Pikes Peak Highway- The Hardest Paved Climb In The United States
Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Welcome to my new blog and website! It has been some years, and as I relaunch, I'd like to warm up with this repost about Pikes Peak. I've cleaned it up and refreshed it for you, if you have ridden PP before I think you will really relate. Unless you're a zombie mutant pro rider of course. If you haven't, then I need to issue a spoiler alert, if that's OK with you then sit back, hit the daydream button, and enjoy one of the hardest climbs you ever do. Or not. -Originally posted in October, 2013.
Hit The Reset Button
I don’t know where to begin with this one. I see Pikes Peak every day, I grew up seeing it every day, looming some 60 miles off in the distance to the south. When I think of this mountain, one of Colorado’s most prominent as it juts out onto the prairie, many memories come to mind. Topping out at 14,115 feet, it rises 8,000 feet above Colorado Springs, Colorado’s highest vertical gain for a single mountain, the road has a bit less vertical but I'll get to that later.
As a child I rode on As a child I rode on the Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway . to the summit, truly an amazing ride if you don’t mind the tourist scene once in a while. The train climbs incredibly steep grades using a cog wheel system to it keep from sliding down the tracks. I once knew a guy who worked in the restaurant at the summit; he lived up there full time for the summer and had sunrise and sunset to himself every day. Oh, and of course there’s the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an absolutely sick auto time trial to the summit. Yes many memories, but none of cycling to the top, it was a dirt road and cyclists weren't allowed.
I see Mount Evans every day too, it’s only about 35 mile as a crow flies, you can see the road winding up it with your naked eyes. All paved. Ominous. I have many memories of cycling this road, at just under 30 miles, a climb that tops out at 14,150 feet in the parking lot. And for the sake of the comparison to follow, I'll offer that I'm usually pretty good at easily spinning right up it at will. There’s a bike race up Evans every year, the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb takes you to your limits on its high altitude slopes. Or so I thought...
A Day To Remember
So back in March I was getting excited about Mount Evans opening for the season and posted a picture on my book's FB page Road Biking Colorado-The Statewide Guide. Jeff Gibbs of Bicycling Colorado in Colorado Springs chimed in and reminded me that Pikes Peak was fully paved now, and for the first time, open to cyclists. When it sank in I became overwhelmed with excitement! I know of a select few other paved roads anywhere in the world that go above 14,000 feet / 4267m, perhaps you can chime in on that subject in the comments, my point being that now Colorado has two of these special places!
Absolutely I must ride this mountain, I said to myself.
I continued to get my winter legs up to summer speed and waited for perfect conditions, I purposely banned myself from researching the climb and saved documentation for a future edition of my book till another day. It would be the first time I've ridden a Colorado road blind since my youth, when friends and I would routinely search for interesting squiggly lines on a Colorado road map and plan to ride whatever roads the lines turned out to be. Yes, that was back in the Stone Age, before GPS, mapping software, and uh, guide books took the mystery out of the terrain that lay ahead. A benefit of publishing my Colorado road cycling guide book "Road Biking Colorado-The Statewide Guide" is that I've documented and photographed some 6,000 miles of Colorado roads, so I know the state well, but there are very few surprises for me to enjoy on a bike, and none of this magnitude. Pikes Peak is a cycling jewel, a windfall if you will. I am honored to be adding it to the next edition of RBC.
There I was, a perfect summer day in Cascade, Colorado, it would be 95˚F in town today, but a pleasant 75 on the top. Cascade is very small, just a couple blocks. As I rode through town my anticipation was sky high, the tone was set almost immediately when I saw a sign overhead across the road reading “Pikes peak Highway”, although it wasn't the sign that got my attention, it was the 10% ramp of a road that surged up ahead out of sight around the corner. The first 6miles would amount to a CAT 1 climb with sustained gradients of 8, 9, and 10%!
I got a short brake at Crystal Creek Reservoir before winding up into an HC summit finish with miles of sustained 8 to 14% grades. I was wishing I had a 26 in the rear, I was riding a 39/23 which serves me just fine pretty much everywhere else in Colorado, I quickly realized that I would spend most of the day out of the saddle, Stomping my way up the mountain. On one occasion I rode around in circles for a moment to take the pressure off my legs and rest, I was thinking how unreal it was, awesome; does it keep going like this? I channeled Alberto Contador’s rhythmic, animated, out-of-saddle climbing style and found a comfort zone that made for an incredible outing. What an amazing road, the descent was one of the fastest and most enjoyable I have ever had the pleasure of riding, 50+mph easily on this one and no room for mistakes!
My benchmark for Colorado’s difficult climbs had forever changed.
I started with a bit of comparison between Pikes Peak and Mount Evans, both have brutal climbs on amazing roads, although Mount Evans always needs new pavement due to glacial remains just under the ground above treeline, they swell in the cold months and buckle the road, creating rather nasty speed bumps and surface cracks. Natural freeze/thaw based erosion at work on our state road crew's creations... Both are the highest paved roads in North America and top out above 14,000 feet. Evans’ parking lot is 40 feet higher and the climb is 11miles longer than PP. I had to double check what I thought to be true so I rode Mount Evans two weeks later and spun right up it. It’s not unusual for me to easily spin a 21, 19, or even a 17 on Evans but that is simply not possible for me on Pikes Peak.
It is very clear to me. Pikes Peak is harder, it’s a lot harder.
How does PP compare to other climbs around the world?
I did some research, I looked at elevation profiles for many major paved climbs around the world and found that most fell short of Pikes Peak’s combination of distance, grade, and altitude. Mount Evans is eleven miles longer and has the altitude, and even the vertical gain, but not near the steepness because it does that gain in about 30 miles as compared to PP's 19 miles. Having ridden all of the major Colorado passes multiple times over the years, I know there’s nothing in this state that compares, not Trail Ridge Road, not Independence Pass, Red Mountain Pass… Slumgullion? Nada. If you look at some famous climbs around the world you’ll find that Stelvio Pass in Italy, for example, has the steepness and a fair amount of mileage, but at just under 9,000feet at the summit it falls several thousand feet short for maximum altitude. L’Alpe d’Heuz doesn’t even come close. Mont Ventoux is a beast but it lacks distance and altitude. There are a few out there, the road up Mauna Kea Volcano in Hawaii (on Hilo) is a monster, you start on the coast at sea level and climb to 13,796 feet on grades as high as 14+%, the road climbs 7,000feet in just the last 15 miles of the 43 mile ascent!
There are a couple monsters on the Hawaiian Islands for sure, and a few others around the world, there is a website called climb by bike.com where climbs all over the world are compared, it’s a cool site to visit if you’re looking for hills to conquer.
If you would like to race up Pikes Peak there is an annual event, the Broadmoor-Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb is a USA Cycling sanctioned event in collaboration with The Sports Corp in Colorado Springs, they were instrumental in the relocation of the US Olympic Training Center to Colorado Springs from New York City in 1978, and have been an integral part of the community ever since. It’s a brutal challenge open to all riders and covers the last 12.4 miles of the climb – the same course used for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (car race) I mentioned earlier.
Not sure why they don’t start the race at the bottom in Cascade, perhaps it’s tradition from the auto race or logistics in Cascade due to space and noise. Anyhow, I've added this incredible road to my upcoming new edition of RBC and am sharing it with you here as a modified excerpt of sorts from the book.
Be prepared for a cycling jones. If you're stumbling across this post during winter months, I sincerely apologize for doing this to you. Actually, no. No, I'm nnnot sorry!
Pikes Peak Highway
Difficulty: Most Difficult / Hors Catégorie (HC)
Distance: 19.4 Miles / 31.22km
Start Elevation: 7,475 ft. / 2278m
Finish Elevation: 14,115 ft. / 4302m
Total Gain: 6,640 ft. / 2024m
Total Descent: 150 ft. / 45.7m
PP Website / Tickets And More Information Here
Fee Required: (cash or card)
$15.00 per person May 1st – November 30th. The mountain is open all year weather permitting,
different hours and rates apply, just check out the site.
Uphill gate hours of operation: 7:30am–6:00pm
Summit facility closes: 7:00pm
Downhill gate at the bottom closes: 8:00pm
Hours of Operation for the Food/Gift Shops on Pikes Peak:
Crystal Creek Reservoir 8:00am-6:00pm (mid April-Late October)
Timberline Café at Glen Cove 9:00am-3:00pm (mid April-mid June) & (late August-late October) 9:30am-7:00pm (mid June-late August)
Summit House Restaurant 9:00am-3:00pm (mid April-mid June) & (late August-late October) 8:00am-7:00pm (mid June-late August)
Strava Link: Pikes Peak Colorado
From Colorado Springs head west on US Highway 24 which runs east-west across the south side of town, if you’re coming from north or south of Colorado Springs, you’ll likely be heading into town on I-25 which runs north-south and intersects with US 24 on the west side of town. Either way, from the intersection of US 24 and I-25 head west on US 24, it’s about 6 miles to Manitou Springs and another 5 miles to Cascade and the start of the Pikes Peak Highway. Turn left at the light in Cascade and find parking where you can (street parking). From the west you’ll be driving in on US 24 through Woodland Park, from there it’s another 9 miles down to Cascade. Turn right at the light and find parking.
Amenities, Parking, and Camping Colorado Springs has everything you would need supplies and accommodations wise, including plenty of bike shops and eateries. If you have time, be sure to stop by the US Olympic Training Center and take a tour or watch a track race at the 7-11 Velodrome. Manitou Springs has plenty of eateries, tourist shops, and food supplies but I didn’t see any bike shops. Cascade is very limited, you’ll be lucky to find water. Woodland Park has everything you need including a couple bike shops (last time I checked). As is the case
throughout Colorado, parking is easy, just make sure there’s no posted signage indicating parking restrictions or private property, and that you’re clear of the road. There is no camping allowed anywhere within the Pikes Peak recreation area (anywhere the PP highway accesses), there are several pay campgrounds in the region but I prefer finding a quiet backcountry forest service or county road where one can always find secluded, open camping that’s free and unforgettable. If you have SAG vehicles there are plenty of pull-outs along the route including food stores at mile 6, mile 12.5, and on the summit. There is also plenty of parking on the summit.
Traffic This is one of America’s most visited mountain summits, 750,000 people a year! It's open year-round but if you do the math and compensate for winter conditions and a lack of vacationers for a third of the year? Lets be very generous and say that Pikes Peak is busy for two thirds of the year, 750,000 people divided by 243 days still equals 3,100 summiteers a day! Traffic is heavy at times and there is usually a line of cars waiting at the toll booth gate before it opens, so ride it on a weekday in a non-holiday week for best results. It’s not much of a bother on the way up but heavy traffic on the descent can ruin one of the finest descents you’ll ever ride, you’ll be stuck behind a line of cars and hard on the brakes the whole time. Bottom line; no holidays, no weekends, start early and you’ll have an outstanding day.
Gear Considerations For a ride of this magnitude you must prepare as a mountaineer would, you will be at extreme altitude where altitude sickness can be a factor, possibly in extreme weather, with possible threat of lightning and hypothermic conditions, and of course the possibility of crashing and falling great distances to your possible death. As I make light of this I also remember the coldest I’ve ever been on a bike was on Mt. Evans, laying on the sun warmed pavement at Summit Lake trying to get some feeling back into my fingers, I still had 25 miles of descent left to go. I also remember crashing at 50mph on a couple occasions as a young racer, you don’t want these memories or any others like them so be prepared, be smart, and pay attention. Be prepared to turn around if you’re sick or if weather conditions dictate, pushing ahead against better judgment can leave you begging people for a ride, or facing a long, cold, and dangerous descent. If you haven’t ridden in the high mountains please do your research, get a copy of my book if you don’t already have one, and read up on it. Sounds like a subject for it's own blog post if you ask me, I'll get back to you on that...
Truly the hardest paved climb in Colorado and probably a top 5 or 10 worldwide, a climber’s climb. Quite a statement in a landscape of seemingly countless climbs, but PP represents!
Pikes Peak is located just west of Colorado Springs, her presence, rising 8,000 feet above town is ominous, it seems as though you could touch her eastern flanks as you stand at the base of the foothills craning your neck, but she is a world away and demands your best, most committed
efforts to gain her summit grounds. If you look closely you can see the restaurant and cog rail train on the summit with your naked eye, that’s right there’s a restaurant and gift shop on the summit. The restaurant is great for anti-bonk snacks or even a full lunch, but don’t expect high quality caloric intake, do expect to pay a lot though, and don’t get stuck behind a fresh load of train passengers (tourists) hungry from a long ride up or you’ll be waiting in line as your legs begin to seize. the entire summit complex has been completely rebuilt, it looks amazing and is set to open in June 2021, check out the project page here. If you’d like a memento there may still be a vast selection of kitsch to be found in the gift shop if you can fit it in your jersey, of course if you've brought proper gear for cycling a "fourteener" then you have little room to spare.
As you ride NW through Cascade the road forks, go left under the sign reading “Pikes Peak Highway” and get ready to climb. The road is in great shape with a shoulder that varies from thin to nonexistent but traffic is slow and accommodating, there are lots of pull-outs for any stops you need to make. The toll gate is less than a mile up the road where the friendly rangers will take your $15.00 (cash or card) and give you a pass and a map.
So, from the start you’ll immediately launch into slopes of 6 to 10% with sustained sections at 8 and 9%, it’ll back off a bit after 3 miles and then kick back up. At about 5 miles the road starts to level off as you’re treated to on of the only breaks you’ll get all day, a half mile descent to Crystal Creek Reservoir and the first visitor's center. The views of the surrounding countryside are amazing as you ride through the Pike National Forest. At the visitor's center you’ll find a food store/gift shop with supplies and a bathroom. The view of Pikes Peak from the reservoir is absolutely picture perfect; you can see the switchbacks on the summit ridge to the right of the peak. As this description continues you’ll note many named corners or sections, I’ve borrowed from the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb auto time trial in which the drivers are going so fast that every corner is critical to avoid driving off the road and crashing as Jeremy Foley did in 2012, he and his co-pilot walked away after launching off the mountain when he missed one of those nasty corners! With stakes so high, the corners are numbered, 156 in all and many of them have acquired names, I rather like that. Continuing from Crystal Creek Reservoir the road climbs moderately with some rolling terrain, take advantage of this as you will earn your keep very soon.
Along this stretch the views are amazing and the summit looms ever closer with increasing detail revealing more of the road above.
You’ll ride through Hansen’s Corner, Horseshoe, 9 Mile, Engineer’s Corner, and Halfway Picnic Grounds. At Halfway you’ll be just that, all of the real work is in the second half. Soon you’ll ride through Gayler’s Straits and at about mile 10, through the first major hairpin at Brown Bush Corner, 12% grades are what you’ll find there and it doesn’t let up. Another 2.5 miles of 9-12% grades (steeper in some switchbacks) through Big Spring, Blue Sky, Heitman’s Hill, Grouse Hill, and Gilly’s Corner finds you approaching timberline at Glen Cove (11,500 FT. / 3505M). Through here you get an ominous view of the switchbacks above. At Glen Cove there are bathrooms, food, and drink. Expect movie theater prices for food items. From here on out the altitude will begin to play a major roll, if you are not acclimated it will become exponentially harder to keep your pace. I do not recommend this ride without some sort of acclimation, on the other hand, riding it is great acclimation training and you can always turn back if you’re not ready for the upper slopes. Something you’ll also find at Glen Cove is a mandatory brake inspection station in the middle of the road. It is a testament to the brutal steepness of this mountain, in all my life in Colorado I have never seen or heard of such a thing. So you
pull up (in your car-downhill traffic only) and they use a digital temperature gun to check you brakes, if it reads over 300 degrees you have to pull into the parking lot and wait for them to cool off. The road continues very steeply, upwards of 12% at times through George’s Corner, Cove Creek, Elk Park, and Ragged Edge. You’ll be above the trees at this point and the view will overwhelm you as you negotiate a road precariously perched on the mountainside. Next comes Double Cut and the 4 Legs, Double Cut is sequence of 3 steep switchbacks, the 3rd of which is the beginning of the 1st Leg.
The 4 Legs are a set of steep switchbacks as well; at the next switchback you’ll start the 2nd Leg, and so on, you have to get through these to reach Devil’s Playground. From the brake check station at Glen Cove to Devil’s Playground you’ll grind through 10 major switchbacks and climb about 1,500 feet in under 3 miles. As you make your way up don’t forget to look back down the mountain to see where you've come from, it’s quite epic to see the road winding its way up to you. At Devil's Playground the road nearly flattens out and you get a well deserved rest for about a mile.
You can see nearly the entire climb unfold below as you progress up the mountain. Devil’s Playground brings relief as the grade levels out to as low as 1% for the next mile or so with views opening up to the south and west. At this point you’re at 12,900 feet and you can see for a hundred miles on a clear day. There is also a large dirt parking lot but no services, it’s a good place to hook up with SAG vehicles if you have them. The relief continues as you loose 40 ft. of vertical on your way into Bottomless Pit,
it’s only a half mile or so but it feels like a major descent at this point. As you descend into Bottomless Pit you can see the restaurant on the summit up above, and a daunting view of the road cutting it's way steeply through the tundra. The last 3 miles will go at 8 to 12% with the steepest sections at the top.
As you climb above Bottomless Pit you’ll be on the southern slopes of the summit ridge, fully exposed to all elements on your way to Upper Gravel Pit, you’ll know it when you see it, piles of gravel probably used for road maintenance.
Past Bottomless Pit, the road kicks up big time, it's a daunting sight to see the upper slopes of the summit ridge, fully exposed to all elements on your way to Upper Gravel Pit, you’ll know it when you see it, piles of gravel used for road maintenance. Finally up through Boulder Park, Olympic Corner, and Cog Cut to the summit. The climb ends as abruptly as it began, and treats you to fantastic views in all directions. Pikes Peak stands alone with no neighboring peaks, this is rare in Colorado and affords an unobstructed panorama into Colorado’s mountain west and down to town, as well as far out into the eastern Prairie.
The Descent Not much to say really, well, I mean it is one of the finest descents you'll ever ride. I'll give a blow-by-blow in a moment, but it won’t help you much when you’re in the moment at 50 miles an hour, certainly knowing the road helps immensely on any descent. You have to tune into the road and read the corners, on the upper slopes they will come very quickly and you won’t have room or time for much adjustment.