Cascade, Colo. Her eyes growing wide, Betty Wood said her family had enjoyed the drive up Pikes Peak together, but ...
"We'll never do it again," she vowed.
Wood's husband, David, chimed in: "I never thought I was afraid of heights. We have trees on our mountainsides, so you won't go too far if you go off the road."
The Woods, who live in Danbury, N.C., are among the 265,000 people who drive to the top of Pikes Peak each year. Their reaction to the 14,110-foot-high summit -- one of America's highest -- is not at all unusual.
'America the Beautiful'
Colorado Springs lies to the east, some 8,000 feet below. The timberline is 2,000 feet from the top, with nothing but rocks and tundra on the mountainside above it. Along one stretch of the 20-mile highway is the so-called Bottomless Pit, which is at the bottom of a 2,000-foot drop. During storms, lightning is often seen bouncing from rock to rock in an area called the Devil's Playground.
Pikes Peak is one of 53 Colorado mountains with elevations of 14,000 feet or more. It is named for explorer Zebulon Pike, who visited the area in 1806 and proclaimed it unclimbable. It was also a target for gold miners searching for fortune in 1859, who declared "Pikes Peak or bust."
By the turn of the century, horse-drawn wagons were taking people to the top, including Katharine Lee Bates, who was inspired to write "America The Beautiful" after visiting the summit in 1893. Pikes Peak is the farthest east of the state's 14,000-footers, visible from Kansas 150 miles to the east.
For those who would rather not drive, a cog railway winds its way to the summit from Manitou Springs. Officials say the combination of the road and train -- plus a few hardy bikers, runners and auto racers -- means more than 500,000 annual visits. That makes Pikes Peak the most-visited mountain in the nation and second only in the world to Mount Fuji.
At the Summit House, with gifts, snacks and spectacular views of the Plains and the towering spires of the Colorado Rockies, supervisor Jeff McMullen keeps an eye on new arrivals.
"If they look woozy, we will escort them to a table," said McMullen, whose staff includes trained EMTs. Oxygen is kept at the ready for those suffering from altitude sickness.
Summit House provides visitors a welcome shelter from sun, wind, snow and rain -- and a break from driving the steep road that is open year-round, depending on the weather. But the road itself is changing.
In 1999, the city of Colorado Springs, which owns the road through the Pike National Forest, settled a lawsuit with the Sierra Club and agreed to pave the road to reduce erosion. At the time, only the first seven miles were paved. The rest was gravel.
|Directions: From Colorado Springs, take state Highway 24 west five miles past Manitou Springs to Cascade, exit to the left. There are signs.Cost: $10 per person 16 or older and $5 per child, with a maximum of $35 per vehicle. The railway, which is in Manitou Springs, charges $27 for adults and $15 for children ages 3 to 11 during peak season.For More Information: Visit www.pikespeakcolorado.com or call (800) 318-9505. For information about the railway, visit www.cograilway.com or (719) 685-5401.|
Project manager Jack Glavan said the Forest Service then decided that not only must erosion be controlled but the highway should be brought up to federal standards. That means the road must be 30 feet wide with guard rails in some of the more frightening stretches.
"It will lose its charm for some. Other people will feel safer," said Glavan, who fears some drivers will speed up too much, despite the hairpin turns.
At Glen Cove, seven miles below the summit, rangers check the brakes of vehicles headed for home to make sure they aren't too hot and in danger of failing. Cars with brake temperatures of 300 degrees are asked to wait until things cool off.
So far, about three additional miles have been paved. It costs about $1 million per mile to meet federal highway standards, with the project paid for in part out of tolls generated by the highway. Completion of the pavement project is scheduled for 2012.