Ride the highway to the stars while you can
Take time out, now, to visit the highest paved road in North America—it really feels like the highway to the stars. If you are within driving distance of Mount Evans, not far from Idaho Springs, CO, and just off I-70 to 103, take the time to drive up the majestic 14,264-foot mountain before Labor Day. Until then, you can experience the expansive, scenic, and occasionally scary drive all the way to the very top; but, after Labor Day, CO Rd. 5 to the summit is closed for the winter. And, you’ll understand why it closes when you are atop Mt. Evans–winter doesn’t seem that far away—it is already 45 degrees there!
Mount Evans is considered “Denver’s Mountain”, as it is always visible from the city’s streets. We had attempted to go up Mt. Evans earlier in the summer, but a thunderstorm came up, and they denied access. Until we actually drove the highway to the heavens, we didn’t know how lucky we were that they prevent access during inclement weather. Even on a sunny, gorgeous day, the road that climbs over 14,000 feet into the sky can be chilling. There are no side railings, and the drop is astonishing. More impressive than that is the realization that the paved road is a slight exaggeration. It IS paved, but the ragged edges of the paving are eroding off the sides in chunks, making the not-quite-wide-enough-for-two-cars road even narrower. This unsettlingly narrow road is compromised even further by the large rocks jutting out onto the space of the inner lane, and by some drivers’ insistence in driving in the MIDDLE of the road! Most of it is unlined, but common sense and self-preservation should tell you that driving in the center of a thrillingly narrow road with endless switchbacks and reduced visibility is not an advisable thing to do. Watching a video of a professional driver careening off the equally perilous Pike’s Peak road a few days ago gives you an idea of the danger: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEUrEPPABbY&feature=player_embedded
So, first caveat—this is a fabulous, scenic and thrilling drive; but, don’t drive it unless you are comfortable with mountain driving!
We are comfortable with narrow windy mountain roads, but it was still unsettling given the middle-of-the-road drivers and the “honkers” who actually wanted to pass on this kind of road.
It should also be said that the road leading from I-70 to Mt. Evans has some secret treasures of its own. Stop if you catch sight of a small clearing with a rocky waterfall. It is beautiful, and makes a great mini hike among the trees and rocks. The same is true right across the road where there are also restroom facilities and even picnic tables amongst the lush foliage and lazy creek. When you reach Echo Lake and the Lodge there, the sign pointing right to Mt. Evans is smaller than you may expect. But, if you continue past the Lodge, you have gone too far.
Since Mt. Evans is a State Park, there is a ranger-manned fee station. On a clear day, the fee is worth it several times over. What you will see and experience will be memorable and enjoyable for the entire family.
However, there are two other vitally important caveats that you must follow to ensure you enjoy the ride and don’t get sick.
2nd caveat: DO NOT go in shorts, tank tops or even tee shirts, no matter how hot it is at the bottom—you will freeze! Where we live it was 85 that day, and the top of Mt. Evans was 45! Needless to say, all those dressed for summer were huddling and shaking, making it difficult to enjoy the majestic vistas. ALWAYS expect dramatic weather changes, wear long pants or jeans, hiking shoes, and bring a warm jacket and even gloves. Those who had no gloves found photography from the top to be finger-numbing. Likewise, pack a rain poncho in the event of a passing shower. Seriously—no matter HOW hot it is before you begin, it will be quite cold on top—and a bit windy.
3rd caveat: This is over14,000 feet high. The altitude WILL affect you unless you bring and consume several bottles of water per person–before getting to the top. Altitude sickness is no joke, and manifests itself in several unpleasant ways. By hydrating well (keep drinking and drinking), you will be able to enjoy the unbelievable splendor without skull-crushing headaches, nausea and fatigue.
All these warnings aside, this is an incredible journey that should not be missed!
One of the most enchanting experiences is, not only spotting the several huge herds of mountain goats that literally cover the top of the mountain, but being able to walk among them. These are not your typical farm goats–these are huge and sturdy by comparison. My first experience with these surprisingly robust and large creatures was standing in front of a restroom door at one of the first rest areas, the Mount Goliath Natural Area. There was a sort of criss-crossed log fence between the paved pedestrian area and the rocky mountainside beyond. We spied the huge herd of white mountain goats in the distance, roaming the countryside. Then they turned towards the rest area, and headed straight for the fence. The next thing I saw was a very large goat effortlessly and quite gracefully leap over the log fence, then he brushed up against me as he casually ambled among the stupefied onlookers. He was clearly wild, but all the same, clearly harmless and unafraid of humans. Of course, with the long pointy horns and the substantial weight of the goat, he had little to fear. There was a park ranger there, who explained that you never quite know what the herd will do, but they are never dangerous. In fact, it is their lack of fear that makes the park rangers fear for the animals.
Walk the short trail on the far side of the Natural Area, and you climb to a fenced overlook with spellbinding views of the lakes and valleys below. There is even a hair-raising open-air trail beyond the fenced area that allows the braver souls to teeter along the lofty perch. Also, be sure to look at the beautiful lake and granite glacier-like backdrop, seemingly channeling the spectacular Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada.
We drove on, assuming that we had seen the most beautiful vistas and had the most interesting wildlife encounters we could possibly expect on this scenic 28-mile drive. We soon discovered all that was merely a hint of what was to come. The road soon climbed above the tree line and we found that the resulting terrain resembled that of northern England, with rocks strewn haphazardly over the treeless but grassy hillsides. Then, easily spotted amongst the rocks, was another huge herd of the white and visibly shedding mountain goats. We stopped the car on one of the few safe pull-offs and walked among them, taking photos at will. It was an amazing experience seeing the nannies (the ones shedding so visibly, according to a ranger), the kids (adorable baby goats with teeny squeaky voices), and the large billies. All seemed to pay little or no attention to us or others who soon stopped to enjoy the herd. And, when the goats wanted to cross the road, they simply threaded their way through and around us to cross the road in groups, causing cars to stop for the procession. It was a rare and extremely gratifying experience. We soon discovered that the roaming herds of mountain goats were the norm rather than the exception on Mt. Evans.
Upon reaching the summit, we were grateful for our continual water intake and the jackets, scarves and gloves we had brought. It was a windy 45 degrees, even in the bright sunlight. At the summit, you notice several things. One is a tall hill of rocks being scaled by some venturous souls—this is the real summit—the tallest point on the mountain. The next surprise is what looks like a demolished stone building in the most prominent position. The signs tell you that this is Crest House, behind which is the white-domed Denver University Observatory, the highest observatory, at 14, 260 feet above sea level. You also find a thermometer attached to the wall, confirming what you already know—it is cold there, even on a hot August day!
The informative postings go on to say that “the summit of Mt. Evans places you above 40% of earth’s atmosphere and 90% of earth’s water vapor”. We had read elsewhere that it is the only place in the world where automobile manufacturers can test their cars’ engine components at this altitude, where there is a distinct paucity of oxygen. The summit is also a convenient area to evaluate cosmic rays, due to the thin atmosphere. Cosmic ray research has been studied atop Mt. Evans since the 1930s.
When The Crest House was finished in 1941, it was the highest structure in the world. It was built in the shape of a star with large windows overlooking Denver, designed to symbolize the night sky. They even installed interior globe lights to resemble the moon. However, 1979 proved to be doomsday for the castle in the sky, when it was destroyed by a propane explosion, and lost forever. What remains is the arched wall and star shaped platform, open for exploration. In 1992, The Arapahoe National Forest began stabilizing and converting what was left of the Crest House into an observation platform.
Other mountaintop informative signage tells you that the road that you just drove up on is the highest paved road in North America. In order to construct it, between 1924 and 1930, workers used ropes to pull themselves and their equipment up and down the steep cliffs. Their provisions included a two-month supply of bacon and beans. When completed, it was the first major road in Colorado designed specifically as a scenic drive.
The vistas from the summit were predictably awe-inspiring, with posters set up identifying the mountains in the distance. You honestly feel that you can see into neighboring states—and we were told this is the case on very clear days. There is even a large metal dial that you can point to whatever mountain or vista you are looking at, and it will identify it.
Take advantage of the restroom facilities before you make your descent. The way down is just as fascinating, and the 28 miles of rapidly changing terrain seem to go more quickly– even though you may find you still have to stop for an occasional goat herd crossing.
The previous time we visited Mt. Evans, we chose to take the alternate route home, Squaw Pass Road, after exiting the park. Here, we were treated to scenery as interesting as we found on 103 leading to the entrance to Mt. Evans. We even saw two foxes with luxuriant red tails. Either way you take to or from Mt. Evans is beautiful and rewarding; but seeing all of Mount Evans before the summit road closes for the season on Labor Day is an opportunity you should not pass up.