How to Drive or Hike Pikes Peak, America's Exhilarating Mountain - Story at Every Corner (2022)


The climb up America’s mountain is spectacular and exhilarating. No wonder it inspired the famous song – ‘America the Beautiful’ by Katherine Lee Bates.

Pikes Peak is the most prominent peak south of Denver. I could see it for miles as I drove from Rocky Mountain National Park to Colorado Springs. At 14,115 feet above sea level, it’s the highest summit of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, in North America. This tall Fourteener is located in Pikes Forest, also named after American explorer Zebulon Pike.

How to Drive or Hike Pikes Peak, America's Exhilarating Mountain - Story at Every Corner (1)

Contents

  • How to get up to Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain
    • Pikes Peak Scenic Drive
    • Pikes Peak Hike
    • Cog Railway Ride to Pikes Peak
  • Events and Activities on Pikes Peak
    • Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Car Race
    • Pikes Peak Skiing
    • Annual Pikes Peak Marathon
    • Mining in Pikes Peak Forest
  • Pikes Peak Vegetation and Wildlife
  • What to Pack for Pikes Peak
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Related Articles

Pikes Peak, also known as America’s Mountain, is popular for its scenic and scary drive, challenging climb, and relaxing Cog Railway ride. I visited Pikes Peak as part of my Colorado Rockies solo trip. During the trip, I stayed in Colorado Springs for 2 days. In the morning I went outdoor rock climbing in Colorado Springs and in the afternoon I drove up the Pikes Peak highway. If I had the whole day, a hike up this famous Fourteener would be amazing. My friends did just that, later that month in June 2019.

Check out my 6-day Colorado Rockies Itinerary

and 7-Day Canadian Rockies Itinerary

How to get up to Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain

There are 3 main ways to get to the top, each with its own charm. I drove up. My friends Ruchira and Pinky did the Pikes Pike hike on Barr trail. The Cog train was very popular to get to the top when it was open. It will surely be fun when the Cog Railway reopens in 2021 after construction.

Pikes Peak Scenic Drive

During my trip to Colorado, I took the quick option and drove up the mountain. Since I visited in early June, snow was still thick and the opening was not confirmed. To make matters worse, the drizzles at the base that afternoon could mean bad weather at the top. So, until I arrived at the toll booth, I wasn’t sure if Pikes Peak highway would be open that afternoon.

I got lucky! They opened up the road that afternoon for a few hours which allowed me to enjoy the Pikes Peak scenic drive.

After the toll booth, I entered the Pikes Peak highway heading to the peak. The scenic drive started with large expansive views of the forest all around, as far as the eyes could see.

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The Pikes Peak highway starts in the town of Cascade at mile #1 toll entrance, just after the Santa Clause theme park. The top of Pikes Peak is at mile #19. Visitors must park at mile #13 or #16 and take a shuttle to the top. I took the Pikes Peak shuttle from mile #13 stop. The little visitor center there is great for a pit stop and for adding on layers of clothing before boarding the shuttle.

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The Pikes Peak scenic drive is nothing short of spectacular while being very scary for some. At times, it appears to be heading straight to the clouds. With no railings, sharp turns, and steep mountainsides, some visitors (like a couple I met) dare not drive even up to the first Pikes Peak shuttle stop located at mile #13. While Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park are even more spectacular, Pikes Peak drive is hands down more adventurous with its steep climbs sharp turns.

The Pikes Peak shuttle was perfect for me because I sat on the front passenger seat of the shuttle and thoroughly enjoyed the stunning views from the drive. Visitors with special needs and some exceptions are allowed to take the scenic drive up to the top in their own vehicle. The Pikes Peak parking lot at mile #13 is large and spacious as compared to the parking at mile #19. It’s yet another reason to use the free and convenient shuttle service.

The Pikes Peak shuttles are different for #13 and #16. It’s super important to remember the parking lot where you left your vehicle. On the way down, if you take the wrong shuttle, you’ll need to go back up to #19 to get to the correct shuttle down.

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The Pikes Peak parking lot at the summit was a construction site in 2019 because they were building a new visitor center. By the time I visit again, it’ll be a gorgeous new visitor center maybe as nice as the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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The shuttle stops just outside the small visitor center which has a gift shop, a small cafe (that was closed), and a restroom. Most importantly the visitor center has water to refill bottles. In those high altitudes, water, chapsticks, and moisturizers are your best friends.

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Behind the visitor center is the triangle structure for the brave hearts. It looks pretty innocuous on the right side of the picture above, but it’s a scary walk up the rocks and all the way to the edge of the mountain. When I went up there, I couldn’t find anyone to take a picture.

I had never used lower gears and I didn’t know there was an option in my rental car. Luckily a ranger stopped me on the way down to check the brake temperature. He showed me how to switch to the lowest gear. If my brake was heating up, I would need to stop at the ranger station and wait until they cooled down.

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Tips for Driving on Pikes Peak

  • Check and tune your car in town before driving towards Pikes Peak Highway. The gradients are very steep and will fully exercise the car’s systems.
  • Check the local radio before you leave for closures on Pikes Peak Highway.
  • Take lots of water, chapstick, and moisturize with you in the shuttle. You may be able to refill water at the visitor center.
  • There are about 150 switchbacks, sharp turns, steep drives, and no guard rails at times. Drive slowly and let the passengers enjoy the views.
  • Take the Pikes Peak shuttle from mile #13 stop. It’s safer and more enjoyable. On the shuttle try to take the front seat for the best views and to reduce chances of motion sickness.
  • Remember which shuttle stop you parked at – #13 or #16. Because if you forget, it’ll be a very long day.
  • On the way down switch to the lowest gear.

Pikes Peak Hike

My friends, Pinky and Ruchira hiked up the Pikes Peak in late June. Pikes Peak hiking trail is definitely for the brave hearts and well-trained hikers. Do not attempt without training.

The Barr trail is well maintained by the Park Service and as a Fourteener, this is the popular hike up America’s Mountain. However, it is treacherous as Pikes Peak weather changes quickly and oxygen levels drop as you climb. The weather could change from a hot summer afternoon at the trailhead to snow at the top. For the inexperienced and unprepared, Pikes Peak hike can be deadly with the combination of mountain weather and altitude sickness.

The hike starts at Manitou Springs and goes up an elevation gain of 7,800 feet (2,400m). Pikes Peak hike can take 6-8 hours to get to the top and one could hitch a ride back to base. Its best to start very early in the morning at about 4-5 am. The trail is well-traveled and well managed so you might make some friends along the way.

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To handle the low oxygen level, you must walk slowly and drink a ton of water. If you run out of water during the hike up, they say there are some streams along the way. Take a water purifier to clean the water so you can refill your water bottle.

As you get closer to the peak, every step becomes harder as the muscles crave oxygen. Take it easy. Walk one step at a time, rest, breathe and soak in the views.

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Cog Railway Ride to Pikes Peak

If you want to ditch driving the crazy roads and can’t do the strenuous hike up this fourteener, there is another option. The Cog Railway is one of the most fun and relaxing ways to get to the top of Pikes Peak. Its the highest Cog Railway in the world and one of the two Cog trains in the US. It has been taking visitors up the mountain since 1891!

The Cog train slowly takes the passengers up the mountain through forests, waterfalls, and magical views of mountains and lakes. During my visit in 2019, the Cog Railway was under construction. It’s scheduled to open in 2021.

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Before shutting down for construction, the Cog train used to run 8 times a day, once every hour and 20 min. There were 4 big trains and 4 small trains. The Cog Railway was very popular with locals and visitors alike. It would fill to capacity, taking about 300,000 people in a year, up the mountain.

In summer the Cog Railway goes all the way to Pikes Peak, which is 3 miles above the treeline. In winter it goes just above the treeline so visitors can still see the gorgeous views that seduced them up the mountain. Along the train ride, the conductor shares information and history of Pikes Peak, its flora and fauna. They also explain the engineering marvel of the Cog Railway itself.

For those that come up to the top of Pikes Peak, the views are nothing short of magical.

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Be sure to walk the full circle for views from all angles. Pikes Peak weather and time permitting, have a seat, meditate, and be mesmerized by the views.

Events and Activities on Pikes Peak

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Car Race

The Pikes Peak Highway is famous for the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Car Race. Enthusiasts have raced cars for over a hundred years, well before the paved roads were built. The race cars today, drive these scary W-turns at over 90 miles an hour.

During my Segway Tour in Cheyenne Canyon, I visited the Penrose Heritage Museum which has an extensive collection of actual race cars that competed in Pikes Peak Hill Climb Car Race. It has a rich exhibition with many artifacts related to the race.

The Pikes Peak Highway was built in 1915. As seen in my video the museum has a beautiful display of race times starting in 1916 when it took over 22 minutes for the winning car. In 2018, the race was won at 7 minutes and 57.148 seconds. All the records can be seen in my video of Cheyenne Canyon at 2:44min mark.

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Pikes Peak Highway was a dirt road for a century of thrilling races. During that time 70,000 metric tons of gravel washed off causing a huge impact on the ecology of the mountains and forests. The race organizers feared that a change would kill the race so they refused to pave it. In 1989-99 the Sierra Club sued for damages. As part of the settlement, the road was paved in 2011. The race, however, has continued to thrive and so has tourism. Definitely a win for all parties.

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Racing on this treacherous highway is filled with risk. It’s not uncommon for cars to fly off the curves and roads. But with the safety harness, seat belts, and helmets, the drivers can stay safe despite crashing and destroying the race car.

In 2012, racecar driver Jeremy Foley and co-pilot Yuri Kouznetsov’s car flew off the devil’s playgroup and crashed during the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb race. The car somersaulted down the steep mountainside, stripping down to a bare chassis as it rolled down, on live cameras.

The moment the tires slipped off the road, Jeremy was sure they were both going to die. Yuri felt like they were in a washing machine as they rolled down for what must have seemed like an eternity.

Miraculously, moments later, Jeremy and Yuri walked out of the car unharmed. They became living proof of the importance of safety precautions in racing. Here’s a cool video of the entire event.

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Pikes Peak Skiing

Pikes Peak skiing is very popular with young skiers. Kids come to America’s mountain in pairs or groups. One person drives the skiers to the top and meets them at the bottom, to start over. The hill in the picture below is the most popular for Pikes Peak skiers, but these un-maintained natural tracks are also very dangerous because of the rocks. The protruding rocks can seem innocent to the untrained eye but quite lethal for a high-speed skier.

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Annual Pikes Peak Marathon

The Pikes Peak Marathon must be one of the most challenging races, especially for those that train on low altitudes. It starts at the City Hall in Manitou Springs and goes up to the peak mostly along the Barr Trail for a total elevation gain of 7,815′ (2,382m), ending at 14,115′ at the peak. I would only go on this marathon if I had completed the Pikes Peak hike at least a dozen times.

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Mining in Pikes Peak Forest

The Pikes Peak Forest land is extremely rich with rare minerals. So, mineral and professional rock collectors come from around to world to go scavenger hunting on these lands for rare gems that are not to be found anywhere else. The gold mine on the far end of this following picture is still in operation yielding tons of gold.

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Pikes Peak Vegetation and Wildlife

Just above the tree-line, Pike Peak is covered with patches of Alpine shrubs as also described at Rainbow Curve in RMNP. In summer, mountain goats and sheep can be seen devouring these delicious foods. As luck would have it, I didn’t see any wildlife on the drive that day. Maybe it was too early in the season in June.

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At the high altitude at the top of Pikes Peak, nothing grows. Not even the alpine shrubs. But the Pine forests at a lower elevation make for amazing views of rolling hills packed with green pine trees, unlike the Jasper pine forests that have turned red. On my way down, I had some time so I stopped for a little picnic by myself.

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What to Pack for Pikes Peak

Pikes Peak weather is very cold, even in summer. I bundled up with every layer I had and yet it was chilly to be out for too long. Luckily there is a gift shop and cafe to warm up visitors at the peak. Here is a list of essentials that everyone must carry when going up to the peak, whether doing the Pikes Peak hike or taking the shuttle –

  • Lots of water in reusable water bottles.
  • Many layers of clothing, so you can add layers as you ascend.
  • Good walking shoes.
  • Chapstick because the low humidity will dry the lips.
  • Lotion to moisturize the skin as it dries in low humidity.
  • Camera for amazing pictures of the stunning views.
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Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to drive up Pikes Peak in Colorado?

I took 3 hours for the round trip on the Pikes Peak scenic drive.
I took the shuttle from mile #13 and spent sufficient time at the peak. One could visit Pikes Peak in 2 to 4 hours.
There are no gas stations so be sure to start with a half or full tank, sufficient air, and good breaks.

How far is Pikes Peak from Denver, Colorado?

Pikes Peak is a little over 2 hours drive from Denver. Although it can be visited as a day trip, I would recommend staying the night in the Colorado Springs area.

Where is Pikes Peak in Colorado?

The entrance to Pikes Peak, also known as America’s Mountain is located West of Colorado Springs in the town of Cascade. Its a couple of hours drive south of Denver.

Is driving up Pikes Peak dangerous?

The Pikes Peak scenic drive is very steep and has about 150 hair-pin and W-turns. There are no guard rails for long stretches, so it’s very important to be alert and drive slow. It is easy to get into an accident and a slip off the freeway can be fatal.

Will my car make it up Pikes Peak?

Before going up on Pikes Peak Highway, be sure to check your car. The gradient is very steep at about 10.5%. Your car might not be suitable to drive it up or down. If the car is in good condition and tuned, its a gorgeous drive.

Is Pikes Peak a National Park?

Pikes Peak is not a National Park. There are Forest Service Rangers at a Ranger Station. On the way down a ranger stopped me to ensure that the breaks were not heating up and to show me how to use the low gear in my rental car. Beyond that, there were no ranger visitor centers, junior ranger, or other programs at Pikes Peak.

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