Driving the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway: A Colorado Fourteener for Anyone

The Summit of Colorado's 14,264-foot Mt. Evans

As any mountaineer knows, a “fourteener” is a summit at least 14,000 feet in elevation. Colorado has 54 of these peaks, more than any other state, and though my rope and piton days are over, I wanted to stand tall on one of these treeless, windswept promontories. Fortunately, Colorado’s Mt. Evans offers that opportunity for almost everyone. Only three things are required: a car, the ability to walk a short distance, and a disregard for oxygen.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Reaching a 14,000-foot mountain summit is breathtaking, literally.
  • Mt. Evans and the highway to it are Denver’s top two attractions.
  • Unlike most of Colorado’s “fourteeners”, this one is easily accessible.

Colorado’s Impressive Array of Fourteeners

Ranging from Sunshine Peak, just a foot above the 14,000-foot minimum, to Mt. Elbert, at 14,433 feet, Colorado easily deserves its “rocky mountain” nickname.

The Top of Mt. Evans from Summit Lake

Pikes Peak, which inspired America the Beautiful, is the most familiar fourteener. In 1916, a toll road was completed to the top of 14,110-foot Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs. This stirred Denver’s competitive blood, and Robert Speer, the mayor, sought funds to carve a road to the top of Mt. Evans, 154 feet higher than Pikes Peak and the closest fourteener to Denver. Completed in 1927, the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway took 10 years to build, and today it remains the highest paved road in North America.

The Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, Highest Paved Road in North America

Trip Advisor lists 124 attractions for Denver and the surrounding area, and I checked off the top two with my trip to the mountain. The Mt. Evans Scenic Byway is ranked number one, and Mt. Evans itself is ranked number two. This Front Range peak dominates Denver’s skyline 38 miles to the east, and can be seen easily 100 miles away.

The mountain is accessed from Interstate 70, the primary east/west route to Denver. At Idaho Springs, state highway 103 climbs 14 miles to Echo Lake and the entrance gate to the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway. The U.S. Forest Service charges an access fee, but Golden Age Passport holders take the drive for free. The gate, at about 11,000 feet in elevation, is 14 miles below the summit. The road is closed in winter —  not later than October 1st and earlier if significant snow has fallen, generally reopening on Memorial Day.

Rescue Helicopter Searching Mt. Evans for a Lost Climber

From the gate, the road climbs steadily through conifer forest, offering just two good opportunities to stop, both of which are worthwhile. The first, Mt. Goliath Natural Area, is a nature center in the heart of a bristlecone pine forest at 11,540 feet. Trails wind through these remarkable trees, some of which are 2,000 years old. The second stop is at Summit Lake, which lies above the tree line and below the rocky ridge that connects Mt. Evans to Mt. Bierstadt, another fourteener. On my last visit, a Blackhawk helicopter followed this ridge line in search of a missing climber, who unfortunately had not survived a fall.

The Summit Parking Lot at Mt. Evans

The road gets increasingly narrow and nerve-wracking as it climbs the final five miles from Summit Lake, and the sweeping views are magnificently endless. Picas and marmots sun alongside, and the few birds include hard-to-see Brown-capped Rosy Finches and White-tailed Ptarmigans.

Young Mountain Goat Poses for Photographers at the Summit

Mountain goats are commonly seen as you approach the summit parking lot, and on this visit, they posed on rocks with their newborns, and seemed to queue up with other tourists at the restrooms. The summit parking lot is 14,130 feet above sea level, higher than Pikes Peak and noticeably short of oxygen. Even visitors from “mile- high” Denver pause for breath as they get out of their cars, and those with lowland license plates have the look of a fish out of water. I spend my summers in nearby Keystone, well acclimatized at 9,350 feet, but I, too, feel short of air. Only the park ranger and the goats seem comfortably at home.

Staying Safe at High Altitude

Significantly less oxygen at higher elevations can lead to shortness of breath, and often to altitude sickness. Symptoms include headache, chest tightness, fatigue and weakness. Ideally, one should acclimatize before going to a high altitude destination. This is best accomplished by spending several days at gradually increasing elevations. It is important to keep well hydrated by drinking lots of water, and by avoiding caffeine and alcohol.  Take it easy and don’t overexert yourself. If symptoms don’t abate or present increasing difficulty, you should return to a lower elevation.

Walking the Final 130 Feet to the Summit

From the parking lot, a quarter-mile trail traverses granite slabs to the top of the peak, another 130 feet higher, making this one of the most accessible fourteeners in the state. The trail is crowded with hikers of all ages. An older man with a walking stick is pausing as I turn a corner, and I take advantage of the break to greet him. Nine-year olds move quickly past us, powered by untainted lungs.  My new friend smiles and tells me this is his 75th birthday, the twentieth consecutive spent climbing Mt. Evans.  He moves on and I try to keep up.

Summit Lake, 2,000 feet below Mt. Evans' Peak

At the top, Summit Lake is visible 2,000 feet below, at the foot of precipitous slopes. Ravens glide past far beneath us. On the horizon, thunderheads are building, signaling afternoon storms.  Lightning is a real danger here, and as the clouds darken, the summit empties. Back in the parking lot, smiles are exchanged all around. This climb wasn’t technical; was easy, in fact.  But the accomplishment was real.

Practicalities

  • The road to Mt. Evans is closed from sometime in September until late May, depending upon snowfall.  Check with the Clear Creek Ranger District for road closures and conditions. The summit has seen snow every day of the year, can be cold and very windy at any time and is extremely dangerous during storms.
  • To reach the mountain, take exit 240 from Interstate 70 at Idaho Springs, west of Denver.  Follow highway 103 fourteen miles to the scenic byway entrance and another fourteen miles from there to the summit parking lot.