Highest highway offers great scenery
Vail, CO Colorado
The Mt. Evans Scenic Byway does not cross a pass, but saying that it is simply a road to the top of a mountain is an understatement. Ending at a parking lot at 14,130 feet, this highway is the highest in North America.
A 0.25-mile trail beginning at the parking lot leads hikers to the top of 14,264-foot Mt. Evans. Travelers to Mt. Evans will see panoramic views, alpine tundra, the Meyer-Womble Observatory and the Mt. Evans Research Station.
In 1888, the Cascade and Pikes Peak Toll Road Company near Colorado Springs built a 16-mile road to the summit of 14,110-foot Pikes Peak. Denver Mayor Robert W. Speer believed that the Pikes Peak road drew tourists away from Denver, so in 1910 he proposed a road to the top of Mt. Evans, only 35 miles directly west of his city.
In 1917, Speer obtained state funds to build the road. It was completed in 1927. Originally destined to be part of a “Peak-to-Peak Highway” that would travel from the Longs Peak area to Pikes Peak, the road to Mt. Evans ended at 14 miles and never made it any further.
In the summer of 1942, Denver Mountain Parks completed Crest House, a house atop Mt. Evans. At the time it was the highest structure in the world.
The star-shaped structure with arching walls contained a restaurant and a gift and souvenir shop. The fresh donuts made at Crest House were a hit with the tourists, who enjoyed them along with the spectacular views of Denver and the Front Range.
On Sept. 1, 1979, a propane explosion burned the wood in the structure, leaving a skeleton of stonewalls. The Crest House was not rebuilt, but U.S. Forest Service workers responsible for Arapaho National Forest stabilized the walls in 1992 to create a viewing platform.
Today, the Colorado Department of Transportation maintains the road to Mt. Evans, and Denver Mountain Parks administers the areas surrounding Summit Lake, Echo Lake, and Echo Lake Lodge. The South Platte Ranger District of the Pike National Forest and the Clear Creek Ranger District of the Arapaho National Forest control access to and manage the Mount Evans Wilderness Area.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Denver manages the 14,148-foot Mt. Evans Meyer-Womble Observatory, the highest operating astronomical observatory in the West. The university completed the building in 1996 and installed the telescope that fall.
A radio link from the university’s campus 35 miles away allows the telescope to be operated remotely. Mt. Evans’ high elevation and accessibility make it ideal for a telescope.
Telescopes that are on high peaks get a clearer view of the universe because they do not have to penetrate as much pollution and water vapor as telescopes at lower elevations.
The Mt. Evans Research Station, the second-highest manned weather station in the country, is also on the summit. This location has recorded winds up to 224 miles per hour, snowfall of 500 inches, and a wind-chill temperature of -198 degrees.
As you ascend the peak, the temperature dropss 5 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained in a stable air mass. If, on a cool summer morning, temperatures read 60 degrees at nearby 10,600-foot Echo Lake, it is likely that they will be close to 40 degrees at Mt. Evans’ 14,264-foot summit.
Add in the wind chill factor for a 30 mph wind, and it feels like 28° F, making it hard to imagine it is still summer.
A drive to the top of Mt. Evans requires a climb of almost 4,000 feet and takes the driver past treeline and onto alpine tundra. A stop at treeline on the way to the top provides an opportunity to examine an extraordinary tree: the ancient bristlecone pine.
Trees at treeline have to withstand incredible weather extremes, including freezing cold temperatures, strong winds and intense solar radiation that would kill most plants. The bristlecone pine has many special adaptations that allow it to survive here.
Thousand-year-old trees are not uncommon on this mountain. Bristlecones often grow in protected areas behind rocks or ridges.
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States
Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. We’ll be serializing parts of the book in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.
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