COLORADO SPRINGS You'll probably never think of "America the Beautiful" the same way after you visit Pikes Peak. The vista is so spectacular that it inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write the words to the patriotic song after she visited the summit in 1893.
Pikes Peak is the 30th tallest mountain in Colorado, according to the Colorado 14ers (www.14ers.com). Notwithstanding, its 14,110-foot summit is visited by more people annually than any other peak in America, and it ranks as the second-most visited mountain in the world.
It's not as much the height as it is the beauty that attracts more than half-a-million spectators every year. (Only Japan's Mount Fuji has more visitors each year, says www.pikes-peak.com, a Web site maintained by the city of Colorado Springs.)
Pikes Peak is the eastern-most of Colorado's big peaks, and it was mistakenly believed to be the state's highest point by early settlers. And why not? Many days you can see for hundreds of miles, all the way to Kansas and New Mexico.
(Unlike Utah, where mountains ultimately block your long-range view in all directions, the eastern third of Colorado is a high-elevation plain with no mountains.)
Indeed, in the 1850s, the peak was a symbol to the gold seekers heading west when "Pikes Peak or Bust" became their slogan.
Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, was in Colorado Springs to teach a summer session at Colorado College in July of 1893.
On July 22, she along with several other members of the visiting faculty took a trip in a carriage to Pikes Peak. Horses got them to the halfway point, and a team of mules finished the climb to the summit. The group stayed there only half an hour, but Bates wrote the following words: "An erect, decorous group, we stood at last on that Gate-of-Heaven summit . . . and gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sea-like sweep of plain."
Then, her song writing started, and she penned the entire "America the Beautiful" on her return that evening to Colorado Springs.
Located 70 miles south of Denver and west of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, Pikes Peak is a must for any Colorado visitor.
Despite its panoramic vistas, Pikes Peak isn't the most popular attraction in the Colorado Springs area. Garden of the Gods and the Air Force Academy attract many times more people. However, you have to experience Pikes Peak to appreciate it.
Utah has no 14,000-foot peaks. Even its almost two-dozen 13,000-foot peaks are only accessible on foot by hiking trails in the High Uintas.
However, there are three ways including two motorized routes to reach the summit of Pikes Peak.
The most popular is the cog railway an 8.9-mile ride up. (Another option is driving the 38-mile round-trip graded road. The third is hiking the 13-mile trail to the top.)
The train is the easiest way to reach the summit. (In contrast, climbing California's Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, requires a daylong hike. Colorado also has the Mount Evans paved road, open each summer, with access to a 14,264-foot mountain peak.)
About 500,000 people reach the summit of Pikes Peak each year. About half, 225,000, travel by the cog railway, according to Spencer Wren, traffic manager for the railroad.
"We've been in business for 113 years." he said. "We try to keep our rates as reasonable as possible for families."
Unlike regular trains that get traction on the two side rails, a cog railway has a third rail with a rack that allows it to climb as much as a 26.5 percent grade at Pikes. There are steeper cog railways in Switzerland (up to 48 percent grade), but Pikes has the highest railroad elevation gain in the world at more than 7,500 feet. The train travels an average of nine mph to the summit.
Wren said the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is open through Jan. 2, 2005. Mild winters and a desire by the train company to accommodate more visitors is the reason for extending the season.
"We're very busy around Thanksgiving and Christmas." he said. July is the busiest month. The train will re-open April 10, 2005.
Wren said reservations for the train are recommended for a day in advance, except in the summer months (when reservations should be made two to three days ahead). Small groups can probably show up and find openings if they can wait a few hours.
Current prices: $26 for adults in the off-season and $27 during the summer season (July 1-Aug. 22). Children's rates (ages 3-11) are $14.50 and $15 respectively. Children age two and under are free, if held on a lap.
Wren expects prices for the 2005 season to rise $1-2, mainly because of higher fuel and maintenance costs.
"We're never had a fatality on the railroad," he said.
Weather can affect the schedule. The train may be delayed or only go part way to the top due to snow.
Even in the summer, warm clothing is advisable on the summit, especially if the wind is blowing. (For example, on Sept. 20, the temperature at about noon on top was 26 degrees F, and the wind made the chill factor about 0 degrees.)
The train takes about 70 minutes to get to the summit and another 70 minutes down. It waits 30 minutes on top while visitors walk around and visit the gift shop and restrooms. Having your picture taken by the famous Pikes Peak sign is a must.
Whether visitors take babies to the top is at their discretion. However, Wren said a lot depends on whether a baby is coming from sea level to Colorado. If so, they could have breathing problems.
Wren recommends that visitors be in good health, because the high elevation may cause altitude sickness (dizziness, nausea and headache).
Most train riders comment on the "very relaxing" and smooth ride and term it a "high point" in their travels, he says.
Bighorn sheep are sometimes seen along the route.
There are three big events on Pikes Peak each year. Each June is the Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb; the Pikes Peak Marathon is each August; and the New Year's fireworks display is Dec. 31, at midnight.
The peak is named for Zebulon Montgomery Pike, dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806 to determine the border of the Louisiana Purchase. He tried climbing the peak on Nov. 24, 1806, but was turned back by a blizzard.
First recorded ascent of Pikes Peak was by Dr. Edwin James on July 14, 1820. Major Stephen H. Long led this expedition, and though he called its Longs Peak, Pikes Peak was the official name on military maps starting in 1835.
By 1873, the U.S. Army Signal Corps had built a weather station on the summit, and from 1886-88 the carriage road was built to the top. The cog railroad was built from 1889-90. The first automobile drove to the summit in 1901.
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Sources: "Rack, Rock and Pike's Peak Railway" by W. Spencer Wren, Jr.; "Pikes Peak, America's Mountain, Official Guide."