The Most Visited Mountain In All Of North America
Driving into Colorado Springs and the surrounding area it is impossible to miss Pike's Peak, which staggers up into the clouds and makes dwarfs of most of the other summits in nearby range. It is also home to the highest railroad in the United States, the Pike's Peak Cog Railway, which offers tours up to the summit. As such, Pike's Peak (aka America's Mountain) is the most visited mountain in North America. On a clear day the view from a distance can be absolutely breathtaking!
If you have seen the Garden Of The Gods then you will undoubtedly have noticed Pike's Peak in the background. (As a matter of fact, as they are located so close together I encourage you to visit both at the same time -- makes for the perfect way to kill an afternoon in Colorado Springs. And then when you come back down from the mountain, might as well go enjoy some tasty food and fresh home-brewed local beer at the Phantom Canyon Brewing Co in downtown Colorado Springs.)
Pike's Peak gets its name from Zebulon Pike, an explorer who led a failed expedition up to the summit in 1806, but was not made a national historic landmark and park until 1961. It was home to a gold rush in the mid-1800s and was also the site that inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write the song "America The Beautiful."
At the park entrance, which is actually just a tollgate entrance, you have to pay the fee before you can proceed up the 19-mile road that winds all the way up to the summit. It costs $10/person with a limit of $35 per vehicle, although fees may vary slightly between seasons. But happily enough the road was just recently completely paved from start to summit, eliminating the old stretch of gravel towards the top.
There are a few notices and heads-up that you are given at the gate, mostly pertaining to your vehicle and personal safety. Keep in mind you are going to want to have a fairly decent amount of gas in the tank, as you have to ascend and descent the steep and windy 19-mile road. Bring extra cash too, as the park offers three gift shops / snack parlors: two located at 1/3 and 2/3 of the way up and a third at the summit.
Additionally there are also many scenic view points and paved shoulders at various points, allowing you to pull over and take pictures, stretch the legs, or even give the car a break. (Yeah, that's another thing, definitely don't be showing up with any old and busted vehicles hoping to make the trek all the way to the top.) The most notable mile markers include: MM#3 Features you first view of Pike's Peak; MM#14 Scenic views of Garden Of The Gods, Colorado Springs, the Pike's Peak summit, and the Continental Divide; MM#16-16.5 Scenic views of the Switchbacks, Pike's Peak Reservoirs, the Continental Divide, Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range, and the Ghost Town Hollow Mine.
If you don't stop to take a bunch of pictures, and don't get stuck behind that one obnoxiously slow vehicle, then it takes between 45-50 minutes to reach the summit. Up there you can be prepared for the temperatures to be up to 40° F colder than at the base 6,000 feet below. I went during September and despite the fact that is was about 75° in Colorado Springs, it was 30° and snowing at the summit of Pike's Peak! Additionally, due to the extreme elevation oxygen levels are only at 60% of what they are at sea level.
The summit is absolutely breathtaking. I have been up at extreme elevations before, seen volcanoes and mountains up close in Costa Rica and Hawaii and other places, but each one is unique in their own way. Pike's Peak not only has the history but also the Cog Railway that rolls all the way up to the station up top, a mere few feet from the gift shop and prime picture zone. While I have not experienced the railway myself first-hand -- you have to buy tickets at least a day, if not several, in advance -- I have heard that trip to the top is even more spectacular than by taking the tollway.
Before beginning the less-exciting trek down the mountain, make sure to grab a few souvenirs from the gift shop. The offer all of the usual postcards, shot glasses, t-shirts and clothing, information books, magnets, random trinkets, and everything else you have come to expect from gift shops around the world, as well as food! Something about the high altitude always make me hungry ;)
Have you been to Pike's Peak or traveled up the Cog Railway? Maybe you've even been up an even taller mountain? Feel free to share your comments below!
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