At the turn of the last century, Colorado Springs and Denver were in a race for the hearts and minds (not to mention dollars) of the eastern tourist. In 1888, the Cascade and Pikes Peak Toll Road Company completed a 16-mile road up the north side of Pikes Peak. This became a major tourist attraction, drawing tourists away from Denver Area. Not to be outdone, Denver’s Mayor Peer proposed that a road be constructed to the top of Mount Evans. In 1917, he procured state funds to build the road. It was completed in 1927.
During the summers of 1941 and 1942, Denver Mountain Parks built the Crest House (also known as Summit House). It quickly became a favorite destination of Coloradans and tourists. Containing both a restaurant and a gift shop, one could enjoy superb food and buy Mount Evans souvenirs while enjoying a panoramic view of Denver and the eastern plains. Unfortunately, it burned on September 1, 1979 and was not rebuilt, but the rock foundation and wall remain as an observation platform and a windbreak for mountain travelers.
The Byway is the highest paved automobile road in North America. From historic Idaho Springs, 35 miles west of Denver, the 28-mile drive ends at 14,130 feet, 134’ below the summit of Mt. Evans. Work on the road began in 1915, as part of the Peak- to-Peak Highway, a road system designed to connect Colorado’s northern ‘fourteeners.’ Although a portion of the Byway (Highway 103) is open year ’round to Echo Lake, the road to the summit usually closes in mid-September and does not re- open until Memorial Day weekend, due to the 10-75 foot snow drifts that accumulate during the winter.
On the way up, you will pass several mountain lakes, including Echo Lake, at 10,600’, Lincoln Lake (11,700’), and Summit Lake (12,830’). There are trailheads from the road leading to each lake, and more than 100 miles of hiking trails on Mt. Evans in all. One of the best places to hike is the Mount Goliath Natural Area, between Echo and Lincoln Lakes. From the upper trailhead you can visit the Alpine Garden, with a spectacular floral display, then descend to a grove of bristlecone pines, some of which are thousands of years old. Many are “flag trees,” since their branches grow only on the side away from the prevailing wind.
There are three plant and animal zones along the Byway. The first, the montane zone, is the traditional forest environment at the beginning of the Byway, around 7,500’. Here you’ll see ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, along with deer, weasel, porcupine, fox, chipmunk, squirrel, black bear, and beavers.
The subalpine zone begins at 8,000’. Vegetation varies here, but you still can see the bristlecone pines, dense thickets of skinny lodgepoles, aspens, and Englemann spruce. After surviving many fires, the lodgepole cones adapted by producing lots of seed, which makes for a dense forest. Although you may get a glimpse of elk, this zone is primarily home to smaller animals like the yellow-bellied marmot, badger, ermines, and pikas.
At 12,000’, you’ll cross the timberline and enter the alpine zone, one of the few areas below the Arctic Circle where alpine tundra is found. Intense solar radiation, high winds, and freezing temperatures limit vegetation to lichens, wildflowers, and other small plants specially adapted to the short growing season. There are still areas along the road trying to re-vegetate years after clear- cutting took place for the road construction, and the flora is extremely vulnerable. Please remember that this is a delicate ecosystem; stay on marked trails, and be careful not to disturb fragile growth.
Animal species present include the ptarmigan, white mountain goat, and sure-footed bighorn sheep (Colorado’s state animal). You can tell a ram’s age by the rings of growth in the curl of the horns on the male bighorn sheep, but this is no petting zoo – these are wild animals that bite as well as butt, and there is a fine for feeding them. Again, please keep a respectful distance.
From the summit of Mt. Evans, you can view the entire Front Range and the Continental Divide, as well as downtown Denver. The Meyer-Womble Observatory, completed in 1972 and upgraded in 1996, is located here. The highest operating observatory in the western U.S., it was the highest in the world until 2000, while the U.S. Weather station nearby is the second-highest manned facility in the country. The University of Denver’s high altitude laboratory is located at Echo Lake, but is open to the public by reservation only.
The U.S. Forest Service Clear Creek Ranger’s Station on Highway 103 in Idaho Springs has detailed interpretive information about on the area, including a video, audio tape, and printed materials. Further information can be found at the Heritage Museum & Visitors Center at 2060 Miner St. in Idaho Springs. The Forest Service also maintains three picnic areas and a campground along the Byway.
Expect at least a 15 degree difference between Idaho Springs and the summit of Mt. Evans; dress warmly and always take a jacket or sweater when exploring the upper elevations. Sudden changes in weather are common along the Byway. Snow is possible at any time, and afternoon thundershowers are common in the summer. Daytime temperatures often plummet with the arrival of a cloud or the stirring of the wind.