Pikes Peak is the eastern most 14er rising high just outside of the town of Colorado Springs. Pikes is known for many things; there is a road to the top that ferries many tourists eager to bag their first 14er, this is the mountain that the song America the Beautiful was once composed on and of course there are also the famous Pikes Peak Donuts. I had previously ascended this giant in my Blazer while my father was visiting a few months ago so I already had a taste of the donuts, but I still needed to climb this mountain by my own two feet to count it. My Dad however was eager to check the peak off his list counting the summit drive as bagging his second 14er. I stayed away from the true summit, that is if one can actually locate it and saved my true summit experience for when I climbed by foot. Emails had been flying around about where to climb, Pikes seemed the most reasonable option so Brian, Jenn and I decided to give it a go on Friday since I had a holiday day off from work.
Brian picked me up at 4am and we headed down the empty I-25, which is a view we were both unaccustomed to and enjoyed the freedom of traffic while we could. From my place the Springs is only about 40 minutes to the hwy 24 exit then you head up and around the mountain till you come across the town of Divide, Colorado. The driving seemed fast, perhaps because I was the passenger and had time to drink my coffee and Red Bull, and often at the same time…well not really, but I was rather perky for 5am. There were plenty of deer on the side of the road to spook us, but they seemed perfectly fine where they were and barley even looked at us as we drove by. Wildlife is always active early in the morning, I’m just thankful they seem to keep off the road for the most part.
After driving through Divide you make a left turn to the Crags CG which is about 4 miles down the road, but the directions were less then helpful. The vague directions said after a ranch turn on a dirt road…mmm, not too helpful in the dark but we tried the first dirt road after the ranch and hit a blocked road. We got back on the main road and turned into the next dirt road that had a nice sign “Crags Camp Ground,” too bad nobody mentioned there was a clear sign for the road we wanted. Luckily this would be the hardest part of our navigation quest for the day. A quick 10 minutes has you up the dirt road to the clearly marked trailhead.
It was still pitch black out at about 5:30am, but Venus was shining brightly above. Jenn had stayed at the TH the night before and was up getting ready as we arrived. After a quick pit stop, we were all off on the trail with headlamps donned. I was thankful the trail was very clear to see from the parking lot, I always hate heading to new places in the dark and not knowing where to start from. Somehow I got stuck in the lead, not sure how that worked but I didn’t get us lost so all was good.
The grade of the trail started out very gentle and we could see the camp area below us as we knocked off our first switchback. Also I was surprised to see two people already down the mountain meeting us at the switchback. They elected to do the moonlight hike since there was a full moon out this weekend. We didn’t really notice it, since we were buried in the trees. By the time we cleared tree line the sun was shining. As we continued I found the first trail marker leading us to the right or south I do believe. The trail was wide enough for a truck, so I imagine this section was an old Jeep trail. After about an hour I could feel my hamsters tightening up. For once I can say I worked my legs too hard in the gym and it affected me while climbing in the mountains. I just slowed a bit, maybe the red bull was wearing off now, but either way I started taking a much more gradual pace up the mountain.
We must have been in the 11k region when the trail started doing some more switchbacks in the trees. I think this must have been a flock of Ptarmigans homestead because we saw 5 or 6 giant ones running on up the trail. And just to let you know, they are really good for scaring the crap out of you as well. As the trees started clearing we were approaching our first human on the mountain. I was surprised that we were catching anyone, but that was short lived as he said hello then was on his way. We took a short breather and saw another climber storming up the mountain from below so we just let him speed on by. He had a full pack on too, so thanks for making me feel like a weakling.
|Early Morning Deer|
By now Brian was in a full gallop up the mountain. Jenn and I were “enjoying” the hike at a much slower pace. The sun was starting to make its way over the ridge and we knew that the Devil's Playground was not far off. As I sat there for a second to catch my breath I spotted a few bucks up on the ridgeline. Now we can say we saw more than “highway deer” today. We put on our sunglasses and finally made it over the crest to a flat traverse before getting to the playground. The only disturbing sight is now we could see the Pikes Peak Highway which is one reason I was reluctant to climb from this direction. But when it came down to 14 miles over 26 of course I’m going to be a wuss and take the easy way. Brian was waiting for us about a quarter mile shy of the playground. We all decided this was a good spot to fuel up, and may I say that my Snickers was amazing.
Just before getting to the playground is the area where we got our first view of Pikes for the day. I love the route description in how it says not to get your hopes up because you still have over 2.5 miles to the summit from here. It looked so far away, but every little step got us that much closer. Today we were looking at a distance of about 14miles, and prior to today my long hike for the season was around 10 miles, so I knew I would be pushing my limits a bit. Thankfully the route was so gradual that I hardly noticed it and my knees didn’t ever bother me too much.
It was funny, as we were crossing the Devils Playground Jenn and I were asking each other why it was called that. Once you cross the road there is a sign that states the reason: From the way lightning jumps from rock to rock during a thunderstorm. Just after crossing the road the trail kind of parallels the highway for a while, I would say at least half a mile or so. Other than the initial fumes of a motorcycle that was gassing it up the mountain the rest of the trail being so close to the road didn’t bother me. I pretty much phased out the road now that we had a great view of the upper mountain in front of us. And every now and then a bit of sunlight would reflect off the café on the summit and I would just think DONUTS!
Once the trail breaks off past Little Pikes and starts to spread from the road I really enjoyed the climb. Never once did we get the slightest off route, all the cairns are well built and easy to identify. We just followed Brian blazing the trail. There is some meandering through some rock fields just prior to the big climb up the last part of the mountain. I think this was the best part. The rock was solid and large and very enjoyable to scamper across. I never thought I would say I was having fun climbing rock at over 6 miles into the day, but there I was with a big grin on my face. Either I’m getting used to this stuff, or I just knew there was a café waiting with hot food and drink not far away. The ascent of the rock seemed really fast and before we knew it the tourist trap was upon us.
I’ve had a fear of how disappointing it would be to climb a mountain then see all the tourists on the summit running around. When we hiked Mount Evans it was similar since it also has a road to the summit, but it is far less crowded compared to Pikes. So, if you are looking for a true wilderness experience this is not the place. We came over the last bit of rock field and there was the parking lot. There were probably at least 50 cars and what seemed to be hundreds of people milling about the top of Pikes today. The summit is so flat it is hard to tell where the “true” summit lies. I walked up to a couple “high points” and found no indication of them being the summit, so after a few photos next to some of the tourist signs we headed over to the café for our lunch break.
It seemed like lunch hour, most likely because the cog railway train was at the summit and the crowds mushed in to get their free Pikes Peak Donut. Just as we entered the summit house there is this awful donut sign that you can put your face in for a photo, and yes we did it. This is not something I’m proud of, but it happened. I hit up the café for some lemonade and a pretzel for lunch and I didn’t forget my donuts either. I don’t want you to get too excited about the donuts; they are good but not great. It’s more or less the idea that you can get a fresh made donut at 14k feet. I found myself walking through the gift shop to find the restroom and actually purchasing two stuffed animals for a visit from my soon to be niece and nephew from Idaho. My climbing partners were laughing at me because I was buying a bison and a mountain lion stuffed animal, but where else can you make such purchases while hiking?
It had seemed like we were already on the summit for about an hour now, so we had to think about getting back down since we couldn’t hop into a car for the windy road down the mountain. Jenn wanted to get a picture in front of the Pikes Peak sign so we made our way back to the parking lot. The tourist crowds were ridiculous. There was a pack of Texas A&M fans that declared the sign for themselves. They must have taken 50 pictures of all 20 plus of them and they kept hogging the area and not letting anyone else in for a picture. They are lucky I didn’t voice my opinion, because I have a hard time dealing with rude people. Finally I told Jenn just run up there as they leave. Eventually we finally got our shot at using the tourist sign for our photo. Jenn had even brought up a Rob Jansen memorial sign that we took our picture with. Rob was a young climber from Colorado that recently lost his life climbing in the mountains. RIP Rob and happy trails wherever they have led you.
After all of this you guys thought you may have heard the best part didn’t you? Not even close my friends. We were just hanging around talking about Rob for a minute and I was enjoying a Dales Pale Ale in his honor when an older man came up to us and started talking. He asked if we hiked from the bottom, then went on to tell us how he had done it when he was younger by foot and by horse. Then he just starts to look and me, and I am thinking he is looking at my beer. He says and I quote: “You’re not too thin, but you made it.” Immediately Brian and Jenn die laughing almost to a state where we need to roll in some oxygen tanks. I chuckled a little, because I’m used to people like this. Old ignorant asses that sit there and judge you all the time. I almost said have a good walk back to your car, I know it’s hard. But as usual I didn’t say anything because I’m not a rude ass to people. Anyway, it gave us all something to joke about for the 6 mile hike back down the mountain.
The hike down was great. I was still sipping on my lemonade as we made our way down the rocky switchbacks. My body didn’t hurt, possibly because of the mass amount of rest time we spent on the summit or my workouts are finally paying off. As we were getting off the rock and starting to do the meander through the rock and tundra field I could see Little Pikes ahead. I asked the others if they were in the mood for a 2fer and we all agreed the extra 200+ feet would not be an issue. Brian took off in his romp up the mountain as Jenn and I took our time and enjoyed conversation with each other. This was a nice little climb to the summit of Little Pikes, and the best part was we were the only people up there so it felt like we climbed a real mountain even though it’s a “little” one..hahaha.
Today the views were amazing. It was so nice being able to take additional time on the summit of Pikes then being able to add Little Pikes and never worry about a storm making its way toward us. I never felt we were rushing down the mountain, but I did think we were making good time. I was so shocked that my knees weren’t bothering me; I didn’t know what to think about that. Here we were in our 10+ mile and I felt like I had cruise control on. Before I knew it we had made it back to the Devils Playground. We took a short break to fuel up for the last 4 miles down the mountain and might I say Grandmas Cookies were um, um good. I felt a boost of sugar hit me and that lasted the duration of the hike.
The trail down wasn’t too bad at all. A little slippery with the pebbled rock here and there but the trekking poles definently helped out. My ankles never tightened up so I was able to move freely on the descent which is also something I’m not accustomed to. There was one guy on his way up, so hopefully he had a ride waiting for him on top. Other than that we only saw one other group of three people on the way down that seemed to lose the trail somewhere, which I have a hard time seeing that happen. The large Crags kept getting closer so we knew we were making ground. Jenn kept asking where the sign was, and it would have been nice to know for sure, but you never do. I remember at one point I told Brian I don’t remember ever smiling so much on a descent. I was having a great overall experience, and this trail is highly recommended in my eyes.
I’m not positive but I think we made it back to the parking lot around 3pm. That is actually a quick trip; covering 14 miles and an hour and a half on the summit in roughly 9hours. I kept thinking of all those poor people on the Barr Trail (the long route on the other side of the mountain) and how when we were back at our car they all had 6 more miles to go. We definently chose the right trail in my mind. A beautiful hike with a good amount of time in the forest then a nice alpine tundra hike towards the top. The highway didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, maybe the mental notion that there was help so close helped my subconscious push my limits harder than I have in the past. Either way I would do this hike again and again and I hope that those of you that read these get a chance to get out in the mountains and hike and climb mountains and enjoy the better parts of life.
Starting Elevation: 10,000ft
Pikes Peak Summit: 14,110ft
Total Gained Elevation: 4,500ft
Partners: Brian and Jenn