Monday, July 22, 2013

Mount Evans: The Casual 14'er

Hiking a 14'er isn't for everyone. The term 14'er is used to identify a 14,000 foot mountain in the Rocky Mountains. I will admit, some of them can be a rough hike depending on your physical shape and/or if you are coming from lower elevations. Even coming from 5,000+ feet in Denver it can be a literal "breath taker" while going up (I'm here all night people... my jokes are hi-larious). Once you're up at the summit of one of these gems, you have a front row seat to miles and miles of "breath taking" views (like I said... real knee slappers). With that being said, I would recommend to anyone, and everyone, to go up at least one 14'er in your life.

"But I'm not as young as I used to be" you say? "I'm only in Colorado for two days, there is NO WAY I will be adjusted to the elevation in time to go up a 14'er" you explain? "I just don't have the time" you affirm? "Uh..... BABIES!" you declare? (I take it you mean you have a or multiple babies... unless you... are a baby?)

That doesn't have to stop you! Thanks to relatively-modern-ish engineering you can experience a 14'er by driving to the top! This is a great opportunity for anyone and everyone, even if you are physically able to climb a 14'er but don't have the time to do one.

View of Summit Lake from the peak of Mount Evans

This marvelous high peak of Colorado is called Mt. Evans (you can also drive up Pike's Peak, but if you ask me, it costs too much cash-$$$ and the view doesn't come close to that of Mt. Evans). When you turn onto Route 5 by Echo Lake Park south of Idaho Springs, CO, you'll come across a typical gift shop where you can find anything from shirts to books (except you can't find any good picture magnets... and being a picture magnet collector myself, that was highly disappointing).

When you go past the gift shop you come to a typical pay booth you see at so many recreational areas and national parks. The nice thing about this booth, however, is you can completely skip it if you want! That's right... free access! There is a catch though. Along the way up to the peak, there are three "developed" areas, which include a nature center, Summit Lake (which might be worth $10 alone) and the Peak itself. In order to park and enjoy those features, you have to pay a $10 user fee. Otherwise, driving on the road and using the un-developed pull-offs are completely free of charge. Honestly, the entire fee goes to maintaining this wonder, so you might as well pay the equivalent to two coffees at Starbucks and get over it. It is going towards a good cause.

But I digress...

As you drive down Colorado Route 5, you will pass a nature center run by the Denver Botanical Society. The center is small itself with a room with some diagrams, but it has some hiking trails and the Walter Pesman Alpine Garden are attached to it with some ever awesome bristlecone pine trees (known to be the oldest living things on earth). I suggest stopping and checking it out on the way down the mountain.

Bristlecone pines (right) at the nature center on Mount Evans
Once you get past the nature center you are beyond the tree line and it is all view after view after view.

View east from the road going up Mount Evans
When you find a pull off, make sure you stop and get out of the car to walk around. If you are visiting in June-July, make sure you check to see if the alpine wild flowers are in bloom. There are dozens of species, all hugging the ground so they don't get ripped up by the wind. To preserve this beautiful habitat, make sure you only walk on rocks and don't step on any vegetation. A single step could kill the plants in this fragile ecosystem.

Spring bloom in the alpine
The next developed site you will pass is Summit Lake. You can either hit this on the way up or down. I prefer doing things in reverse order, so I suggest hitting it on the way down (especially if you are there early in the morning; you will want to get to the top before the crowds come). Summit Lake is beautiful and is a great opportunity to get some amazing photographs. The Summit Lake drainage is an alpine marsh land. The summer melt seeps into the still frozen soil (called permafrost) where the melt water then pools towards the surface. Since Mt. Evans can experience freezing temperatures throughout the year, this constant melting and freezing of the summer melt and permafrost layer creates a very wet, undulated landscape, which has in turn provided lots of road damage for visitors to navigate. :)

Summit Lake Mountain Park

Before you leave Summit Lake though, make sure you at least take the short walk to the Chicago Lakes overlook. Summit Lake and the immediate surroundings is a great place for Rocky Mountain goats and bighorn sheep, so keep an eye out!

Mountain goat at the peak of Mount Evans

Twinnies playing near the peak of Mount Evans
You can't technically drive all the way to the summit, but there is a parking lot at 14, 130 feet. To get to the summit, you have to walk the last 134 feet on a 1/4 mile switch-back trail. The views from the top are just breath taking. There are a few landmarks by the summit parking area. The Crest House was originally built in 1940 and was at the time the highest structure in the world. It was designed to resemble a star with giant windows overlooking the Denver area. Sadly, in 1979 a propane explosion destroyed this piece of history, leaving only it's rock wall ruins behind. Now, it has been converted into an look out and is widely used as a wind block for visitors. The other landmark is the University of Denver telescope observatory built in 1996.

View north-east from the peak of Mount Evans overlooking the observatory and Crest House ruins.
Mount Evans can be hiked, instead of driven, for those who would rather climb this great mountain. Even if you are only walking the last 1/4 mile trail, maybe people who are not adjusted to the altitude will experience altitude sickness, so drink lots of water and take it easy.

If you only have a short visit to the Denver area and want to get up a mountain to see 360 degree views but don't have time to hike a mountain or just physically can't, go check out Mount Evans... you won't be disappointed.

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