public that increasingly traveled by car. Penrose ran an auto touring business in Colorado Springs at the time. He promoted his new road in 1916 by starting a race to the summit, an annual tradition that continues to this day. (Penrose was also the man behind the famous and elegant Broadmoor Hotel, which opened in 1918 in Colorado Springs.) The 12.42-mile race, climbing 4,720 feet through 156 turns, is unusual in that it is open to an unlimited range of vehicles. The first few winners a century ago custom-built their cars in garages. The 2018 victor, a world-renowned European driver, piloted an electric vehicle that shattered what appeared to be an unbreakable record of eight minutes.

Pikes Peak Highway is maintained by Colorado Springs, and the city tries to keep the highway open year-round. More people visit, and pay for the privilege, when the road is open all the way to the top than when it is not. That puts a lot of pressure on snow-plow and snow-blower staff, because snow can arrive and drift high at 14,000 feet later in spring and earlier in autumn than in the city 8,000 feet below.

Sometimes the snow blows so thick and horizontal that it blinds the plow drivers. During a blizzard 15 or so years ago, the driver couldn’t see beyond the hood of his truck. He took directions from a second man who used a shovel to probe for the edge of the road. “At that moment, it doesn’t matter how well you know the road,” said Connor Maloney, supervisor of the highway rangers.

When Maloney moved to Colorado Springs from sea-level Virginia in 2015, he had no idea that he could drive his 2005 Honda CRV to the summit, and he wasn’t certain he should. His car had 100,000 miles of wear. When he decided to take the risk, the highway’s last few steep, lightning-prone, unguarded, moonscape miles startled Maloney. “It’s a feeling like you’re in outer space,” he said. “It’s surreal and scary.”

On an exceptionally clear day atop the mountain, visitors can see, with a little help from atmospheric refraction, five states – Colorado, of course, but also the fruited plain of Kansas 161 miles to the east, Arizona (252) and New Mexico (127) to the south, and Utah (215) to the west.

Without optical aids, visitors likely won’t see specific features, such as Mount Sunflower at the edge of Kansas or Bartlett Mesa very near the New Mexico border. When Colorado Springs is overcast, the summit may be clear, allowing for an unparalleled view overlooking the clouds.

For the rest of the story see the July/August 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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