The drive up the paved road to the summit of Mount Evans is as high as you can go by automobile in North America. From Denver, Mount Evans is closer, higher and cheaper than going to Pikes Peak. The 60-mile trip (one way) from downtown Denver to the 14,260-foot summit passes through five climate zones. Because of the many twists and turns the road takes as it zig-zags up the mountain, plan on the drive taking at least two to three hours each way.
On the trip, you’ll see a buffalo herd, incredible mountain vistas, two beautiful high-altitude lakes, a rare forest of 2,000-year-old bristlecone pine trees, and wildflowers that can only be found above timberline, or in the tundra of Alaska. You might even see Rocky Mountain goats or sheep.
Here are some tips:
1. Because of snow, the road is generally open only Memorial Day to Labor Day.
2. Temperatures drop 3.5 °F for every 1,000 feet of elevation you gain. From Denver, you will gain 9,000 feet, so be prepared that it can be at least 30 degrees cooler on the summit of Mount Evans, where snow can fall at any time, even in summer. Dress in layers and bring jackets. Hats and sunscreen are also necessary since there is much less protection from the sun at 14,000-foot elevations.
3. The road can get crowded on summer weekends. If possible, travel midweek and leave early. Afternoon thunderstorms can be dangerous. As a general rule, you want to be off the summit and coming down by noon. Cars are insulated and safe in thunderstorms, but hikers and bikers are not. At the first sign of a storm, seek shelter in your car.
4. The road has almost no guardrails and there are serious drop-offs at certain spots. While it is certainly safe with cautious driving and while obeying speed limits, people who have issues with heights and don’t like roads without guardrails should know ahead of time, this might not be for the drive for you.
5. The road is best accessed from Denver by taking I-70 west to Exit 240, which is well marked at Idaho Springs. From here, it is 14 miles to Echo Lake, and another 14 miles to the summit. Idaho Springs is an old gold mining town filled with historic buildings and certainly worth a lunch stop and a “look around” after you summit the peak. You might also want to stop at Exit 254 on I-70, where the city of Denver maintains a bison herd.
6. Beautiful Echo Lake sits below Mount Evans with gorgeous views of the peak. The park is owned by the City of Denver and maintained as one of Denver’s famous Mountain Parks. There are picnic tables and trails, and an eight-sided log cabin restaurant and gift shop.
7. The last 14 miles to the summit are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. It costs $10 a carload to drive and stop on the summit. An additional $5 lets you park at Summit Lake along the way, another beautiful lake – this one above timberline. There is no charge for people with an annual or senior annual parks passes.
8. Ask at the entrance gate if anyone has spotted the herd of Rocky Mountain goats that day. A large herd lives on the mountain and can often be seen at points along the road. People at the entrance gate can often tell you where to look.
9. Three miles after the entrance gate, is Dos Chappell Nature Center, well worth a stop for exhibits on Mount Evans and a short trail that winds through 2,000-year-old bristlecone pine trees.
10. Summit Lake is another spot worth a stop. Follow a short trail past the lake to a spectacular viewpoint.
11. At the top, it is a short hike to the actual summit, which sits above the parking lot. At 14,000 feet, you will certainly feel the altitude, so walk slowly and enjoy the views. Bring lots of water on the trip, but avoid carbonated beverages, which do not sit well in your stomach with the huge elevation gains.
12. On the way down, stop at the Echo Lake gift shop and reward yourself with a sticker, magnet or T-shirt proclaiming that you have summited a Colorado 14er!