The Mount Evans Recreation Area is one of Colorado’s most magnificent treasures and through it runs the highest paved road in North America. Starting at Echo Lake high on the southwest face of the mountain, the road winds fifteen miles through dense pine forest to alpine tundra from Echo Lake to the summit at 14,264 feet above sea level. There is much to see and experience along the way including hiking trails, alpine lakes and wildlife. Expect to see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots at play in the rocks, mule deer and perhaps even a black bear.
The journey starts at Echo Lake, a beautiful alpine lake with hiking trails, mountain views and plenty of space for a nice picnic before heading up onto the steeper terrain of Highway 5. Shortly after entering the highway there is an access point from which you can purchase a ten dollar three day pass that will allow you to visit any of the recreation areas found along the drive to the summit. Don’t worry if there is no one at that station, each fee area along the drive has self service pay envelopes. Just enclose the ten dollars, fill out the envelope and deposit in the bin. Then write the date on the window receipt and hang it on the rear view mirror. One pass works for all fee areas.
Three miles into the tour the highway begins to break out of the dense pine forest and into the Mount Goliath Natural Area and the Dos Chappell Nature Center. A nice paved parking lot and the nature center provide an inviting place to take a break from the drive. According to the official forest service website, “The nature center has exhibits that interpret the adaptations of plants and animals living in sub-alpine and alpine environments. Outside you will find Bristlecone Pine trees 900 to 2,000 year old and an alpine garden. This center is a cooperative effort with the Denver Botanic Gardens and the U.S. Forest Service who staff the building and are available to answer questions.” The ancient grove of twisted and worn Bristlecone Pines remind visitors of the harshness of the alpine climate and the unimaginable age of the mountain itself.
For those interested in stretching their legs, the Pesman Trail runs a mile an a half through the forest and tundra of the immediate area. For those desiring a longer hike, there are two short extensions of this trail called the Bristlecone Loop and the Alpine Loop available with beautiful views of the tundra and trees and an occasional sighting of the abundant Mount Evans wildlife.
The next major landmark on the way to the summit is Summit Lake Park. This beautiful alpine lake is surrounded by a fabulous network of hiking trails and a nice parking area complete with restrooms. The lake is also a favorite for the wildlife and is often an excellent place for photographers to get some great shots for their nature portfolios. There is even a trail from the lake to the summit but it is a steep and difficult two and a half mile high elevation trail that is likely to be a two and a half hour one way trip to the top. Hikers interested in climbing this trail should get an early start to avoid the inevitable inclement afternoon weather. Lightning and hail are likely at this elevation and should be avoided if possible.
For those who choose to drive to Summit Park at the peak, the road becomes more narrow and steep above the lake. The views of distant peaks, tundra and wildlife make the last five miles of the trip the most exciting part of the journey. Summit Park at the peak has a very nice parking lot, restroom facilities and an elaborate observation deck complete with coin operated binoculars. Mountain goats on the summit are quite used to people and are likely to be found wandering all over the peak, especially on the shady sides of the buildings. A well groomed trail to the 14,265 foot summit with its 360 degree views of the entire front range is extremely popular and well worth the extra effort for those fit enough to endure the rigors of hiking at such an extreme elevation.
There are two routes available for reaching the Mount Evans Highway turnoff at Echo Lake. Highway 103 can be accessed from just north of Evergreen by turning west off of Highway 74 or from Idaho Springs by exiting Interstate 70 and heading south. Both are excellent roads with nice views of the Mount Evans Wilderness and surrounding peaks. Be prepared for all kinds of weather when visiting Mount Evans. Visitors might bake in summer heat at the bottom of the mountain and find themselves in a winter storm at the top. Visitors at the summit should seriously consider heading back down at least to Echo Lake in the event of severe weather. Hikers should bring rain gear and plenty of fluids as dehydration can be a serious problem in the thin dry alpine air. Be sure to consult the official forest service website for the latest road conditions and wilderness information.