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Driving up Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs

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Driving up Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs

It’s nicknamed “America’s Mountain.” Pikes Peak inspired poet, Katherine Lee Bates to write America the Beautiful in 1893. There really are “spacious skies” and “fruited plains” and purple-hued mountains visible from the summit of the 14,115-foot high peak.

View of Pikes Peak from Garden of the Gods area, Colorado Springs

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The city of Colorado Springs operates the year-round 19-mile toll road to the top of the mountain. The roundtrip takes two hours straight driving. The road, which had stretches of unpaved gravel, is now paved the entire distance. The ten-year paving project was completed in September 2011.

Images above by Floyd O'Neil Photography, Manitou Springs, CO.

Winding road to summit of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs

To enjoy the drive and the sights along the way, allow way more time. There are pull-out areas, views and side trips found on and off the two-lane road. If driving all the way to the summit is too daunting, drive as far as you are comfortable. There are plenty of places to turn around. The City of Colorado Springs strongly recommends stopping at the overlooks on your side of the road going both up and down. It’s safer that way, especially when the highway is busy.

Image above by VisitCOS.com, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

Trip Highlights:

View along drive up Pikes Pike, Colorado Springs, CO

Camera Point on the left has great vistas eastward through Ute Pass and as the name implies, offers a great photo opp. Stop on your way down.

Crowe Gulch Picnic Grounds, a short distance up the road, offers picnic tables, hiking trails and restrooms.

As you drive into Pikes Peak National Forest watch for the somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Big Foot crossing” sign on your right. You probably won’t see the legendary giant, but there was a reported sighting in 2001.

Image above by Floyd O'Neil Photograpy, Manitou Springs, CO.

View of Crystal Lake near Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs


Crystal Creek Reservoir offers superb views, especially in fall when the aspens are yellow and there’s snow at the summit. The area offers trails, picnic spots and fishing from May through October. You need a valid Colorado fishing license. At the Crystal Creek Visitor’s Center, open May through October, you’ll find a gift shop, information and restrooms. Often in winter you can’t get above this point.

A detour on an unpaved road takes you to the North Slope Recreation Area where you’ll discover the North and South Catamount Reservoirs.

Halfway Picnic Area, which is, well, halfway to the summit, has picnic tables, hiking trails and rest rooms.

The historic Glen Cove Inn, a reconstructed log building built atop the foundation of the original 1886 cabin, offers a restaurant, gift shop and restrooms. In summer, rock climbing is sometimes available from here. On the way down, drivers are asked to stop so that rangers can check your car’s brake temperature. If your brakes burn out on the descent... well, just stop and get them checked.

If you want a bit of a thrill, on your way down, check out the Elk Park pullout. Look for the gate on your right just passed Mile Marker 14. Driving this dirt Forest Service road you’ll feel like you’re driving off the mountain, but you’re not. Just proceed with caution if you choose to explore this road. 

The tree line on Pikes Peak is reached at about Mile Marker 14, and the scenery from here on up is just divine.

Devil’s Playground on the left was named for the way lightning here can sometimes be seen jumping from rock to rock during storms.

The Bottomless Pit, on the left has a great view into this aptly-named abyss. Save it for the way down. You’ll also find great views of the Pit from the summit.

As you continue your ascent, look for Big Horn Sheep, the official Colorado State Mammal. One of the largest herds in Colorado calls Pikes Peak home. On the last stretch of road, there are panoramic views of the Sangre de Christo range of the Rockies, extending south to Santa Fe, the historic mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor and the tracks for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. You may even see the train. On a clear day, the views at the next (and last) switchback are expansive. You can see the road to Devils Playground and in the distance, the Collegiate Peaks and sometimes even Breckenridge, Leadville, and Aspen.

You can bike to summit of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs

When you arrive at the summit, it’s a good time to eat your picnic lunch if you've resisted it this far. If you didn’t bring lunch, grab a bite at the Summit House. Even if you’ve had lunch, try one of their famous, high altitude donuts. Allow ample time to explore the top and to look at the fabulous views in every direction.

Above: More sophisticated measuring equipment now has Pike Peak at 14,115 feet, five feet higher than the signs you see. The two images above by VisitCOS.com, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

Pikes Peak northeast view, Colorado Springs

On a clear day, you can see six states; Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, Wyoming and Nebraska. Budget your time at the summit carefully, more than 30 or 40 minutes here can result in altitude sickness (see a list of symptoms below).

On your way down, enjoy the views and the pullouts you missed on the way up. And at the bottom, heave a sigh of relief and pat yourself on the back. You can echo the famous saying, “Pikes Peak or Bust.”

Above: Note the colorful rock formations in the Garden of the Gods at the base of the mountain. Image by Don Nadeau, BidOnTravel.com.

A few things to know if you drive Pikes Peak:

  • Views are dependant on weather conditions. Pick a clear day for your drive. Summer mornings are more likely to be clear than afternoons, when thunderclouds are more likely to develop. On an overcast day, you'll miss all of the stunning vistas.

    If you take the drive around the last three weeks of July, you’ll see a profusion of wildflowers growing on the tundra above the tree line. Starting around the beginning of September, you can see the aspens changing color. They are generally at peak viewing conditions around the third week of the month.
     
  • After years of living in the mountains, here are my two best tips on mountain driving: if you are going slow, use the pullouts and let faster traffic pass you. On the way down, use your low gear and maintain a slower speed; you won’t have to brake as much. Don’t ride the brakes, that’s how they overheat. Use them only when you have to. (Note: Proper use of brakes and gears may vary by the type of vehicle you drive. Check before mountain driving.)
     
  • Read the brochure that you get at the Toll House at the beginning of the road. There are great tips about driving up and down the mountain.
     
  • The road is open year-round, but there are times when, due to road conditions, it’s not open as far as the summit. For current road conditions, check with the City of Colorado Springs Rangers, at 719-385-7325..
     
  • The temperature at the summit can be 30 degrees cooler than at the bottom. Make sure to dress appropriately and even in summer, bring a sweater.
     
  • Bring a hat and sunscreen. You are 14,000 feet closer to the sun and the air is thinner; and you’ll burn faster than you may think.
     
  • To help avoid altitude sickness, drink lots of water.
     
  • If you have any health issues, check with you physician to make sure the high altitude will not exacerbate them.
     
  • The Summit House at the top does not allow outside food or drink in their dining room.

Altitude symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Tiredness

Author’s note: You can also hike up Pikes Peak on the Barr Trail. There are both an annual bike race and a marathon that go to the summit. According to the City of Colorado Springs’ rangers at the highway, occasionally the road is closed to car traffic in the mornings so that bikes can use the road. Check with them at (719) 385-7325.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs   

Pikes Peak Cog Railway: Rocky Mountain High

Enjoy other posts by Billie Frank, formally of Colorado, who now lives in and writes about Santa Fe and New Mexico.

Last image by VisitCOS.com, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitor's Bureau. A big thank you to the bureau and to Floyd O'Neil Photography for these wonderful photos.

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