Pikes Peak is a quintessential American mountain. Part of the enormous Rocky Mountain range, this often snow-topped mountain stands like a guard peering out over the Great Plains to the east.
Name: Pikes Peak
Height: 4,302 m (14,115 ft)
Location: Front Range of the southern Rocky Mountains, near Colorado Springs, USA.
First Climbed: 14th July 1820 by Dr Edwin S James.
Climb Time: 8 hour ascent; descent often by vehicle. (Allow two days if hiking both.)
Best Time to Climb: May to October, though most routes are open year-round.
Introduction to Pikes Peak.
Pikes Peak holds an exciting place in both the expansive American geography and in American hearts. It is the highest summit in the southern Front Range, yet it has been made accessible to all by American industriousness and brings with it a rich, golden history (literally!).
On its slopes are symbols of the state of Colorado and evidence of American adventure, innovation and ingenuity dating back to early in the 19th Century.
But if its challenge and adventure you want, you can find these in the gruelling endurance events that annually occur up these slopes, or by attempting the Heroes Traverse, best experienced in winter.
A hugely popular mountain, second only to Mount Fuji (3,776 m/ 12,389 ft) worldwide, Pikes Peak offers a range of accessible adventures whatever your thrill.
History of Pikes Peak.
Before the arrival of white Americans, Pikes Peak and the surrounding area was home to the indigenous Colorado Ute Indians. The band specifically located near the mountain were the Tabaguache. Their name means: ‘People of the Sun Mountain.’
They would use trails around and over the mountains as hunting routes, with camps established for Buffalo hunters at the nearby Garden of the Gods. Pikes Peak was also used as a lookout for approaching enemies, as well as a site for vision quests and spiritual ceremonies.
The indigenous peoples knew the mountain as Tava, which means ‘sun’. Another name named it more elaborately: ‘Sun Mountain Sitting Bug’.
Their myths tell us that the Great Spirit created the entire world from this location, creating this mountain by pouring ice and snow down through a hole in the sky.
Pikes Peak is named after Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike, a young soldier who ‘discovered’ the peak in 1806 (discounting the previous ‘discoveries’ by 18th Century Spanish explorers and the indigenous population of course!). Pike died seven years later at the age of 34, when a powder magazine exploded following a successful battle in the War of 1812 for modern-day Toronto.
However, the naming of the mountain went through several variations before arriving at the one we use today.
In 1806, Pike gave it the descriptive name of ‘Highest Peak’ or ‘Grand Peak’. It was renamed ‘James Peak’ by Major Long in 1835, in honour of the man who first successfully ascended it in 1820.
It was renamed ‘Pike’s Peak’ in 1858, partly in reflection of its popular use in gold rush history (see below). It became the modern-day ‘Pikes Peak’ in 1890.
It was also known as Long Mountain during previous periods of history.
Pikes Peak was a symbol of the mid-19th Century Colorado gold rush. It was immortalised in 1859 on wagons rolling across the plains emblazoned with the popular motto ‘Pike’s Peak or Bust’. This reflected the gold-chasing prospectors belief that they would either get rich or leave penniless.
The nearby town of Cripple Creek was a centre of that gold rush, and evidence of that history is preserved and celebrated in the town today.
Today, the summit reflects much of the American culture and spirit. The well-conquered summit hosts a research laboratory investigating the impact of high altitude on humans, though its results are primarily used for military purposes. It also hosts a gift shop and restaurant and is reachable via a fully paved highway.
Geography of Pikes Peak.
Pikes Peak is only 31st highest peak of the 54 Colorado ‘14ers’ (peaks exceeding 4,267 m/ 14,000 ft). Yet there is no higher point in the USA east of it, and it offers a significant prominence of 1,679 m (5,510 ft). As such, it is often the first of the Rocky Mountains to be seen when approaching the range from the east.
Pikes Peak sits at a geographical threshold, where the western edge of the Great Plains meets the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. It is part of the range known as the Front Range, just north of another sub-range known as Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
To the north lies Denver (105 km/ 65 miles away) and 19 km (12 miles) due east is the city of Colorado Springs.
The Rocky Mountains themselves are something of an oddity of mountain building. Normally, a typical range formed by the collision of plates (subduction of an oceanic plate under a continental one) would be located between 300-650 km (approx.200-400 miles) from the point of collision. Yet the Rocky Mountains are much further inland than this.
The accepted explanation is that the angle of subducted plate (the one that goes underneath) was shallower than normal. As such, the effects of the collision were spread out over a wider area, leading to the vast width of the Rocky Mountains. The mountains then formed from layers of continental crust being pushed up as well as volcanic activity.
All of this is thought to have begun around 300 million years ago, with the most significant activity within the last 70 million years. However, rocks found on Pikes Peak were formed over 2.3 billion years ago.
Pikes Peak’s flat summit has a polar climate, with snowfall at the summit possible year-round. However, this is less likely between June and September when temperatures tend to rise (just) above freezing.
The summit of Pikes Peak is a National Historic Landmark, as is announced to you with a well-built sign on the summit. It also tells you that you are stood within the Pike National Forest and that the height is 14,110 ft (4,301 m). However, other sources offer a more accurate, verified measure, giving the height that we are using of 4,302m (14,115 ft).
However, if you are after a real wilderness adventure you’ll be hard-pushed to find it on Pikes Peak. This mountain is the most visited in North America, largely due to the easily accessible summit, via the paved road, the cog railway and the comfort of the restaurant and gift shop found at the summit.
Over half a million visitors summit this mountain each year (though a very small minority do by foot), so solitude and serenity is not one of its great virtues!
Wildlife of Pikes Peak.
Flora is more numerous and varied below the tree line and includes many brightly coloured flowers. The yellow Arctic yellow violet can be found in damp ground while mountain bluebells colour the ground a deep purple/ blue each spring.
There are a few endemic species of flora on Pikes Peak.
Blue colombine is Colorado’s state flower and is found between rocks and under the shelter of cliffs on Pikes Peak. James’ telesonix, a delicate pink flower with large green leaves, is found growing in crevices between the granite. Finally, the eponymous Pikes Peak alpine parsley is uniquely found at higher elevations.
Forests stretch from the plains up to the tree line, around 3,505 m (11,500 ft) at the beginning of the Alpine Zone These forests include several varieties of pine, spruce and subalpine fir.
The trees found here got here by a variety of means. Some of these areas are used by the modern logging industry, so some of the species present were introduced relatively recently. Others, such as the subalpine bristlecone pines, are believed to be up to 2,000 years old!
Colorado’s state animal, the Bighorn Sheep, is found on Pikes Peak. A herd of 250-300 sheep are known to live on the slopes around and above the tree line. They can weigh up to 115 kg (approx. 250 lb).
Their massive horns coil back and down around their ears (hence their name) and account for up to 10% of their body weight. Balancing these makes their retreat to cliffs inaccessible to us that bit more impressive.
The Black Bear is Colorado’s largest carnivore, weighing up to 200 kg (approx. 450 lb). As omnivores, they will eat just about anything and, as with many US wilderness areas, use of bear-proof lockers for food on any overnight visit is strongly advised. They are primarily found at lower elevations and within woodland areas.
On a smaller scale, the Yellow-bellied Marmot, or Whistle Pig, can be spotted during the summer months at alpine and subalpine levels. They are brown with a lighter colour along their belly to their chin (again, hence the name!).
Their biggest threat is the cold reaching them in their burrows during hibernation. A system of calls alerts surrounding marmots to any danger posed by predators approaching their rocky habitats, keeping them safe.
First Ascent of Pikes Peak.
On the 14th July 1820, Dr Edwin S James and two others spent two days trekking to the summit of Pikes Peak.
This also marked the first ascent of a major Rocky Mountain by a white man. He arrived there as a botanist on an expedition led by Major Stephen Long, but left with a mountain named after him!
James is also credited with discovering Colorado’s state flower, the blue columbine (see above).
The first woman ascended the mountain on 5th August 1858. Julia Archibald Holmes remained on the summit for two days and wrote in a letter to her mother from there. In her letter she shows us something of the politics of the time, writing: “Nearly everyone tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed I should succeed.”
There are five main routes to the top; the one you take depends on the type of adventure you’re after.
You can hike up via the Barr trail, the Crags trail or the Heroes Traverse, drive up the Pikes Peak Highway or ride up via the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.
While there are easy routes to the summit, as even the trails are not technically difficult, there are still risks, mainly those associated with altitude. The summit boasts only 60% of oxygen content in the air as compared to sea level.
As such, altitude sickness is a real possibility, particularly during any significant exertions. However, given the popularity of the mountain, help and an easy ride back down should never be far away.
The fewest of the visitors take the long hike up, with around 15,000 on-foot adventurers per year. The most popular route is the Barr trail.
The Barr trail begins in Manitou Springs at the base of Pikes Peak. It approaches the summit from the east. Many people will break the hike up into a two-day adventure. Barr Camp is a good halfway point, offering camping and cabin accommodation. An early start is recommended regardless, as afternoon storms are common throughout summer.
The Barr trail is considered an easy walk from a technical perspective, yet it is still a long and arduous walk not to be under-estimated. It runs for 21 km (13 miles) in each direction (though many take the cog railway down) with an elevation gain of 2,256 m (7,400 ft) from the Manitou Springs trailhead to the summit. In fact, it is the longest trail leading to the summit of any of the Colorado ‘14ers’ and the greatest base-to-summit elevation found in the state.
Hikers’ accounts say the effort is well worth it though!
The Crags Hiking trail begins half a mile south of Crags Campground or ‘The Crags’, south of the town of Divide. Approaching the summit from the west, this is a shorter challenge than the Barr trail. It is also a much quieter route, so recommended for those wanting a little more seclusion on your adventure.
Beginning around 3,050 m (10,007 ft), the summit return should only take around six hours. One word of warning: although the trail follows alongside the road for sections ensure you remain on the dirt trail or you’ll receive a fine.
For a technical challenge (Class 3 and up), try the Heroes Traverse. From the Crags trailhead you follow the Crags route until the North Face comes into view: this is the traverse.
The best advice is to stay high as you cross this challenging traverse. You will have to descend into the aptly named ‘Bottomless Pit’ and pick your route across to the bottom of the Y Couloir, which will give you a choice of two routes to the summit. This is a day-long challenge from trailhead to summit, best started early in the morning.
This route is a preferred winter hike, avoiding the summer storms. So you’ll also need mountaineering kit for it, such as ropes, ice axes and crampons.
Excellent rock climbing is also found above the tree line. The granite cliffs of Pikes Peak include the well-known offerings: The Pericle, Bigger Bagger and Corinthian Column.
For simpler or quicker ascents, many visitors drive up the Pikes Peak highway. It’s a 31km (19 mile) road and is typically open year-round. This allows visitors to drive from the city of Colorado Springs to the summit and back in two to three hours.
The fully paved highway only came into existence in 2011, when the last gravel sections of the original Pikes Peak carriage road were replaced. The original dirt road was opened in 1888 and was heralded as ‘a great advance in the field of western transportation’.
One last option is to arrive through the scenery expending no effort at all by taking the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Running since 1891, it is the world’s highest cog railway and climbs gradients as steep as 24% all the way to the summit. Booking is essential with trains leaving once every 80 minutes and seating limited during peak seasons.
Information on trekking around Pikes Peak.
Broadmoor’s Seven Falls sits at the end of ‘The Grandest Mile of Scenery in Colorado’. This series of waterfalls are noted as internationally significant, featuring on National Geographic’s list. They fall over 381 m (1,250 ft) between the sheer pink granite walls of the South Cayenne box Canyon. This may be a short adventure, but it is one that reflects a typical image of the great beauty found in the American Mid-West.
- Read our guide to the Top Long Distance Hikes in USA & Canada
- Browse a list of books about the Colorado 14ers.
- What to take on a hike
The Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon is a 42.2 km (26.2 mile) return trip from the base to the summit following the Barr trail. It has happened annually each August since 1956.
Many runners find it hard to believe it is the regular marathon distance, as it takes so much longer than a normal marathon to complete (averaging well over seven hours). The fastest time was recorded in 1993 at 3hr 16min 30sec.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is the second oldest motorsport race in the US, first run in 1916.
Following the Pikes Peak Highway, the race follows a 12.42-mile course that winds around 156 corners and up 1,439 m (4,721 ft) to reach the summit finish line. Competitors are certain to exceed the standard speed limit of 40 k/mh (25 mph) during the rance! The winner is grandly crowned: ’King of the Mountain’.