Hello, dear readers! Fall has arrived, and it got me thinking about the fantastic Colorado road trip my husband and I took last fall. We didn’t get a chance to share any details about that trip last year, but I’m feeling nostalgic thinking back on it and wanted to tell you about one of the highlights of our trip – driving up to the summit of Pikes Peak!
Standing at 14,115 feet tall, Pikes Peak is one of America’s tallest peaks. It belongs to the U.S. club of nearly 100 “fourteeners”, which are mountains whose peaks are at least 14,000 feet high. Just west of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak was named in honor of the explorer, Zebulon Pike, who, interestingly, never actually made it up to the summit, despite an attempt to do so in 1806.
Edwin James, a botanist on an expedition with explorer Stephen Harriman Long in 1820, was instead given credit for being the first to reach the summit. The mountain was briefly named “James Peak” before being officially rechristened Pikes Peak in 1890.
In 1893, Katherine Lee Bates visited Pikes Peak, which became the inspiration for the “purple mountain majesties” in her poem (and later the song) “America the Beautiful”. Later in 1961, the summit was declared a National Historic Landmark.
The summit of Pikes Peak is open year-round, but note that weather may impact your ability to reach the summit. Also, it’s typically 30-40 degrees cooler on the summit, so keep this in mind when you’re planning when to visit. We were in Colorado in mid-October, and while it wasn’t terribly cold during most of our road trip across the state, it was only in the low 30s at the summit! Be sure to check out the hours, rates, and weather conditions at the summit before your visit.
Also, I would recommend that you clear a visit to the summit with your doctor in advance if you have any medical conditions that may be exacerbated by high altitudes. It’s also highly recommended that you hydrate well leading up to your trip to the summit (and during and after for that matter), as this will help a lot with adjusting to the higher altitude.
There are three main ways to reach the summit of Pikes Peak. The best method to choose will depend greatly on the amount of time and funds you have available, whether you have your own (reliable) vehicle, and what kind of physical shape you’re in!
The fastest, easiest, and most flexible way to reach the summit is to drive yourself! Throughout the rest of September, timed-entry tickets are required to drive up to the summit, but if you visit from October through early May, you are welcome to visit at any time. Note that in the winter or during periods of heavy snow, the road to the summit may be closed, so it’s best to call their hotline at 719-385-7325 to check on the status of the road. Dial 1 to hear about road conditions – it’s updated each morning and as conditions on the mountain change.
The drive up Pikes Peak is 19 miles long and includes many switchbacks and steep dropoffs but also plenty of magnificent views. My advice would be to drive straight up to the summit without stopping and then plan to make all of your stops on the way back down. I have two reasons for this: 1. altitude changes can be hard on your body and 2. altitude changes can be hard on your car!
First, you are going to be gaining quite a bit of elevation, and though we didn’t feel particularly affected on our way up the mountain, we definitely really felt it as soon as we got out of our car at the summit. We essentially live at sea level here in NYC, so 14,000+ feet is quite an adjustment! I’m talking headaches and lightheadedness and just general “this doesn’t feel quite right-ness”. As we pulled into our parking spot, we also saw someone lying on the ground who had passed out from the altitude change! (There are medical staff at the summit if you feel unwell, by the way.)
Since we didn’t feel that great at the summit, we were glad we planned all of our stops for the trip back down so that we could take breaks and not have to worry about driving while feeling unwell. And each time we stopped a bit lower on the mountain, we felt better and better, so I definitely recommend this approach if you’re also not used to higher altitudes.
And second, planning to make stops on the way down will also give your car’s brakes and transmission a rest! Before you set out for the summit, you’re going to want to make sure you know how to put your car into its lowest gear, as this will help slow your car’s descent, thus also helping save your brakes. (If you have a rental car, check with the dealer or the manual!)
If you don’t put your car in low gear, don’t make any stops, and just ride your brakes the whole way down in one shot, you run the risk of overheating or completely damaging your brakes. This could lead to an expensive repair for your personal vehicle or totally ruin the rest of your vacation if you’re in a rental.
By planning to make all of your stops on your back down from the summit, you will do your car (and yourself!) a lot of favors and save yourself from potential vehicular misery. We definitely saw many cars stuck on the side of the road and smelled A LOT of overheated brakes, but with low gear, gentle braking, and lots of stops, we didn’t encounter any issues ourselves.
To drive up to the summit, go to the Pikes Peak Highway entrance located 15 minutes west of Colorado Springs on Highway 24. You can use 5089 Pikes Peak Highway, Cascade, CO 80809 in your GPS to find the entrance, and this handy map will show you what all there is to see along your drive. I’d also recommend reviewing these safety tips before you hit the road to the summit.
If you don’t have a car or prefer not to do any driving yourself, you might consider taking The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the summit instead! This option is quite a bit pricier than driving yourself, but it would be fun to do for the novelty of it (and it’s a great option if you’re concerned about not being physically well enough to drive yourself back down the mountain with altitude sickness). The cog railway experience lasts about 3 hours – the 9-mile transit takes 1 hour and 10 minutes each way, with 40 minutes allotted to exploring the summit. Note that there are no restrooms on board, but there are facilities available at the summit’s visitor center.
Finally, if you’re in excellent physical shape and have a lot of time on your hands, you might consider hiking up to the summit instead. Now, those of you who have been following along for a while know that we enjoy a good hike, but hiking a fourteener is not for the faint of heart or the casual weekend hiker. The hike to the summit is 13.5 miles with an elevation gain of 7,500 feet. It will likely take you anywhere from 8-14+ hours to complete this hike, so I highly recommend you do your research and train (a lot) in advance before attempting this hike!
Finally, if you’re not interested in visiting Pikes Peak in any of the ways mentioned above, there are multiple tour operators that offer bus and bike tours to the summit as well. No matter how you reach the summit, you’re in for quite a treat once you get there!
Getting up to the summit of Pikes Peak can be just as fun as reaching the summit itself. The drive is spectacular, and on a clear day, you can see for miles and miles. It is a little terrifying at times when you’re looking over some of the steep cliffs along the road, but the scenery is so breathtaking that you’ll quickly get over any fears you may have of tumbling down the hillside. (Btw, there are actually people who race on the road to the summit if you can believe it – yikes! That’s a hard pass from me.)
Once you reach the summit, you can visit the brand new Summit Visitor Center, which just opened in June 2021. There are interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, plenty of restrooms, and indoor and outdoor dining options. One of the highlights of the Visitor Center is the high-altitude donuts that are specially made and need to be eaten at the summit or they will basically just crumble to bits once you get back down off the mountain!
Outside at the summit, you can watch the Cog Railway enter and exit the summit station, and there are multiple viewing areas and platforms where you can take in unbelievable views from every possible angle. Overall, you probably only need an hour max at the summit to take in the exhibits, have a snack, hit up the gift shop, and wander around outside. Parking is limited, so you may also need to circle a couple times to find a spot.
On the drive back down the mountain, there are multiple areas where you can pull off and get different views and perspectives of the mountain itself and the surrounding areas. We enjoyed taking pictures of the crazy winding roads from several of the pullouts where you could watch cars on the switchbacks below you!
There are also 4 different picnic areas with restrooms where you can pull over for a snack and a pit stop, and there are other areas with hiking trails, lakes for fishing, and more. Check out this map to see the various points of interest along the road to the summit.
If you find yourself in the Colorado Springs area, definitely take a few hours out of your trip to drive up to the summit. This was such a memorable experience, and I don’t think that a trip to Colorado would be complete without standing on top of the world at Pikes Peak!
Have you been to Pikes Peak already? Tell me what you thought of your own visit!
Where to Go
- Pikes Peak Highway Entrance: 5089 Pikes Peak Highway, Cascade, CO 80809
When to Go
- Pikes Peak is open year-round, weather permitting. Check the website for the current hours, as they change throughout the year.
- Timed entry permits are required from late May through late September, so you’ll need to reserve a time in advance if you’re traveling during this timeframe.
Tips for Visiting
- Call 719-385-7325 and select option 1 for current road conditions – this is updated every morning and as conditions change on the mountain.
- The temperature at the summit is 30-40 degrees cooler than at the base of the mountain, so plan your clothing accordingly if you visit from fall through spring.
- Be sure to fill up your gas tank before heading up the mountain – there won’t be any options to do so during the trip to the summit.
- Make sure your brakes are in good working order and learn how to put your car into low gear. This will prevent you from damaging your brakes on the trip back down. You can also drive straight up to the summit without stopping and then use the trip down to stop at the various pull-offs and rest areas. Your brakes will get a rest between stops!
- High altitudes affect people in different ways. Ensure you clear a visit to the summit with your doctor in advance if you have any medical conditions that may be exacerbated by high altitudes.
- Also, ensure you’re well-hydrated before heading up to the summit and continue to hydrate after coming back down. If you feel unwell upon arrival, notify a staff member at the summit so that you can receive medical care, if necessary.