Colorado: Pikes Peak

The Pikes Peak region contains a modern metropolis that was once a historic tourist destination, historic landmarks and districts, an old mining region, several modern tourist attractions, and a National Monument.

Site Offices:

Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain

P.O. Box 1575, Mail Code 060

Colorado Springs, CO 80901-1575

ph.: (719) 385-7325

fax: (719) 684-0942

Web site:

Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau

104 South Cascade Avenue

Colorado Springs, CO 80903

ph.: (719) 635-7506

Web site:

Pikes Peak is a sprawling mountain 14,100 feet high just west of where the Colorado Rocky Mountains dramatically rise above Colorado’s eastern plains. It does not have a dramatic profile. It has a broad peak above the timberline that has a squat, dome-shaped summit. It is named after Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, who tried but failed to scale the peak in 1806. Pike had been sent out to look for the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, which had been acquired from France in 1803. His expedition was similar to that of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

He came to what was a sacred area for Native Americans noted for a pass from the mountains to the plains, later called Ute Pass; a sacrosanct camping ground, later called the Garden of the Gods; and a number of healing springs, later the basis of the city of Manitou Springs. To the west, the Ute people lived in the mountains, and to the east, the allied Comanches and Arapahoe hunted buffalo on the plains. The Ute had frequently warred with the Comanches and Arapahoe over hunting grounds, but all the tribes behaved peacefully when they came together in the sacred grounds near the great mountain. After clashes with white settlers, all the tribes in the Pikes Peak area were removed to distant reservations.

Pikes Peak was scaled by another expedition in 1820, but the mountain was not open to easy access until an Eastern mining magnate, Spenser Penrose, built an automobile road to the summit in 1915. The next year he sponsored the first Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb, an event that still takes place annually on the first Sunday after July 4.

Penrose did more for the area: He refurbished a famous hotel, the Broadmoor, and he built a cog railway to climb the summit in 1891 and created the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, which is still celebrated as the highest zoo in the world. The cog railway is still in operation also, still running from Manitou Springs but refurbished with new Swiss railcars. The ascent for the railway is at a few miles per hour on a 25 percent grade that covers 3.25 miles.

A young Wellesley College professor, Katherine Lee Bates, chose to take a leisurely wagon trip up Pikes Peak in 1893 instead of using the railway. The result of the journey was the inspiration for her famous song, “America the Beautiful.”

Several historic places surround Pikes Peak. The White House Ranch Historic Site has interpreters in period clothing to portray life in the region from 1860 to 1910. Glen Eyrie is a sixty-seven-room Tudor-style Victorian mansion now a retreat center for a religious group but available for special visits.

The Garden of the Gods is southeast of Pikes Peak on the edge of the city of Colorado Springs. It is a dramatic setting consisting of slabs of slender stone pinnacles of a golden salmon color. According to legend, its name came from an argument between two friends. When one said it should be a beer garden, the other replied that it should be “a garden of the gods.” It is a 1,350-acre city park and is utilized for various performances and ceremonies. Another special natural site nearby is the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, located northwest of Pikes Peak. Set aside in 1969, it protects giant petrified sequoia stumps and an area of considerable natural beauty.

Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs, a thriving city of over a third of a million people at the end of the twentieth century, sprawls across the plains directly to the east of Pikes Peak. The city had its origin in a scheme to create a town which would be the “Newport of the West,” meaning that it would function in relation to Denver as Newport, Rhode Island, did to Boston–that is, as a resort and tourist city. Nearly all the other cities in Colorado were founded as military posts or commercial or mining centers.

There already was a nearby shabby settlement closer to Pikes Peak called “Old” Colorado City (to distinguish it from the newer Colorado City south of Pueblo). When it was founded in 1859 to serve as a supply base for mining communities, it did not have “old” as part of its name. Old Colorado City was in the wrong location for its role, and Denver monopolized trade with the boomtowns of the mountains. As Old Colorado City decayed, William Jackson Palmer, a former Civil War general and a railroad magnate, envisioned the creation of Colorado Springs along the route of his Denver and Rio Grande Railway as it passed Pikes Peak.

There are no springs in Colorado Springs. The name was applied as a lure for tourists, banking on the proximity to what became known as Manitou Springs, an area a few miles away that did have them. Even so, the scenery and good air made it attractive to affluent tourists and visitors. Nondrinking people of good moral character were offered lots for sale by the railroad and its land companies. The city grew rapidly. Six months after groundbreaking in 1871, there were eight hundred residents, fifteen hundred by the end of the next year, and three thousand by 1874.

A large number of wealthy Europeans arrived, particularly from Britain, which inspired the town’s nickname of “Little London.” The city advertised “Eastern life in a Western environment.” It gained a reputation for its high cost of living and keen business practices and sharp advertising to draw tourists. It was proclaimed the golf, tennis, and polo capital of the world, and no opportunity was lost to photograph the many celebrities who visited.

More growth occurred as Colorado Springs became a haven for people suffering from tuberculosis (or, as it was popularly called, consumption). Resident invalids brought in outside income as they filled boardinghouses and resorts. For a time, the only treatment available for the disease was rest and good air. When the contagious nature of the disease became known through scientific research, landlords in the city began to close their doors to its victims. The new methods of treatment called for sanatoriums, and several were built nearby.

In the twentieth century, business, tourism, a new migration of people to the sunny Southwest, and strong connections with the Defense Department assured prosperous, generally attractive, and steady growth.

The city became the hub for Defense Department operations in Colorado when Colorado Springs was chosen as the site for the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in 1957, which created a huge base inside of Cheyenne Mountain. Simultaneously, the Air Force opened its academy just north of the city, and its striking chapel and massive steel and concrete campus draws a large number of visitors. Fort Carson occupies a large area south of the city. Partly as a result of these installations, substantial numbers of military personnel have retired in Colorado Springs.

There are numerous other attractions in the city: Once the seediest part of town, Old Colorado City has been annexed and developed into a gentrified area of an assortment of shops, galleries, and restaurants housed in restored buildings. The Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum has excellent exhibits and incorporates the old courtrooms that it once featured. The Colorado Fine Arts Center displays the art of Native Americans, Southwestern Hispanics, well-known Western American painters, as well as avant-garde works.

Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region in general are filled with hotels, motels, and commercial attractions for tourists, such as recently built ghost towns. Downtown is clean and spacious, laid out on a convenient grid of wide streets.

Manitou Springs

Manitou Springs is five miles closer to Pikes Peak, immediately west of Colorado Springs. It was founded in 1872 by General William Jackson Palmer and his English friend, Dr. William Bell. The name came from the suggestion of an English investor who was likely to have been inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha(1855). It was a fashionable resort from the 1870’s to the 1920’s, advertised as the “Saratoga of the West.” Its main attraction, besides air and scenery, was the water of its naturally carbonated springs, which was drunk to cure ailments, as well as bottled and shipped out. Hotels, boardinghouses, and villas clustered along a lengthy thoroughfare. Today a Historic District winds along Manitou Avenue.

One attraction consisted of the cliff dwellings of the mysterious ancient Native Americans in the region, the Anasazi. They were not originally found in Manitou Springs but removed from several locations in the Southwest and reassembled in Manitou Springs. In the mid-twentieth century Manitou Springs declined, but in the late twentieth century it experienced a dramatic revival as a tourist and art center.

Cripple Creek and Victor

Cripple Creek is on a high plateau just southwest of Pikes Peak, and Victor is just a few miles farther south. Cripple Creek’s name came from the injuries sustained by cows that fell in a local streambed. These gold-mining towns were founded in the winter of 1890-1891, marking the final spectacular mineral discovery and bonanza in the state. The first gold strike in Colorado had occurred in 1858.

As in other Colorado mining towns, the gold ore suddenly changed a barren area to the home of a thriving metropolis where everything was high-priced. Since it was so close to Colorado Springs, miners were spared most of the hardships of a raw frontier. In fact, Cripple Creek had electric lights and telephones along with the usual saloons and brothels. A devastating fire in 1896 destroyed most of the wooden town. It was rebuilt around the turn of the century out of red brick and stone, and the streets were paved. By 1900, the boomtown boasted fourteen newspapers, two opera houses, 139 saloons, and fifty thousand people. The Cripple Creek District Museum displays relics of the town’s heyday.

Many of Cripple Creek’s miners were commuters, coming to work from the nearby town of Victor over the same route now traveled by tourists in the summer over the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad.

When the ore ran out, the towns decayed and shrank, and at one time the combined population dipped to little more than one thousand people. Cripple Creek sought a new bonanza in 1990 when limited stakes gambling was introduced. Over a dozen casinos and rapid, often thoughtless development have put its status as a National Historic Landmark in jeopardy. Victor, by contrast, retains its character as an old mining town, having a core of old streets and a scattering of diverse houses on steep dirt roads. The town is still framed by reminders of the boom years–slag heaps and mine shafts.

For Further Information

  • Abbott, Carl, Stephen J. Leonard, and David McComb. Colorado: A History of the Centennial State. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1994. Many parts of this readable textbook on Colorado are devoted to the region.
  • Loe, Nancy E. Life in the Altitudes: An Illustrated History of Colorado Springs. New York: Windsor, 1983. This is another well-illustrated, modern treatment.
  • Scott, James A. Pikes Peak Country. Helena, Mont.: Falcon Press, 1987. This is a well-illustrated book geared toward tourism.
  • Sprague, Marshall. Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek Gold. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. This is a classic treatment, still regarded as the best book on the city although its prose is stilted.
  • _______. Newport in the Rockies: The Life and Good Times of Colorado Springs. Denver: Sage Books, 1961. The same can be said about this book by Sprague.
  • Storey, Brit Allan. “William Jackson Palmer: The Technique of a Pioneer Railroad Promoter in Colorado, 1871-1880.” Journal of the West 5 (April, 1966): 263-274.