Driving up Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs is one of those classic American experiences that everyone should try at least once. My dad went as a kid, and it’s always been on my list of places to visit. I finally got a chance to drive up the Pikes Peak highway, and couldn’t get enough of the view from the top.
Pikes Peak (known as a fourteener because it tops 14,000 feet high) is one of the top things to do in Colorado Springs and the peak can be accessed by driving or biking the road, taking a cog railway ride, or hiking. We chose to drive the 19-mile-long Pikes Peak Highway to the top. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
Driving up Pikes Peak
We’re from a pretty flat midwestern state (the town I grew up in is a whopping 748 feet above sea level) so mountain driving isn’t something we do routinely. I’d had the advantage of driving in the Smokies and the foothills of the Alps before, so I handled the drive up and down the Pikes Peak road. I was a little nervous coming into it, but that was unfounded, as my dad’s instructions on shifting gears and previous experience carried me through just fine. My favorite early sight was this sign warning of Bigfoot in the area. Apparently so many people reported seeing the legendary creature that this sign was added as a joke. If you look closely, you’ll see something lurking in the background.
The road starts off pretty level and the drive is fairly easy at the beginning. About six miles in, we spotted a lake nestled beautifully against the backdrops of mountain peaks. We stopped to enjoy the view and pick up some souvenirs at the trading post. The lake is a reservoir for the area, and offers gorgeous scenery for hiking and fishing.
The further up the mountain we went, the steeper the road got. As we ascended higher and higher, the famous switchbacks twirled us around precarious turns. About halfway up, we started to see little bits of snow (we were there in mid-May) and by the time we reached the top, the drifts at the top of Pikes Peak were several feet tall.
We stopped at a pull-off that led to a seemingly small hill with cool rock formations. It didn’t look too difficult, but at that elevation, hiking up it through a foot of snow was pretty taxing. And slippery. It was well worth the climb though, as the view from the top was stunning. I actually enjoyed this area more than the top of the mountain.
You could see all kinds of cool ice formations that were glistening in the sun on the boulders at the top.
There were also some daredevils skiing down the mountain.
I also made a snow angel because I am fundamentally a child at heart.
When we began our drive up Pikes Peak, we were actually told that the final few miles of the road were still closed because of snow, but when we reached the turn-around point, we were told that they were finishing plowing and were about to open the last stretch within the hour. We decided to wait for it and found a parking spot. We’d been up since 4:30 am EST (which translates to 2:30 am local time), so we took the opportunity to grab a quick nap in the car. After dozing off for about 20 minutes, I opened my eyes to see the first few cars heading up the road. I quickly woke my boyfriend up and we joined the convoy to the top.
We of course took a picture with the iconic summit sign (fun fact: the elevation listed is actually off by a few feet because the official measure was changed). The coolest part was being up above the clouds. I’ve seen them from above while flying before, but I’ve never experienced anything like that with my feet firmly planted on the ground. This was definitely a worthwhile reward for driving to the top of Pikes Peak.
We happened to be standing right by the train tracks as the cog railway arrived. I loved the pretty red paint job. It looked gorgeous set against the bright blue skies.
We were pretty exhausted and dehydrated at this point, so we began the trip back down after taking our pictures. If you’ve never done mountain driving before, this is where things get tricky. Keep reading for my tips for controlling your speed for non-mountain drivers. Take your time heading down so that driving the Pikes Peak highway isn’t the last thing you do.
We made one stop on the way down to grab a snack and drink. We’d brought water bottles with us, but weren’t able to fill them up as drinking fountains weren’t available and by this point we were pretty dehydrated. The cute little building was a welcome source of much-needed sustenance. It’s also the spot where rangers do brake checks to make sure that descending vehicles aren’t overheating their brakes (you can actually start them on fire if you don’t drive downhill properly).
Getting to Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs
The entrance to the Pikes Peak road is about fifteen minutes west of Colorado Springs. Use US 24 to head toward Manatou Springs.
If you’re coming from the Denver area, it’s a little less than an hour and a half south of the city center. Take I-25 south to Colorado Springs and then head northwest on US 24.
Admission to Pikes Peak
The road to the top of Pikes Peak is considered a toll road. As of July 2018, the fee for adults is $15 and kids are $5. You can get a whole car of up to 5 people in for $50 if the math on that works out to be cheaper. Learn more here.
Driving tips for the Pikes Peak highway (and other mountains)
- Familiarize yourself with your car’s gears. We were driving a rental, but I picked one of the same make that my own car is (Yay for the National Emerald Aisle!) so I was comfortable with the set-ups and operation. Make sure that you know how to downshift so you can control your speed, use windshield wipers, and other important things before you get to the top. Many newer cars have a simulated manual mode that is perfect for mountain driving. Figure out how to activate this (most of the cars I rent have an S on the gear shift and the shifter itself, buttons on the shifter, or paddles behind the steering wheel can be used to toggle the gears.)
- When heading downhill, downshifting is key. Instead of riding your brakes all the way down (you will pick up lots of speed thanks to gravity), use your car’s gears to control your speed. Lower gears will slow you down more. Using your gears properly should allow you to comfortably coast down with minimal braking.
Other tips for driving Pikes Peak
- Bring lots of water. Seriously. The altitude dehydrates you. We showed up with a couple of half-full bottles thinking we’d have a chance to fill them up, but even the entrance only has vault toilets and no running water. There are a couple of places to buy concessions along the way, but we neglected to buy water until we were well past them. Some snacks wouldn’t hurt either. There are places to buy food, but it never hurts to have some snacks with you.
- Make sure your car is in good condition and can handle the drive. There are steep grades and narrow winding roads. It’s not a good place to break down. Make sure your vehicle is capable of handling the climb or you probably won’t have fond memories of your trip.
- If you’re from lower elevations (like us), try to let yourself acclimate to it first. We landed in Denver, grabbed breakfast, and then drove straight to the top within about 5 hours. If I did it again, I’d do the drive up Pikes Peak later in the trip because in hindsight, I think the altitude was part of why I ended up with a migraine that day.
What to pack for a visit to Pikes Peak
- A water bottle. Or two. Even if you’re driving, you’ll end up thirsty. Come prepared with full water bottles because there is nowhere to fill them along the way. I like the Camelbak kind with flip tops.
- Bring a jacket. Even if you’re visiting in summer, it’s going to be a lot colder up at the top. It was almost 90 degrees at the bottom of Pikes Peak when we began driving, but there were still several feet of snow at the top. This one is amazingly soft and warm – I got mine at Costco, but you can buy it on Amazon without a membership!
- A good camera. Don’t waste those amazing views with a mediocre camera! I use the Sony A6000 for my photos and love how compact yet powerful it is. Mine is black, but I so wish I’d gotten the white body version here.
- Good shoes. I started the drive in flip flops, but quickly changed into my trusty Columbia hiking boots. There are lots of overlooks and pull-offs where you can explore a bit, and the ankle-height of these was perfect for playing in the snow.
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