By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
It is clear from the onset that a drive up Colorado’s Pikes Peak is more than a sightseeing excursion. It is an adventure.
That was established with the no-nonsense instruction by the ranger at the tollgate about switching the automatic transmission into the manual mode. He stressed that on the way back down it is essential to stick to the lowest gear to avoid overheating the brakes.
The firm message is to take it slow and easy, and he waited for what seemed an obligatory “Yes, sir!” before allowing us to move on.
Notably, this was a few hours after a diverse field of speed freaks made a hell-bent dash to the summit on this very road – “Brakes, we don’t need no stinking brakes! Just downshift, man! – during a preliminary run of the 2014 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
The conflicting realities of the ranger’s stern warning and the racers’ perilous assault of the peak don’t crystallize until a few miles later when the incline steepens and the turns tighten.
Wait, they race up this road?
It has been going on for nearly a century on America’s Mountain, since 1916, making the annual hill climb America’s second-oldest car race – only the Indianapolis 500 predates it.
Fun fact: Zebulon Pike, who encountered the mountain on an exploratory mission in 1806, didn’t succeed in climbing the peak that is named after him.
It now is a 19-mile drive to the top of the nation’s easternmost 14,000-foot peak, about 15 miles west of Colorado Springs. The so-called Race to the Clouds doesn’t start until the road takes a severe upward tilt, nearly seven miles up the road from the tollbooth.
The best way to gain an appreciation for the thrills and chills of the iconic race is to make the trek to the top yourself, even at the recommended cautious pace.
Ironically, immediately past the official starting line is a road sign warning of an upcoming sharp right turn with a speed limit of 25 mph.
From there the gantlet leads around 156 turns spanning nearly 5,000 feet of elevation. A first-timer can’t help but grip the wheel tighter and inch across the center line on those hair-raising hairpins of the steep final ascent that are bordered only by air.
When you finally crest the elusive summit at 14,115 feet, it is astounding to consider that a handful of professional drivers have completed the snaking 12.42-mile Hill Climb course in less than 10 minutes. Frenchman Sebastien Loeb set the record of 8:13.878 in 2013.
The compulsion for dozens to risk their lives each summer in cars, motorcycles and even trucks adds to the mystique of one of the nation’s most intriguing mountains.
The risk was underscored two days after our visit on the final day of the 92nd race (it wasn’t held during war years) when motorcyclist Bobby Goodin, 54, was killed; he lost control and crashed just after crossing the finish line at the summit. It was the fifth death related to the race.
None of the deaths have resulted from anyone driving off the edge. That possibility plays on the average driver’s mind on some precarious turns on the approach to the peak.
It is just since 2011 that the road has been paved all the way to the top. That only occurred because of a lawsuit by the Sierra Club claiming that gravel from the highway was polluting streams, damaging vegetation and fouling wetlands.
The finished pavement has made the race faster, and many contend, more dangerous.
Most sightseers will prefer the firm, smooth surface. But the mountain remains an imposing place, and the trek unpredictable.
An area at Mile Marker 16 is known as Devil’s Playground, so named because of the tendency of lightning to leap from rock to rock during storms. A mile later, Bottomless Pit is aptly named and a bit frightening to behold.
There have been alleged Big Foot sightings on the mountain over the years. Perhaps some were the result of oxygen deprivation due to the high altitude playing tricks on the brain.
At the summit, 2 2/3 miles above sea level, there is slightly more than half of the oxygen in the thin air as at the bottom.
Our arrival at the summit was disconcerting. The peak is a bleak outpost, made more so by the hail storm that broke out as we reached the upper parking area. The temperature there was nearly 40 degrees colder than at the base of the mountain. This was the last week of June.
The white balls of ice pelted down with such veracity for nearly an hour that it covered the rocky terrain with a dusting of white. The storm blotted out most of the scenic view from the summit.
It also provided a surreal backdrop for the arrival of the Pikes Peak Cog Train. The railway is the alternative to driving to the top. The trip takes about three hours and costs $36 for ages 13 and older during prime season.
The two red railcars emerged suddenly from the whiteout gripping the peak, and the passengers double-timed it to the Summit House gift shop and café, huddled against the persistent hail.
Inside the crowded shelter was the reward for venturing up America’s Mountain. The doughnuts are hot and fresh, the hot chocolate sweet and satisfying. So very American.
It helped ease the headache incurred in the thin air and warmed the insides for the return trip. The spectacular views on the descent made up for the lack of visibility at the peak that day.
The winding path provides panoramic views in all directions. One stop affords a glimpse all the way to distant Breckenridge and Aspen in clear weather.
One odd sight was difficult to reconcile: a portable outhouse, leaning slightly, at the apex of a hairpin turn. It was likely there for spectators of the race. Unsettling to imagine the sensation inside with race cars and motorcycles whizzing past.
Exiting the steepest portion of the trip down, another ranger stepjped out of a guardhouse to take the temperature of our brakes. Ours were a big hot, he said, and recommended we take a break before proceeding further.
Or perhaps that is just their way of drumming up business for the adjacent Glen Cove Inn and gift shop, where you can pick up a “Got Oxygen” T-shirt and a stuffed Bigfoot.
The historic outpost, which dates to 1886, also has plenty of literature and videos to acquaint modern-day explorers about the wild nature of Pikes Peak.
Whether or not the Bigfoot rumors are true, there are plenty of documented inhabitants of the mountain, including foxes, coyotes, skunks, elk, bighorn sheep, black bear and the yellow-bellied marmot.
The only wildlife we encountered all day was one wild turkey at the edge of the road in the lower elevation. The bird was still pacing nervously in the same vicinity as we made our way out, as if on the lookout for race cars.
Visit a gallery of Pikes Peak photos.