Destinations: Pikes Peak

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, October 20th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. There are mountains, and then there are Fourteeners.

Fourteen, as in fourteen-thousand feet above sea level. That’s what you call a mountain peak that rises at least fourteen-thousand feet. The United States has 96 of these “Fourteeners” and more than half of them are in Colorado.

EICHER: So our Sarah Schweinsberg went to Colorado and there she ascended the Fourteener that has stolen the show for the past 200 years

As part of our occasional Destinations series, Sarah’s here to tell us about Pikes Peak and how it became known as America’s mountain.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Pikes Peak is the second-most visited mountain in the world—behind only Japan’s Mount Fuji. You might think it’s a popular destination because of its height. But at a little over 14,000 feet, it’s only the 31st tallest peak in Colorado. 

During a journey on the red, two-car cog railway from Manitou Springs to the summit, I had plenty of time to ponder a question posed by the conductor. 

CONDUCTOR: If Pikes Peak is not one of the tallest, why is it so famous?

The answer: location and a history that stretches as far back as there have been people in North America. Leah Davis Witherow is the local curator of history at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

WITHEROW: Colorado Pikes Peak has always had significance to the people who called it Tauba or Sun Mountain.

But the mountain became more widely known when explorer Zebulon Pike first saw it in November 1806 while he was searching for the headwaters of the Arkansas River.

WITHEROW: Pike thought it might be beneficial to climb a nearby mountain to get a 360 degree aerial view to spot the headwaters. So while he and his men attempted to climb it, they had a few challenges namely they were not dressed appropriately. They had cotton clothing on. They didn’t have woolen coats. And so they kept climbing and climbing and climbing. They never got any closer they felt, so finally in waist deep snow Pike made the decision to turn around and head back down. 

While Pike never summited the mountain, he wrote about its beauty and topography in his journal. He eventually published those journals, and they became wildly popular in America and Europe. In 1840, the Army’s Topographical Corp named the landmark mountain after him.  

WITHEROW: It was a monument or a marker to people coming West. It was the only known geographic feature for decades and decades so other mountains to the south of us and to the north of us are taller but they’re not recognizable like Pike’s Peak is. It juts out to the east more than any other mountain along the Front Range. It came to symbolize an entire region in a way that has a deep resonance in American history

It used to be a 3-day long mule ride to the top of Pike’s Peak. But at the end of the 19th century an entrepreneur named Zalmon Simmons sold investors on the idea of a train. The cog railway—the one I’m on—opened for business in 1891. Its special design allows it to climb a 26 percent grade—much steeper than a regular train can go. 

CONDUCTOR: The most distinguished feature is that third rack that runs down the center of our track known as the rack rail. And underneath this train there are 4 very large sets of cog wheels.The teeth of the cog wheel lock into place on the rack rail and help pull these trains up steep hills like the one we’re on right now. 

It is the highest, longest, and most continuous cog railway in the world. A trip to the top takes an hour and a half.

Just two years after the cog railway opened, Wellesley College English professor Katharine Lee Bates came out to teach a summer session at Colorado College. She rode the train up to the summit and was amazed at what she saw. It must have been similar to what I’m seeing nearly 125 years later. 

CONDUCTOR: We’re now entering one of the deepest darkest parts of the Pike’s Peak national forest. This national forest is roughly 1.4 million acres. 

We pass groves of quaking aspens and bristlecone pines. Cross over creeks and ride by small waterfalls. All the time the temperature is dropping. At 11-thousand, 5-hundred feet, we cross the timberline into permafrost littered with granite rocks. And finally… the summit.

CONDUCTOR: I would like to welcome you all to an altitude of 14,115 feet. America’s favorite mountain. Welcome to Pike’s Peak.

When Bates reached the summit, she gazed 200 miles east to the amber waves of grain in Kansas. And 100 miles west to the purple mountain’s majesty. 

MUSIC: [America the Beautiful Orchestra]

And when she got back down the mountain she penned the words to the song now thought of as America’s second national anthem–America the Beautiful. A song that further established Pike’s Peak as America’s Mountain. 

The mountain continues to be popular among all kinds of people.

WITHEROW: From those who want to hike it from those who run up in the Pikes Peak Marathon. The auto racers, the artist, there’s some bicyclists. There’s something for everyone. In many ways Pikes Peak is like a siren. It calls you up. 

Well now these train sirens are calling me back down. 

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Pikes Peak, Colorado.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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