When Zebulon Pike first set out to climb what he deemed the “Great Peak” in 1806, he was eventually forced to retreat due to a blizzard. Perhaps to make himself feel better, he speculated that it would never be surmounted. Despite not being the first to climb such great heights, Pike would have the last laugh with the lasting name. I have just passed the tollgate to enter the Pikes Peak Highway, a 19-mile journey to the top of the most visited mountain in North America and the second most visited mountain in the world. Over a half a million people each year make the journey by foot, bike, car or rail to see the summit that inspired and embodied the hymn America the Beautiful. I pass by a sign for a Big Foot crossing, wondering if such a being gets counted as one of those yearly visitors. Despite all of its serious accolades, Pikes Peak still has a sense of humor.
I climb a road that was conceived beginning with a carriage road in 1886. The first automobile to follow my journey reached the summit of Pikes Peak in 1901. A highway for automobiles didn’t come until 1915. It cost half a million dollars, proving that curiosity was worth the price even in 1915. The Pikes Peak Highway, as it is referred to today, begins at 7,400 feet, passing though alpine tundra, mountain reservoirs and timberland until eventually reaching the top of 14,115 feet.
Pike might have the name, but it was the Ute Indians and Spanish who knew the farthest east of the big peaks in the Rocky Mountain chain long before he made the not so successful climb. In fact, due to its positioning, Pikes Peak became a symbol of the 1859 Gold Rush to Colorado. Gold seekers used the slogan “Pikes Peak or Bust” to simplify their journey. Little has changed today as I get behind cars snaking up the mountain from Alabama to Alaska. I have a feeling for those making such a long journey, their motto is “Pikes Peak or Bust” too.
Roughly an hour passes and I am finally where those have come before me, the summit of Pikes Peak. Katharine Lee Bates, author of America the Beautiful, told how standing at the very perch I stand today inspired those famous lines. She said of her 1893 climb, “It was then and there as I was looking out over the sea like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.” I look out from Pikes Peak at the purple mountain majesties surrounding me. It is the hymn personified. While Bates is credited for her creativity at penning the famous bars, she had these views practically uttering them for her.
Before I come back down from America at its most beautiful, I watch the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway reach the top. A railway was first built up Pikes Peak in 1889. Traveling 8.9 miles, it allows the traveler to appreciate every view to the top, without having to keep their eyes on the road.
I take one last glance at the sea like expanse of fertile country Bates described. While not even close to Colorado’s highest perch, this mountain’s positioning is what made it famous. Due to its proximity to the Great Plains, I picture those wagons coming around the bend to see what might as well be a castle to the sky. It looked impossible, even to the man who first gained fame for exploring it. And yet now, you can climb, bike, drive or ride up into America, the beautiful.
Have you been to Pikes Peak?