Mt. Evans Scenic Byway: Altitude Champion of North America

A car drives switchbacks above treeline on the Mount Evans Highway near Summit Lake.

Randall Roberts

The Mount Evans Scenic Byway can take your breath away. Literally.

The highest paved road in North America snakes its way up the side of Mount Evans, ending 134 feet from the legendary 14,264-foot summit. The U.S. Forest Service warns visitors to be ready for unpredictable weather, a winding road that is narrow and steep, and low oxygen levels.

Like a discarded ribbon, the road’s switchbacks give alternating lines of traffic the dubious honor of driving alongside the edge of the road without guardrails – which arguably provides a better view of the Earth than many airplane flights. Still, on a warm July morning, the modest parking lot at the top is packed with stalwart admirers. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicyclists climb the byway’s slender 15 miles from Echo Lake Lodge for a chance to get the best view of the country’s backbone – the Continental Divide.

“It’s amazing,” said Bonnie Campbell who was visiting Mount Evans from Louisiana with her husband, James. “Everything takes my breath away coming up this particular path. I was too scared to even look over the edge. He’s like ‘look, look’ and I’m like ‘No. Keep driving, look ahead, I’ll look when we head down.’”

Every year on Memorial Day, and lasting until Labor Day, the epic stretch of roadway opens to the public for a $15 fee, drawing 150,000 visitors a year to the 14th-tallest peak in Colorado. Building this high-altitude road was no easy undertaking, nor is opening it every season, but for the visitors who flock to the 14er, the herculean effort that makes the popular attraction what it is today doesn’t go unappreciated.

Surveying work on the final stage of Mount Evans Scenic Byway, also called Highway 5, from Echo Lake to the mountain’s summit, began in 1923. The highway’s surveying party often fought its way through waist-deep snow, and a horse carrying supplies was lost when it fell over a 500-foot cliff. Party member John Campion died in the saddle between Mount Evans and Epaulet Mountain during a blizzard that lasted for days.

Because of the rugged location, high altitude and the unpredictable, violent nature of the weather, the roadwork wasn’t completed for another eight years. In that time, additional horses died on the unforgiving precipices, and steam-powered equipment malfunctioned due to the extreme altitude.

That first year, the weather was terrible. When it wasn’t raining, it was hailing or snowing, reported one contractor, detailing some of the hardships faced by the state’s highway department. As a result, heavy construction equipment wasn’t practical, he said, and most of the work was done by “shovel, hammer and drill, dynamite and determination, and copious amounts of Copenhagen snuff.”

“Just the altitude made it difficult to work up there,” said Ralph Bradt, historian and recreation planner for the Clear Creek Ranger District. “Of course, it was a really short season and it was hard on people and equipment and horses working at that kind of altitude – and, of course, the higher you get, the more difficult it is.”

Bradt said the idea for the road came about when Denver was looking to develop recreational opportunities in the neighboring mountain park system. “They were interested in getting people out and about – things to make Denver a good place to live,” he said. Highway 5 was originally intended to stretch from Mount Evans south to Epaulet Mountain, but the work ended on Mount Evans, the political will and funding dried up, according to Bradt. The completion of construction didn’t end the hardship associated with Highway 5. Even now, Colorado Department of Transportation workers spend weeks readying the narrow byway for Memorial Day and the crowds that follow.

For the rest of the story see the September/October 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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