To the Top of the Continent:
A Drive Up Mount Evans
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway, just 60 miles west of Denver, is the highest paved road in North America. A day trip to the top is a journey that snakes and climbs through nearly 9,000 feet of elevation gain, from the high plains of Denver through five climate zones to the 14,264-foot summit of Mount Evans – one of 54 peaks in Colorado that soar to 14,000 feet and above – the famous “fourteeners.”
Because of snow, the Mount Evans Byway is generally open to cars only from Memorial Day to Labor Day. To “bag” this fourteener, head west from Denver on I-70 for 32 miles to Exit 240 at the town of Idaho Springs. There is a National Forest information center here with maps and information on hiking trails and road conditions.
Continue south on State Hwy. 103 for 14 miles, slowly climbing in elevation with new vistas in every direction until you reach lovely Echo Lake. There are picnic tables, hiking trails and fishing opportunities at this pretty alpine lake.
Although it is 10,600 feet above sea level and 40 miles from Denver, Echo Lake is part of Denver’s unique mountain park system. More than one hundred years ago, city officials realized that development was threatening some of the most scenic areas in the nearby Rocky Mountains. To save them, the city purchased land, creating a mountain park division that ultimately included treasures such as Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre and Buffalo Bill’s grave, which sits high atop Lookout Mountain. Today, Denver’s mountain parks protect more than 14,000 acres of natural beauty.
In summer, be sure to stop at the Echo Lake Lodge, an authentic 1926 log building with a charming four-sided stone fireplace. The lodge has a restaurant, bar, and gift shop and is known for their pan-fried trout. The Mount Evans Byway starts at Echo Lake and climbs 14 miles to the summit. In just three miles, the road breaks above timberline. An excellent stop here is at the Walter Pesman Alpine Garden, where you can view 1,700-year-old Bristlecone pines – the oldest living things on earth. In California and Nevada they achieve ages of 4,000 years. They don’t fare as well in Colorado because, ironically, the conditions are too good for them. The tree thrives on adversity in severe, windy locations.
Mount Goliath Trail & Summit Trail
The Denver Botanic Gardens maintains a trail from here to Mount Goliath that winds across tundra, lined with alpine forget-me-nots, fairy primrose, purple fringe, chiming bells and spring beauty. They also offer guided hikes throughout the summer.
Another good stop on the way to the top is Summit Lake. At 13,000 feet, this is also a Denver Mountain Park and a good place to spot big horn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats, both of which have herds on the mountain. At the mountain’s top, there is a short quarter-mile trail to the 14,264-foot summit. At this altitude, there is much less oxygen and breathing is difficult. Although the trail climbs only 120 feet in elevation, it will seem like you climbed the whole mountain. Wear sunscreen, because at 14,000 feet, there is 50 percent less protection from the sun’s rays. It’s also advisable to visit and be off the mountain before noon to avoid common afternoon thunderstorms.
The view from the top is simply incredible. This is one of the grandest panoramas in Colorado and much of state is visible, from the Never Summer Range in the north to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the south. It’s possible to return to Denver on scenic Hwy. 103 east over Squaw Pass, creating a circle loop back to I-70 at Genesee Park, yet another Denver Mountain Park. At this one, a herd of 40 buffalo graze in a meadow, with snowcapped peaks as a backdrop.