Of the 67 peaks in the United States that are over 14,000 feet high, 54 peaks above that height are in Colorado. They are so numerous that the residents of Colorado have given them the name, fourteeners. To reach the summit of most fourteeners, a climber must have endurance, strength, agility and courage. To reach the summit of two of them, Mount Evans and Pikes Peak, all that is required is a car. Mount Evans and Pikes Peak have roads to their summits. The road to the summit of Pikes Peak is partially paved and the road to the summit of Mount Evans is paved all the way.
There is a small amount of courage required to reach the summit of these mountains, because you are climbing to 14,000 feet along narrow roads with no guard rails that cling to the side of mountains and which have traffic going in both directions. Drivers that are not used to driving in the mountains along these narrow roads tend to hug the centerline and that can result in mirrors being torn away when large vehicles are trying to occupy the same space. For the most part, though, it is an easy drive to the summit of both Mount Evans and Pikes Peak and 750,000 people make the journey to the summits of these two peaks each year.
Pikes Peak dominates the Western skyline above Colorado Springs, Colo., while Mount Evans is a short 35 air miles from the steps of the capitol in Denver. Getting to Mount Evans from the Front Range is an easy trip. Just take I-70 West to Idaho Springs. At Idaho Springs, take Colorado Highway 103 for the easy climb to Echo Lake Lodge and the intersection of Colorado Highway 5. From Echo Lake Lodge, it is a short 14 mile drive to the 14,264 foot summit of Mount Evans.
You can not drive all the way to the summit. The last part of the road makes its way through a series of hairpin switchbacks to the parking lot, just below the summit of Mount Evans. The parking area is at an elevation of 14,150 feet. To ascend the last 114 feet, and actually stand on the summit of Mount Evans, you must go on foot.
Construction of the road up to the summit of Mount Evans began in 1922. During the first year, only four miles were completed due to constant winds, bad weather, and snowdrifts of twenty feet or more, which slowed progress.
In 1930, nearly eight years after construction was started, the Mount Evans road was completed to the 14,150 foot elevation mark. The Crest House was completed at the summit parking lot in 1939 and the formal dedication of the road took place on August 18, 1939. The Mount Evans Road to the summit was then, and is still, the highest automobile road in North America.
Along the 14 mile trip from Echo Lake Lodge to the parking area of Mount Evans summit, there are two excellent stopping points. The first is found a short distance up the summit highway at the 11,540 foot mark. Here, at the Mount Goliath Natural Area, can be found Bristlecone Pines that are among the world’s oldest living things. Some of the Bristlecone Pines here are more than 1600 years old.
The Bristlecone Pine grows only at treeline, and the small and very unique population at the Mount Goliath area is unfortunately threatened by a fungal disease known as white pine blister rust, and by the pine bark beetles that are killing pine trees all across Colorado. The gnarled and twisted trunks of the Bristlecone Pine are a favorite subject for photographers.
As soon as you leave the Mount Goliath Natural Area you pass into the alpine tundra ecosystem. During the summer, most of the birds and animals which are seen above treeline, are only visitors and make their permanent homes at lower altitudes. Even the Bighorn Sheep go to lower altitudes when the winter winds begin to blow on the tundra. The harsh terrain above timberline is the year-round home to only a few animals, such as the Yellow-bellied Marmot, the Pica, the Whitetail Ptarmigan, and the Mountain Goat.
At an altitude of 12,830 feet you come to Summit Lake Park. Summit Lake is a beautiful alpine lake nestled in a glacial cirque. There are outstanding hiking and photo opportunities here. The area from Summit Lake to the peak of Mount Evans is where you can see the rock star of Mount Evans animals — the Rocky Mountain Goat.
The Mountain Goat is the animal that everyone hopes to see when coming to Mount Evans. The goats are easily distinguished by their long, shaggy, white fur, and stocky build. Males grow to be about three feet tall and weigh 200 to 300 pounds. The Mountain Goat is native to Colorado, but original herds had been exterminated by the beginning of the twentieth century. The Mount Evans herd was reintroduced in 1961, and has grown to over one hundred goats.
The Mount Evans Mountain Goats are very tolerant of people, but they are definitely not tame. Like any wild animal, they can be totally unpredictable and their sharp hooves and horns can be formidable. During the rut, even the youngest kid can become very aggressive.
Mount Evans is the crown jewel in the 74,405 acre Mount Evans Wilderness Area. There are over sixty miles of hiking in the Wilderness Area, much of it above treeline and in the alpine tundra ecosystem. In many ways the climate and plant life on Mount Evans is similar to the tundra at the Arctic over two thousand miles north of Colorado. Most Colorado fourteeners have only alpine tundra and Mount Evans is one of the few places outside the Arctic Circle where Arctic tundra can be found. The Summit Lake area in particular has a large number of plants including many species found in few locations outside the Arctic.
Without the vision of early Colorado residents, only the hardy would be able to experience the land above the trees. Now, it is an easy drive in the family car. Mount Evans is a wonderful day trip, although once experienced, you may find that one day is not enough. ❖