Pike’s Peak: Drive to the Top

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On a mission to drive all of America’s great scenic roads?  You need to make sure Pike’s Peak is on your list.  The final few miles of this toll road take you high above tree-line, to the top of one of Colorado’s most celebrated 14’ers. And, you don’t even have to hike to this dizzying altitude — your car (or the cog railroad) can do all the work!

Location

Pike’s Peak is the really big mountain that looms over Colorado Springs, Colorado.  It stands out from the other mountains, thanks to its location farther east than most of Colorado’s other 14’ers.

There are three ways to get to the top of Pike’s Peak: hike, take the cog railroad, or drive the Pike’s Peak Highway.

To drive the toll road, drive west from Colorado Springs on US 24.  At Cascade, watch for the signs, and turn left.  You’ll pass by Santa’s Workshop (a Christmas-themed tourist attraction) shortly before reaching the toll booth.

As of 2014, admission is $12 per adult, $5 per person ages 6-15, or $40 per carload up to 5 people.  Rates are slightly cheaper during the winter months. Full details on tolls can be found here.

Keep in mind that the road is not open 24-hours — in the summer, the gates close at 6pm, and in the winter, 3 p.m.  Arrive early to allow plenty of time for the drive.

My Visit

Here it is! The start of the 19-mile trip to the summit of Pike’s Peak.  You’ll need to stop and pay your toll at the fancy toll booth that just opened up a few months before my visit in 2014.  Unfortunately, since the road is an attraction maintained by the city of Colorado Springs, your National Parks pass won’t help put a dent in the toll.

The first nice viewpoint isn’t far away from the entrance station.  Down below, you can see US 24, which is quite a beautiful drive itself.

Not only am I pretty sure that there are no Bigfoot in the area, I’m also pretty sure that the main purpose of this sign is to give tourists something to photograph.  It also helps sell Bigfoot t-shirts at the gift shop at the top of the mountain.

I didn’t just stop to take a picture of the Bigfoot sign.  I was excited to start seeing some fall colors at the side of the road.

Pike’s Peak Highway didn’t offer quite the explosion of fall colors that I had hoped, but it still provided some nice patches of yellow aspen leaves at the lower elevations.

Crystal Creek Reservoir

Crystal Creek Reservoir provides a nice place to stop and appreciate the mountain you’re about to climb.  That’s Pike’s Peak in the distance, and a little later on, you’ll be looking down on this manmade lake.

Pike’s Peak Highway runs across the top of the dam that forms Crystal Creek Reservoir.  Also, you’ll find a gift shop here.

Beyond the reservoir, the road starts the insane climb up the mountain.  You’re still below tree-line at this point…

… but as you can see, I was already seeing patches of snow at the side of the road, in early October.

Once you’ve climbed above tree line, you’ll know it.  The landscape turns barren, you’ll probably see more snow, and there’s one other really big thing you’ll realize:  you’re not just climbing a hill, you’re gaining altitude, and losing oxygen.
At this spot, you’re probably at about 12,300 feet above sea level.  If you’re not acclimated to higher elevations, you can start feeling altitude sickness at 8,000 feet — so at this point, you’re well on your way to feeling lousy.  And remember, you have nearly 2,000 feet more to go!

This pile of rocks at the side of the road was quite interesting.  I stopped here on my way down and climbed around for a few minutes.  More on that part of the trip, later.

At around 13,000 feet, Pike’s Peak Highway skirts the edge of a steep drop-off.  Below my feet, North Fork French Creek is at roughly 10,500 feet — a drop of nearly half a vertical mile.

From here on up, every curve is interesting and photo-worthy.  You’re limited only by the time you have until the mountain closes, and the level of wooziness you’re experiencing from the lack of oxygen.

At The Top

The top of Pike’s Peak is an unusual place.  Here, you’re 14,115 feet above sea level (even though the sign says 14,110).

The landscape is barren and rocky…

… and it’s obvious that it’s difficult to survive here.  You’ll see the remnants of a few buildings that have undoubtedly burned to the ground.

The original summit house was built in 1873, and only parts of its walls remain.

The good news is, there’s still one building here, and it sells donuts.  I was so dizzy from the altitude that I didn’t have the presence of mind to question the sign that proclaimed these donuts to be “world famous”, so I bought a few.  They were good (and greasy food does help ease the queasy symptoms of altitude sickness), but they weren’t anything special.  They aren’t even glazed!

One big attraction at the top of Pike’s Peak Highway is the “other” way to get here — the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway.

The railroad doesn’t follow the same path up the mountain as the road.  It’s only at the very end that the tracts intersect with the highway.

Make no mistake, this is the end of the road.

You’d better hope they remember to hit the brakes when they get here.

Most likely, if you spend a little time at the top of the mountain, you’ll see some of these railroad cars arrive and depart.  While parked, they are very fun to photograph.

Look for a neat reflection of the surrounding mountains in the headlight.

Once you’ve visited the gift shop and checked out the trains, you can explore a bit further.

You’ll notice a few plaques and memorial sites scattered about the mountain.  This one appears to be a time capsule…

… and this one remembers Zebulon Pike, the early explorer for which the mountain is named.

Hang your feet over the edge and enjoy this view, looking north.

There are some pay-per-view binoculars at the top of the mountain.

I always enjoy photographing these things.

After walking around at the top of Pike’s Peak, I was trying my darnedest to ignore all the symptoms of altitude sickness which I was experiencing.  The lack of oxygen does much more than make you short of breath.  You’ll feel dizzy, then develop a headache, and feel sick at your stomach.  It’s a lot like motion sickness — and the only cure is a long drive down a very curvy road.

And that’s what I did.  I left the top of Pike’s Peak with about an hour to spare before the road closed for the day (although I don’t think it’s a big deal if you leave later).

Even though I didn’t feel great, I couldn’t avoid stopping to photograph some of the absolutely mind-blowing scenes along this road.

Remarkably, the upper portion of this road was unpaved until 2011.  Before then, the road had to be re-graveled annually, and millions of tons of gravel would then wash away.  The Sierra Club filed suit, claiming the road maintenance was doing environmental harm, by coating the forest floor and alpine lake bottoms with gravel.  The legal settlement required the road be paved — which some worried would jeopardize the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb — an auto and motorcycle race to the top.  However, the annual race has continued.

Notice in the photo above, the pile of rocks in the upper-right corner.  This is where I stopped on the way up…

… and I stopped here again on the way down.  Behind the pile of rocks, there’s a nice area of tundra…

… where you can climb around and have fun on the boulders…

… and enjoy a remarkable view.

After I took this picture, I realized that I was very, very altitude sick, and I needed to stop wasting time and get back to a reasonable elevation as soon as possible.  I’m not going to lie — it was a very difficult drive down.  I stopped at the side of the road several times to shut my eyes and regain a bit of energy.  I didn’t take any more pictures.  Back in Colorado Springs, I stumbled into my motel room and collapsed on the bed.  The day was over.  In retrospect, I should have spent one more day at lower elevations (perhaps around 8,000 feet) before attempting the drive up to Pike’s Peak.

The Bottom Line

If you have properly prepared for the effects of a very high elevation, the drive up Pikes Peak is a lot of fun.  You’ll enjoy the road going up, and the remarkable views at the top.  And of course, the donuts.

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