America’s Mountain In Our Backyard: What to Know about Pikes Peak

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Pikes PeakWhether you were born here, or (like me) you got here as soon as you could, you likely rely on Pikes Peak as a guiding point on your internal compass. Nicknamed America’s Mountain because it is the only fourteener that everyone can visit regardless of age or ability, we are quite lucky to have it towering over our backyards. Pikes Peak’s history is fascinating, and its future looks bright. Here’s what you need to know about America’s Mountain.

Origin Story

Despite its appearance to every volcano-loving kid, Pikes Peak is not and has never been a volcano. Though it comprises 14,115 feet of molten rock, years of erosion shaped it. Scientists believed it emerged some 50 million years ago!

Pikes is also not the highest mountain in Colorado, though it is considered the most accessible.

It ranks 31 out of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners, though its actual measurements have changed over time. Initially, it measured at 14,109. With the addition of a summit house tower, so its height was listed at 14,147 feet. Like a kid caught on his tiptoes, the official measurement was knocked back to 14,110 feet when the current summit house was built. But in 2002, Congress adopted a set criteria of measurement. Pikes was recalculated (but not remeasured) and listed at 14,115 feet. The National Forest Service, which helps manage the mountain, decided not to change the previous height.

What is the official height? Apparently it depends on who you ask… and who maintains the sign!  

What’s In a Name?

Throughout history, the mountain has had many names. The native Ute people called it Tava, which means Sun Mountain, a likely nod to the way it is painted with the sunrise each morning. Later Spanish explorers borrowed from that name, calling it Montana del Sol, before eventually naming it El Capitan for its prominence along the Front Range.

The fluid naming conventions continued into the 1800s when Zebulon Pike explored the area, sent to document his findings after the Louisiana Purchase. His first attempt to climb what he called “the Grand Peak” was an abysmal failure. Who starts a climb on November 26, 1806, without proper gear? Others called the mountain James Peak after Dr. Edwin James, the botanist who was the first known person to reach the summit in 1820. But newspapers continued to report on Zeb Pike’s explorations, and his memoir of explorations was hugely popular.

Once the Colorado gold rush took over the news, the Pikes name stuck. It’s somewhat fitting that the mountain’s moniker does not use an apostrophe. That would signify ownership, and given the fact that Zeb Pike never reached the top, America’s mountain owned him!

Cultural Impact

In 1893, a poet and Wellesley College professor was so enamored with her experience on the mountain, she wrote a poem that became the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” If you catch the mountain at sunrise, you will find Katherine Lee Bates’ “purple mountain majesties.” 

Workers completed the first road up Pikes Peak in 1888. Soon, there were carriage rides for those who did not want to hike. Horses brought visitors up halfway, and then donkeys took over, as they were considered more adept at altitude. Spencer Penrose, founder of the Broadmoor Hotel, enlarged and improved the road for car use. Then to promote his new road, he started the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, now the second oldest auto race in America. 

The Pike Peak National Highway we have today follows this route closely and facilitated much scientific research on subjects as varied as erosion and engine efficiency. In 1918, scientists used the Pikes Peak highway to study air injection, allowing them to design airplane engines that could handle the decreased oxygen levels at high altitudes. 

Many Modes, One Mountain

In addition to the road, the Manitou and Pikes Peak Rail Road Company opened the Cog Railway, allowing visitors to travel to the summit in much greater comfort. The budget option was the burro trail, following old prospector lines. Fred Barr improved the trail and added cabins to the camp sites, and it remains a popular trail today.

Giving so many options to hike, ride, or eventually drive up the mountain was a boon to the area given the health-focused growth of the city, when tuberculosis patients fled west for cleaner, drier air. Pikes Peak remains one of the major tourism engines for our region. More than 700,000 people visit the summit in a year!

One of the more unusual events takes place every New Year’s Eve, when a special team of mountaineers climbs to the top of Pikes Peak. At 9 p.m. that day, they shoot off 5 fireworks in honor of the original Frozen Five climbers who started the tradition in 1922. Then, they put on a more spectacular display at midnight. Each year, they add one person  from a list of applicants to the team of climbers (hence the name AdAmAn —add a man). It’s a neat way to anticipate the new year with younger children at 9 p.m. or later with friends! Watch for the fireworks! 

Upcoming… Literally 

As Zebulon Pike learned, the mountain can be a difficult place to live. The current summit house is deteriorating, but workers are toiling on a new, state-of-the-art visitors complex which broke ground last summer. It’s a fascinating process I hope to write about in another post, but they hope to complete the amazing new structure in late summer or fall of 2020. The Cog Railway is also undergoing renovations and reconstruction, and should reopen in 2021.

Do you remember how it felt to see Pikes Peak rising from the plains the first time you visited? What are your memories of America’s Mountain?

 

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Kate is a Hoosier by birth but knew in her mid-teens that she’d live near the mountains. In college she spent a glorious summer in Colorado Springs volunteering at Glen Eyrie and vowed she’d come back somehow. She's now lived at the foot of Pikes Peak for more than a decade. She and her husband and two boys live downtown in a home almost as old as the city itself. Kate attempts to garden in her free time, making a commitment to grow something strange and new each year. So far luffa sponges, quinoa, and various pumpkins have fed nothing but the squirrels. Prior to staying home with her boys, Kate wrote and edited for a nonprofit that transformed the lives of children all over the world. She is passionate and nerdy and is continually surprised at the joy she has found in this season of motherhood.