Drive, Hike or Bike to the
Summit of Mount Evans
Boasting the highest paved road in North America leading within 134' of its 14,264' summit, Mount Evans is one of Colorado's most accessable fourteeners. Numerous cyclists share the narrow switchback 14 mile Mt. Evans Rd. with an almost constant flow of cars. Hikers enjoy quieter routes that avoid the road for the most part.
We visited this Front Range mountain in August of 2009 the easy way - driving to the top, then strolling to the summit from the parking lot. We saw several herds of mountain goats along the road and on cliffs by Summit Lake where we took a short hike and found a variety of alpine wildflowers. Below is a view of Echo Lake, which you pass on the way to the mountain's entrance.
Directions: Go about 60 miles west of Denver along I-70 to Idaho Springs and take exit #240. Then head 15 miles south on state hwy 103 to the Mount Evans entrance. From there it's another 14 miles to the summit.
Entrance Fee: It costs $10 per vehicle up to 12 people, $25 for an annual pass, $3 for bikes and no charge to travel nonstop on the road.
Best Times: Mt. Evans Rd. is usually open between Memorial Day and mid-Sept., depending on the amount of snowfall. Going early in the day increases your chances of viewing wildlife and there is better parking on the weekdays. We arrived around noon on a Saturday when the parking was tight, but we found spots.
Altitude Sickness: Watch for signs of altitude sickness: dizzyness, nausea, headache and disorientation. Move slowly and bring plenty of water to drink. Once someone shows signs of sickness, the best solution is to simply drive down. When I rushed back to our car after photographing mountain goats near the cold summit, it didn't take long for me to get a severe headache with nausea. I had been drinking plenty of water, but forgot to take it slow. A quick drive to the bottom solved the problem.
Weather: Winds are often strong at the summit, temperatures can drop over 30 degrees and the weather may change suddenly, so bring a jacket regardless of how warm it is at the bottom. Thunderstorms are common in the afternoons and it is possible for there to be snow any day of the year. In August I saw many tourists in shorts and short sleeves walking around the summit looking like they were freezing. At higher elevations the sun's rays are much more powerful, so suncreen is a necessity.
There are several pull-offs where you can walk around and enjoy the views. Every so often there are dramatic drop offs near the edge of the road, but it's easy to maintain control of your vehicle on the smooth surface. I only noticed one spot where a cone warned of crumbling pavement near a cliff. Because the road is somewhat narrow, we had to wait a few times for oncoming traffic to go by before we could pass cyclists.
Below is a shot of Mount Spalding on the right and Mount Evan's summit is just to the left of the photo with Summit Lake at the base of the mountains (white Frost Ball wildflower in foreground).
Nine miles from the entrance we came upon the parking lot at Summit Lake, which was full by mid-afternoon, so people were parking along the road. Park rangers had a table display with big horn sheep and mountain goat horns and furs for people to touch. They also had a spotting scope fixed on a mountain goat across the lake. Restrooms are nearby.
Summit Lake was calm and beautiful with Mt. Evans' summit and Mt. Spalding towering above it on three sides and wildflowers dotting the shoreline.
Going around Summit Lake past the restrooms is a trail that leads to a view of the Chicago Lakes below in a long valley, which draws the eye to the mountain ranges far beyond. The path to the overlook is short and very easy. Look around for mountain goats. We saw a few way up the cliff to the right of the path.
We decided to turn left and climb a short way up Mount Spalding to see if there were better views. The Mount Spalding Ridge Trail is a 3 mile round trip to the Mount Evans summit from Summit Lake. Novice hikers have gotten a bit confused trying to follow the cairns which mark the path, but hikers familiar with mountain trails find it easy to navigate. In the photo below you can see the parking lot on the other side of Summit Lake.
The trail was easy, initially, but we soon came across steeper sections with larger rocks. With Greg carrying a 30 lb. child on his back, we figured it would be too difficult for him to descend safely through the steep areas, so we didn't see the scenery change that much. Below is a shot of a cliff overlooking the Chicago Lakes.
We got back in the car and only had to drive five more miles to the summit. On the way I was so excited to see a large herd of mountain goats. There are supposed to be about 100 roaming the mountain. We didn't see any bighorn sheep that are supposed to live on the mountain, but I was fortunate to have three separate photo opportunities near the summit with the mountain goats. They seemed quite comfortable with several tourists taking photos from a few yards away. Since there's not really a shoulder along most of the road, a park ranger had to keep reminding people that each parked vehicle had to have one person behind the wheel. We caught them during their late afternoon feeding, but early morning is a good time to see them, too.
I saw a couple of adorable baby goats leaping around in order to keep up with their mothers. I was amused by a few goats as they made high-pitched bleating noises. Patches of old fur still clung to the sides of many goats, detracting from the beauty of their white coats.
Because their coats are so white, I had to be careful to keep them from being washed out in the bright sun by increasing the speed. I kept the aperture between 18 to 20 in order to keep the goats and the distant mountains in focus. The frustrating part was trying to photograph them during the brief moments when they lift their heads to glance around during long sessions of walking and feeding on the grass.
I was able to get quite close during my last shooting session with the goats, so my 300mm zoom was sufficient. In fact, I got too close for comfort after awhile because another tourist approached them from the other side of the herd, pushing them in my direction, so I decided to quickly head back to the car.
Once in the summit parking lot, we only had to ascend another 134 ft. over an easy 1/4 mile switchback path to reach the very top. I noticed one woman sitting on a rock near the start of the path struggling to breathe. She told her kids to go ahead without her. But everyone else I saw looked surprisingly comfortable walking around at over 14,000 ft. - except for those who were shivering in the chilly winds.
There are several large rocks perfect for posing on for photos. With all of the tourists at the top, Greg had to wait his turn for this rock.
Summit Lake, Mt. Spalding above it and mountains toward the north are behind me. On the path to the summit we heard a couple of pikas squeaking around us. We finally spotted them darting among the rocks a few yards from the path, but I couldn't get a good shot like I did while hiking around the lakes by
where the little creatures seemed to want to interact with tourists (maybe expecting food).
Near the summit stands The University of Denver's Meyer-Womble Observatory (just above parking lot in photo below) completed in 1996 as a solar powered building able to withstand 200 mph wind gusts. At 14,148' elevation, the observatory is the second highest optical telescope in the world with the best view of space in North America, enabling the 2' x 8' twin telescopes to provide valuable data for space flight missions.
You can walk through the ruins of Crest House (built '41-'42 and burned '79), which lie near the observatory. It used to be a restaurant with a gift shop. I think they should have rebuilt it because I didn't see any shops on the mountain to buy food and water.
Below is a view to the west with a lower section of Mt. Evans in the center and Mt. Spalding to the right.
One sign posted near the parking lot names the series of mountains that you can see to the south from left to right: Pikes Peak, Sangre de Cristo Mts., Kenosha Mts., Kataka Mtn., the plains of South Park, the Collegiate Range, Mosquito Range, Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Holy Cross. You can see Denver to the east and layer upon layer of mountain ranges on all the other sides, making the trip up Mt. Evans very rewarding on a clear day. I love watching the suns rays and patches of rain storms roll over the peaks.
Along the road and around Summit Lake I found a nice variety of subalpine (9,000' - 11,400') and alpine flowers (over 11,400') pictured below. It's always fun for me to find flowers I've never seen before. First, I show a butterfly I found on the edge of Summit Lake. Many of this type were fluttering around, but I saw no others.
If your cursor doesn't show the names of the flowers below when placed over them, the names are (top to bottom):
Western Yellow Paintbrush, Bistort, Alpine Sandwort, (don't know), Shrubby Cinquefoil, King's Crown, Golden Aster Villosa, Moss Campion and Pinnate Leaved Daisy.