Pikes Peak

The highest heights have inspired humankind since times immemorial. In Colorado, we are spoiled not only with lofty mountains, but with a generous number of 14ers: at least 53 stretch above fourteen thousand feet, though the actual number is still debated, depending on the definition used. That Colorado Springs was put on the map had much to do with the proximity of one of these giants. The city’s founder General William Jackson Palmer thought it the perfect neighbor.

American Indian tribes knew this mountain, venerated it and its spirits, and called it by different names. Other early visitors to the region likely laid eyes on it, and chose their own appellations. We know that the local band of Utes thought of it as “Tava”, meaning sun, and they were known as Tabeguache (People of Sun Mountain). It is ironic that the man for whom the mountain was named was not among the summiteers, but also understandable, considering that Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) and his men were ill-prepared for a winter ascent in November 1806, when they explored portions of the new United States territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Before designated trails, attaining the mountaintop at 14,115 feet on foot must have been an even greater physical challenge than it is on existing paths today. The most popular approaches are the 12.5 mile Barr Trail from Manitou Springs up its east slope, starting at an elevation of 6,800 feet, and the shorter, 7 mile hike across the northwest slope beginning at an altitude of 10,000 feet near the Crags. Both are worth every drop of sweat and every rise in heartbeat.

As some are not inclined or able to cover such distances on foot, soon after settlement of the region other means to arrive at the summit were contrived. A crude carriage road was completed in 1887, and a railroad in 1891. Improvement on the road commenced in 1915, in order to make it more accessible for automobiles. Eventually, the nineteen mile Pikes Peak Highway between Cascade and the top was paved all the way.

A remarkable woman who challenged herself before the existence of trails and who did not mind the perspiration was Julia Archibald Holmes (1838-1887), one of the Bloomer Girls, and the topic of a previous post, who summited on foot in the summer of 1858. Another visitor particularly entranced by the summit experience was Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), English professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1893, she taught at Colorado College during the summer semester. Unlike Julia, she chose to ride to the roof of Colorado in a carriage. Notwithstanding her breathlessness, the superb vistas moved her to wax lyrical. Her poem was later turned into a song many Americans consider an alternative to the national anthem: America the Beautiful. A bronze plaque at the summit is engraved with the first two stanzas, and a bronze statue of the author gazes at the source of her inspiration from in front of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum downtown.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties,

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!