Pikes Peak is named for Zebulon Montgomery Pike, an early explorer of the Southwest. Lieutenant Pike (later General Pike), first sighted what he termed "The Great Peak" in mid-November of 1806. A few days later, he attempted to climb the mountain with a small band of men, however, heavy snows around the 10,000-foot level turned his party back. He estimated the mountain's height at over 18,000 ft and is said to have claimed that it might never be climbed. In 1820, Edwin James, a botanist who climbed many peaks in Colorado, made it to the top. By the mid-1800's, a trail was well established to the top, and the first woman, Julia Holmes, climbed the peak in 1858.
But, long before Lt. Pike explored the region, there were several other travelers in the Pikes Peak area. The Ute Indians would pause at the foot of the mountain as they traveled from their summer campgrounds to their winter hunting grounds. Most likely, they scaled Pikes Peak to place eagle traps on its summit, a common practice used on high peaks in order to obtain ceremonial feathers. Similarly, the Spanish were well aware of the mountain through numerous expeditions, especially that of Juan de Anza who explored the region in 1779. Trappers had also been working the territory which was rich with wildlife, including beaver, deer, elk, bear, buffalo, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions.
After the Louisiana Purchase, people began traveling, searching for new fortunes and new beginnings. Pikes Peak proximity to the edge of the Great Plains and its height made it the first sight of westward bound wagon trains, leading to the expression "Pikes Peak or Bust."
Due to its natural beauty, the Pikes Peak Region has always been a magnet for travelers. The first person to widely promote the area was General William Jackson Palmer, founder of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Thanks to General Palmer's promotional efforts, Pikes Peak quickly became popular, and over the years, many people found ways to travel to its summit.
In 1873, the U.S. Signal Service (an early Weather Bureau) built a telegraph station on the summit to monitor the weather. On May 25, 1876, an interesting hoax was perpetrated by Sergeant John O'Keefe and his wife who lived at the summit house. The O'Keefe's claimed that giant rats had eaten their baby daughter! Sgt. O'Keefe is now known to have had a vivid imagination: in an earlier stay at the summit he claimed that Pikes Peak was erupting!
In the late 1880's, a Mr. Zalman Simmons, owner of the Simmons Mattress Company, rode a mule to the top of Pikes Peak to inspect his new insulators for the telegraph wires which were in use up to the signal station at the summit. He was awed by the incredible views from Pikes Peak, but was worn out and saddle-weary from the arduous trip. Legend has it that as he sat soaking in one of the mineral spring spas (reportedly at the Cliff House in Manitou Springs), the proprietor of the hotel mentioned to him the idea of a mountain railroad to the top of Pikes Peak. Mr. Simmons was taken with the idea and soon set about organizing a company to build the Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway. You can read more about the History of the Pikes Peak Railway *** here ***.
In 1889, a carriage road was opened from Cascade, Colorado to the top of Pikes Peak. Horses brought passengers about halfway, and then mules (noted for their hardiness at altitude) finished the journey. However, with the opening of the Cog Railway, the carriage road was forced into disuse until 1915 when Spence Penrose, a local entrepreneur and builder of the Broadmoor Hotel, enlarged and improved the roadbed for automobile travel. In 1917, he began the second oldest auto race in America, the "Pikes Peak Hill Climb," to help promote his new highway. Mr. Penrose eventually purchased the Cog Railway in the 1920's, reportedly to obtain the parking and summit house for auto travelers on the highway..
Another local entrepreneur decided that the back of a burro was the best way to see the Peak, and from 1914 until 1917, Fred Barr built the trail that now bears his name. Mr. Barr operated a burro concession from the upper terminal of the now defunct Mount Manitou Incline Railway. Hearty souls would ride to a group of cabins (Barr Camp) and spend the night there. Early the next morning, they would ride the burros to the summit and return back to Manitou. The trail was later extended to reach all the way back to Manitou Springs. Strong hikers today can make the 13-mile trip along the beautiful, but very steep, Barr Trail. About halfway along the way is Barr Camp, where intrepid hikers can get a meal or a bunk for the night (reservation are usually needed).
Here are some Interesting Tidbits on Pikes Peak:
Pikes Peak is NOT the highest mountain in Colorado. It is 31st out of the 54 mountains in the state over 14,000 ft, the highest being Mt. Elbert at 14,433 ft. In fact, the altitude of Pikes Peak has changed many times over the years. Initially, it was 14,109 ft. However, with the addition of the Summit House Tower, in the late 1800s, it was increased to 14,147 ft. In 1963, when the new Summit House was built, it was changed again to 14,110 ft. In 2002, Congress adopted the "National Geodetic Vertical Datum of 1988" in which peak measurements were just recalculated and not actually re-measured, and Pikes Peak elevation was again changed to 14,115 ft. With all the continuous changes, the National Forest Service declared they were "keeping" the old height of 14,100 ft. So is the elevation 14,110 ft or 14,115 ft? You be the judge!
We owe the inspiration for the lyrics of the beloved song "America the Beautiful" to the stunning vistas from the summit of Pikes Peak. In the summer of 1893, Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, was in Colorado Springs to teach a summer session at Colorado College. On July 22, Katharine, along with several others of the visiting faculty, took a trip in a carriage to the summit of Pikes Peak. Horses for them to the halfway point, and, as was customary, a team of mules finished the climb to the 14,115-foot summit. Because altitude sickness affected one of the party, they only stayed on the summit for a half hour; but the brief experience was enough to inspire a poem. Katharine wrote: "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 and there the opening lines of 'America the Beautiful' sprang into being... I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs."
When traveling up Pikes Peak (or any mountain), ascending 1,000 feet is like traveling 600 miles to the north: the temperature drops about 3.5 degrees every 1,000 ft and different life zones are experienced. So, in general, the top of Pikes Peak is 30 degrees colder than at the Depot in Manitou Springs.