Fourteen thousand one hundred and thirty. Stand at the top of Mount Evans, and that is precisely how many feet above sea level you’ll be. At the summit the air is thin and wispy, lacking the oxygen saturation found at lower altitudes. The temperature is significantly colder – on a day where the city of Denver sizzled at 95 degrees, my thermometer struggled to register 40 degrees at the summit. And the wind can be absolutely brutal, stealing hats and sending them off the side of this 14,000 foot behemoth.
The views from the top of a mountain can be incredible – there is something satisfying about looking down on just about everything. It’s a perspective afforded only to those willing to make the difficult journey to the top – for 51 of the 14,000 peaks in Colorado, anyways. Mount Evans is one of only two mountains in Colorado (with Pikes Peak being the other one) offering a road to the top, making this extreme environment accessible to anyone with a car and a sense of adventure.
The Journey Up Mount Evans
The mountain looms large over the city of Denver, which makes it an easy day trip for those in the city. Within 30 minutes, I’d left Denver behind and found myself in Idaho Springs, the former mining town-turned-gateway for mountain adventure. From Idaho Springs, it’s only another 13 miles to the base of the Mount Evans skyway – the highest paved road in North America.
Though I’d been gaining elevation since leaving Denver, it is here at the base of Mount Evans that my climb began in earnest. The road starts near Echo Lake, which serves as a jumping off point for hikers, campers, and backpackers in the surrounding Chicago Lakes wilderness areas. A sub-alpine forest surrounds the lake and the first stretch of road on the Mount Evans climb cuts a swath through this forest.
As the pavement follows the natural curves and bends of the mountain, the pines gradually become smaller, shorter, and less dense as the sub-alpine forest gives way to the tundra. Above treelike, the plant life has adapted to the harsh conditions, cold temperatures, and short growing seasons. Small and fragile mosses and wildflowers blanket the grounds, and signs warn curious visitors to stay on designated trails as a few errant footsteps can do significant damage to the landscape.
I pulled over at Summit Lake, a popular stopping point on the way up to the summit of Mount Evans. The lake was thawing from a long winter freeze and large slabs of ice bobbed on the surface.
The trails around Summit Lake provide some of the best views of Mount Evans, giving perspective to the remaining portion of the climb from this vantage point just below the summit.
Past the lake, the road pushes forward on its final ascent to the top of the mountain. AsI climbed, my thermometer continued to fall. Here, snow lined the side of the road, a lingering reminder of the harsh winters the mountain endures. It was becoming clear just how high I’d climbed, as everything around me was now below me, save for the mountain itself on one side. Each turn in the road provided a new vista of the other mountain peaks that I was now looking down on.
I coaxed and egged my car up the remaining switchbacks, and only an hour and a half after my journey began from my house in Denver, I arrived at the roof of America.
At The Summit of Mount Evans
At the top of one of the tallest mountains in America, the conditions are harsh – even in the summer. I parked my car and for the first time, felt the power of the wind at the top of Mount Evans. My car rattled and shook, shifting from side to side and vibrating my rear view mirrors, blurring their reflected images. I grabbed my camera, braced myself against the door and put my shoulder into it, forcing it open against the wind’s will.
I leaned into the wind and took several heavy steps to the viewpoint. After my sunglasses were almost blown off my face, I quickly secured them in my pocket, and checked for any other loose items. I struggled to keep my balance in the wind, grabbing a hold of support bar to steady myself at the lookout.
Despite the wind, the experience at the top was incredible. The views stretched across the South Park valley to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains over 300 miles away. I could only stare in awe for so long though as the wind forced me to seek some shelter.
Thankfully, the Castle in the Sky provides a wind break for visitors to the summit. The building was once a restaurant and gift shop, but a propane explosion in 1979 destroyed much of the building. After the site was secured, the ruins were left as an observation point. For me, It also provided a respite from the fierce winds.
I ran out to for one more look over the summit, and made a (very) quick video to demonstrate just how windy it was at the top.
Eventually, the wind won out and forced me back into my car, and back down the mountain. As I took my foot off the gas and let gravity, take me back down, I gazed out at the other peaks, the tall pines below, and the wide open vistas that are only possible at 14,000 feet above sea level.
With all my travel to other places the past year, it had been a long time since I took a some time out to explore my own state. There’s no place I’d rather call home, and it’s moments like this one that remind me why.