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Pikes Peak celebrates 200 years

Zebulon Pike wasn't the first person to see the towering peak that would bear his name. He never reached the 14,110-foot summit. And after a miserable time in the Rocky Mountains, he was captured by the Spanish and carted off to Mexico.
D1001 Pikes Peak and full moon, CO
Pikes Peak and a full moon.Lillian Buzzelli / Index Stock Imagery file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zebulon Pike wasn't the first person to see the towering peak that would bear his name. He never reached the 14,110-foot summit. And after a miserable time in the Rocky Mountains, he was captured by the Spanish and carted off to Mexico.

All of these details are simply part of the lore surrounding Pikes Peak, discovered 200 years ago by the Army captain's expedition.

"Pikes Peak is an American icon," said Carol Keenness, public programs coordinator at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. "Everybody has heard of Pikes Peak."

For the people who haven't heard enough, the museum and organizations throughout southern Colorado have scheduled lectures, exhibits, re-enactments and hikes over the next year, showcasing everything from Pike's 1806 journey to images of the mountain in art and advertising.

Pikes Peak climbs swiftly from the Colorado plains just west of Colorado Springs and dominates the landscape along the eastern slopes of the central Colorado Rockies. On clear days, it is visible for 100 miles, far out into the plains toward Kansas.

The peak isn't Colorado's tallest mountain, or its hardest to climb. But beginning with Pike, explorers, thrill-seekers and miners have flocked there looking for pristine views, breathtaking risks and easy money. The views at the summit inspired Katherine Lee Bates in 1893 to write the lyrics to "America the Beautiful."

"It's like a beacon on the plains," said Barb French-Pfeifer, an interpretive park ranger on Pikes Peak. "It still has that mystic and that allure to attract people."

Denver is the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, but you'll have a great time if you never leave the city.

Pike's mission in 1806 was to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River. He traveled from Kansas and was in southern Colorado in November of that year when he first caught sight of Pikes Peak from near present-day Las Animas.

Later, Pike set out from what is now Pueblo - 40 miles south of Colorado Springs - with three men, little gear and linen army uniforms, believing they could summit the "Grand Peak" and return to camp in two days.

"He was quite an optimist," said Clive Siegle, manager of the Santa Fe Trail Association, which is coordinating bicentennial activities.

It took two days just to reach the base. After two more days of climbing and a long, awful night on a nearby peak, the team turned back to Pueblo.

Getting to the summit now isn't nearly as arduous. More than 600,000 people spend time on the mountain annually, and attendance is up 16 percent this year, French-Pfeifer said. Visitors also flock to the Pikes Peak Marathon and Pikes Peak International Hill Climb car race each summer.

About 15,000 people try to hike to the top each year, but the far more popular routes involve car or rail. The weaving, 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway is paved part of the way and open year round, weather permitting. The road has several places to stop for the view, which can include black bears, mountain lions, bald eagles and elk.

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway offers several trips daily in the summer from nearby Manitou Springs. The three-hour round trip includes 30 to 40 minutes on the summit to walk around and visit the Summit House, with its famous doughnuts and welcome snacks.

To truly understand Pike's place in Colorado history, though, leave the mountain and follow his footsteps across southern Colorado, where events also are scheduled.

In downtown Pueblo, part of the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk is located where historians believe Pike's men camped while he tried to reach the peak. The nearby El Pueblo Museum has an exhibit exploring Pike's legacy.

In Canon City, where Pike traveled after failing to conquer the mountain, he visited another of Colorado's natural wonders: the Royal Gorge. The world's highest suspension bridge also is planning bicentennial events in July.

"(Pike's) not the first guy to be in Colorado," Siegle said. "But he becomes, if you will, the first tour guide."

If You Go:
: or (719) 385-PEAK. From Colorado Springs, take state Highway 24 west five miles past Manitou Springs to Cascade, exit to the left. Admission is $10 per person 16 or older and $5 per child, with a maximum of $35 per vehicle.

: 515 Ruxton Ave., Manitou Springs, Colo. (719) 685-5401 or Train runs at various times through the year and charges $31 for adults and $16.50 for children ages 3 to 12 during peak summer season.

The Pike Page:

Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum: