Just west of Colorado Springs and towering near Manitou is one of the tallest peaks along the Rocky Mountains. Legends live based on this mountain. Did you ever hear the tale of Sweet Betsy from Pike who crossed the prairies with her husband Ike? Have the stories of the silver and riches flowing in the West ever reach your ears? Ever traveled to a summit so high that it literally takes your breath away? Or perhaps you’ve sung the famous words “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain’s majesty, above the fruited plains,” and wondered perhaps just where those stunning words came from?
Standing at 14,115 feet, Pike’s Peak is the 31st tallest peak in all of Colorado. Frequently covered in snow at its summit, the peak looms on the horizon, a pillar of beauty and a reminder of the Rocky Mountain terrain to all the residents of Colorado Springs. When traveling on Highway 24, one can take its exit and for a fee of $10 per passenger, travel the 19-mile road to its summit, taking in the phenomenal views and richly varied landscapes as one ascends roughly 8,000 feet. While Springs itself warmed to a comfortable 66 degrees, the main gate warned us of the drop we’d experience as we climbed, the summit registering the mercury at about 28 degrees. So our winter gear was loaded and after the very friendly ranger of the US Forestry provided Ms Bailey with a cookie, we started our climb.
Instantly, steep hills start as the elevation quickly changes to nearly 8,000 feet and the start of the Montane Life Zone emerges. Overlooks abound but the map to the summit warns of pressing onward to the summit first to be more friendly to your vehicle. In fact, before you even pass the main gate it is suggested one checks all fluids and keeps their gas tank half full before starting the journey. Overlooks and stops wait for the descent back to town. Ute Pass and the peak itself start to appear on the horizon, providing travelers with an awe-inspiring glimpse of how quickly the highway below fades from sight.
This photo is courtesy of Wikipedia.com
Rumors of Big Foot sightings begin to mark the road, signs of potential crossings dotting the shoulders. Picnic areas appear with numerous hiking trails. The temperature just begins to lower and Pike National Forest finds its borders entered. Crystal Creek Reservoir greets the scene, its beautiful sapphire waters an oasis amid the climb. A visitor center greets adventurers with a small gift shop and snack cafe. Then the road presses upward. From here one sees the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb that once welcomed the racers to the clouds in marathons, glimpsing the struggles the runners endured while hiking up the terrain. The Sub-Alpine Terrain grows visible at Mile Marker 10 along with the Half Way Picnic spots, the road growing steeper and more twisted.
At Mile Marker 12 the former skiing area of Glen Cove beckons. Glen Cove Inn itself was established in 1886 by Frank Tweed as a cabin settlement. It became a way station for travelers journeying the open carriage road, the original cabin incorporated into the since rebuilt building. Another gift shop and restaurant await travelers. Normally, in the busy season, rangers mandatorily require descending vehicles to stop at this point and check their brake temperatures. During the cooler months this is not such a necessity.
The most impressive views await now. Soon one passes the tree line as large crimson boulders take over the landscape. Visions of big horn sheep start to grow in possibility. The W Switchbacks start and the road narrows. With no guard rails even this blogger and photographer felt a little nervous rounding through the switchbacks, the ground disappearing steeply beneath the right of the road. The magnificent panoramics that greet the eyes from this point on thrill adventure seekers. Devil’s Playground, named for the way lightning strikes dance amid the rocks, displays the truly rugged and empty terrain at this point. Sheep Basin and the Bottomless Pit emerge, warning of how truly high one stands now, hovering over the lowly landscape below.
Once more you start to climb, higher and steeper. You can feel the air growing thinner and thinner as you pass another smaller hill known as Little Pike’s Peak. We kept waiting to see the Bighorn Sheep, Colorado State’s Mammal. But, alas, on this day there were none. Cripple Creek and Victor’s gold mines sit nestled to the south and in view. The Sangre de Cristos loom ahead and flowing into the New Mexico landscape beyond, with us almost at their same height. How different they appear now. Along I-25 they loom so mighty and magnificent.
Up this high now, one sees just how rugged and excruciating they can be, yet how stunning. Imagining how the pioneers heaved and hoed as they crossed over them in their covered wagons one can’t help but wonder how they managed. A sense of pride and awe well deep within the heart. How truly brave and strong and dedicated they must be to brave these peaks with only horses, mules, oxen, and wooden wheels. No seatbelts kept them comfortably on their cushioned seats. No computerized engines full of oil and coolant kept their animals cool and healthy. Wow. That is the only word that can describe it. I feel tears threaten my water line of my eyes as I gaze out and observe the flattened plains below toward Kansas, see the steep mountains ahead and feel how the Chevy Blazer chugs further upward. The normally crystal blue sky is threatening with dark clouds looming, overcasting the day, a storm threatening to reach the Peak before the night’s end. Even in the middle of April, the peak is vastly cool compared to the town below.
Along with the thoughts of our brave ancestors who forged the way for us, I can’t help but think too of how high up we are and how the clouds seem so close. It does truly feel as though we are flying, high above the cares and worries of the city life below, away from all the stressors man has placed on this earth. The congestion of the traffic below gone, the sounds of horns and sirens and busy streets silenced. The sensation is breathtaking in addition to the thinning air.
Passing the tracks of the COG Railway one can catch in Manitou for a $35 roundtrip to the summit, one climbs another thousand feet and sees the weather station of the summit appear along with the Panoramic Web Cam shooting images to Springs every 10 minutes. The Summit House welcomes the brave journeyers to the top, providing an ample gift shop, cafe, and relief. This blogger couldn’t resist the purchase of a Pike’s Peak shirt showing the accomplishment. Signs saying “Can Only get this high in Colorado” and other funny reflections of the altitude greet the souvenir shoppers. The air is a crisp 28 degrees and the viewing telescopes provide even more in-depth to the looming view spread around the peak’s summit at 14,110 feet. Ms Bailey seems unaffected by the altitude. Some others visiting do though. Parking is abundant and one can walk around and observe Garden of the Gods, Manitou, Cripple Creek, the plains stretching as far as the eye can see, and the remainders of the Rocky Mountains all around.
It is easy to see why Katharine Lee Bates penned her most famous poem, our song “America, the Beautiful” in 1895 from the summit. Her poem was originally entitled “Pike’s Peak” and referred to its views and how the shadows played over it. She originally journeyed to Colorado Springs in 1893 at the age of thirty-six to teach a course at the Colorado College. All the sights inspired her and she made the ascent to Pike’s Peak’s summit, writing the poem along the way and later allowing it to be set to music. Indeed, the views definitely reflect every bit of the majesty of our nation.
A sense of peace emerges and fills the onlookers. Growing up I loved “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” even meeting the cast as they filmed. It always astounded this California Native and her family to hear them speak of places we knew after our purchase of our property. Colorado Springs of course was where the show was located but in 1868. One pivotal episode I always loved included an elderly school teacher, retired of course, who arrived in the town and was quite the go getter. She was determined to climb to the top of Pike’s Peak. Most of the men in town considered her insane for wanting to and hated even how she wore her bloomers instead of skirts. Dr. Mike, how Dr. Quinn was known to her friends, found a kindred spirit in the woman, as had I in Dr. Quinn. She set out to catch up to the woman, never making it to the summit because of another plot in the story, but she vowed to return and set out to do so on her next birthday, wanting to go alone too, to prove she could make it and didn’t need help. Her female friends ended up wanting to go along, all for their own personal reasons and missions. They make it, except for Dr. Quinn who hurts her leg on the ascent, and the feelings they share as they do and how exhilarating it was to stand atop Pike’s Peak. For years I’ve remembered that and always said I’d love to stand atop a mountain, mainly Pike’s Peak as I’d see it all the time in the 9 years I’ve lived in Colorado. Finally, that moment was there and it felt every bit as awesome as I imagined it to be. My only regret was that I had no image to prove I was there, just the image I took on my phone of Brent and Ms Bailey by the sign of the summit. But there is always another time, right?
But as we stood there and saw the views and Brent tried his hardest to capture it all on film, the gloomy weather not helping matters, I was reminded of the school teacher’s final letter to Dr. Quinn as she descended the mountain, recalling precisely where I am in my life as well, and how ironically I’m at the same age Dr. Quinn was supposed to be. It all made sense and it summed up the adventure perfectly:
“Nature has it’s very own song and so few of us ever take the time to listen to its notes. So I have chosen a place where I know the chords will be sweet and clear and I’ll be welcomed back to the earth where all life begins and all paths eventually cross again. Please know your footsteps are certain to be recognized and when they are I will ask as Emerson suggests, when two friends meet again after some time apart, what has come clearer to you, my friend? I look forward to hearing of all your struggles and loves, about your mother and children and grandchildren, of your mercies and triumphs. I hope to hear how you lived each day to its fullest, always daring to stay true to yourself. I’ll listen to how you loved and laughed and cried and played and worked and took delight in each sunrise and gave thanks for every star in the night sky. And that all of your moments were as glorious as saying good-bye to a new friend or hello to an old, as glorious as climbing to a mountain peak…. or maybe even falling in love.”