Standing on top of a 14,000 foot tall mountain that towers over everything else below is most definitely an invigorating experience! This is especially true during the spring season when the peaks are still capped with snow. The effect of the cool crisp clean air, the crystal blue skies and the cotton candy clouds that are close enough to reach out and touch does have a way of cleansing the mind and spirit. The steep slopes, the grassy alpine meadows that disappear in the distance and the barren rock outcrops that can be seen as one climbs to higher elevations create a dreamlike state that separates visitors from the world that they once knew. Feeling like an eagle soaring free is a good way to describe the Colorado “Fourteener” experience and touring Pikes Peak is by far the easiest way to achieve this great feeling!
There are 53 mountain peaks that are over 14,000 feet tall in Colorado and Pikes Peak is the most famous. Pikes Peak is America’s most visited mountain and it was the inspiration for the song America The Beautiful, which was written by Katharine Lee Bates long ago. This classic song still rings in the ears of those who visit this majestic place.
Pikes Peak is one of the few Colorado Fourteeners that can be accessed by passenger car, so practically anybody can climb all the way to the top! Visitors can literally drive all the way to the summit of this tall mountain, as long as the environmental conditions permit. The 19 mile long Pikes Peak Toll Road is now paved all the way to the top, so just about any reliable vehicle can do the trek. The old gravel road section near the summit caused extensive environmental damage, so it was paved not too long ago, which is a real plus. The only dirt road navigating that drivers must do is now just limited to the parking areas near the Pikes Peak Summit House.
The weather and environmental conditions are limiting factors when attempting to drive to the top of Pikes Peak. In years of heavy snowfall, it may not be feasible to clear the deep snowpack that covers the road till sometime during the early summer season, so road closures can be expected. Icy conditions can also close the road near the top at any given time. Rockslides and snow avalanches are limiting factors too. Snow pack road closures usually occur between the 10,000 and 13,000 foot level, so if the trip to the 14,000 foot tall summit has to be canceled, there will still be plenty of this mountain left to explore.
Those who wonder where the pricy Pikes Peak entrance fees go may have difficulty researching this topic, but the clue comes from the name of the road. The Pikes Peak Toll Road is local road, so the entrance fees go to the community of Colorado Springs and local agencies. Overall, the management of the points of interest on this mountain falls under National Forest jurisdiction and there are many to interesting sites to choose from in the lower elevations. All along the Pikes Peak Toll road are day use recreation areas, picnic areas, hiking trailheads and there are even a few large reservoir lakes. What this all means is that a visitor will find plenty of great outdoor activity options on the way up the mountain within the Pike National Forest.
Since Pikes Peak is not managed by the National Park system, extreme sports do take place on this mountain. The annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a world famous event that began way back in 1916. Anybody that has seen this daredevil race on television will feel the adrenaline pump through their arteries when thinking about this topic! The race to the top of Pikes Peak is one of the world’s most challenging dangerous drives. When done at breakneck speeds, one mistake can end in disaster, so this dangerous race course is not something to be taken lightly. Guard rails are seldom seen along the road that winds up the steep slopes and there are several hairpin switchbacks to negotiate. Water covering the road from a recent snow melt can add even more danger to the ride. Racing at Pikes Peak is what many skilled drivers dream about and the spectators simply just cannot get enough of this thrilling hill climb event!
For the average driver, just driving up Pikes Peak under the speed limit is more than thrilling enough, because this is quite an intimidating road. The Pikes Peak Toll Road actually is the hill climb race course, but this smooth paved road is only scary if you have a fear of heights or if you have a problem with paying attention to the the task at hand. During the snow melt season, portions of the road will be covered with water and the slick surface can be dangerous when going downhill at excessive speeds, so gearing down is essential for safety. Rocks and rubble occasionally fall onto the road and this can cause problems too, especially in sections where the road shoulder is not wide enough to go around an obstacle. Basically, if you drive under the speed limit and focus on the road ahead, then there will be no dangers when doing the downhill run.
After passing through the lower elevation forests on the way uphill, most of the views along the Pikes Peak Toll Road will be for your eyes only, because there are relatively few designated scenic overlook parking areas. Parking on the shoulder of the road is inadvisable, because the soft dirt can give way. In fact, there really are no road shoulders most of the way up, so this option goes out the window anyway. Stopping only at the scenic overlooks is the way to go and each designated viewpoint focuses on an important point of interest. The town of South Park and the distant Rocky Mountains are easy to spot at one such place and the Camera Point overlook is like a photographer’s dream come true. There are some short hiking trails that lead to even better views at some of roadside overlooks too.
On the day that I drove up Pikes Peak, the roads were closed at the 13,000 foot level, because of snowpack avalanche danger. That last 1,000 feet up to the summit actually is a six mile long stretch of tricky road that really starts winding around, so when weighing the danger, the disappointment of not was not so bad. The views from the 13,000 foot level are nothing less than spectacular, especially when the road literally goes through the puffy clouds, so if you do happen to fall short of your Pikes Peak Summit mission it will still be a great experience.
On a side note, I was driving a Dodge 392 cubic inch Hemi Scat Pack R/T Challenger with a stick shift the day I did the Pikes Peak tour. That vehicle was the most powerful normalIy aspirated car in the world at that time and the brakes were quite powerful too. While touring Pikes Peak in the muscle car, I obeyed the speed limits most of the way, but there was a few short sections where I briefly let it all hang out when there was no other vehicular traffic around, just to get the feel of what it would be like to drive in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Race. I had good sticky tires on the Challenger, so I was not worried about getting out of control when I stepped on the gas. The Scat Pack Challenger handled beautifully and the sound of that big Dodge Hemi absolutely roared through the canyons. For fear of starting an avalanche, I returned to driving to a safe pace in short order, but those few brief moments of running wide open on this dangerous road were enough to remember for a lifetime!
Hiking is another way to get to the summit of Pikes Peak and there are plenty of scenic trails to choose from in the Pike National Forest. Another traditional way to get to the top of the mountain is the historic Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which is operated by the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, the Cog Railway was closed recently, but plans supposedly have been made to restore this historic old fashioned tram, so it may be reopened sometime in the near future.
Pikes Peak is called “America’s Mountain” for a good reason. This is the most visited mountain in the United States and Pikes Peak is the second most visited mountain worldwide, next to Mt Fuji in Japan. The thrill of driving the Pikes Peak Toll Road is enough to please any adrenaline junkie and the majestic views are nothing less than breathtaking. There is plenty to see and do during any season at Pikes Peak and the high elevation summer season camping simply cannot be beat. If you wish to explore Colorado’s Fourteeners, then Pikes Peak is the best place to start and a mountaineering adventure here will inspire memories that last a lifetime!
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