Colorado’s Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in North America and a perfect adventure for the new turbocharged Mazda6 Signature.
Words by Jack Baruth, photography by Mark Skovorodko and Brent Murray.
The old saying is true: It really is lonely at the top, and that’s as true on Colorado’s Mount Evans as it is in any boardroom. Unless, of course, you enjoy the company of goats. We’re at the summit of North America’s highest paved road, just a few minutes before the sun is due to appear over the mountains below us, and there isn’t another human within a vertical mile of us.
The snow-white goats, sporting ragged tufts of discarded wool—well, the goats are another story entirely. They skip between rocks with an easy, unhurried grace; even the trio of kids trailing their elders at a distance, alternating between respectful and intentionally provocative, have the ability to scamper up nearly sheer rock faces without putting a single hoof wrong.
While photographer Mark Skovorodko and I set up a sunrise shot, the goats take turns playing King of the Hill on a rock next to the passenger door of our Mazda6. One of them performs a nimble flip of sorts after losing the prime position to a sibling, landing bowlegged on concrete, and bleating loudly to draw attention to the feat. The largest adult favors us with an oddly empathetic expression. Kids, he seems to be saying, what can you do?
Those goats know something we do not: that by noon, this lonely place will play host to a nonstop cavalcade of humanity. The parking lot will fill, then overflow. Cyclists, joggers, and hikers will battle altitude sickness as they struggle up the final 2,000 feet from Summit Lake Park. Motorcycles and sports cars will flick around the hairpins with just a little more speed than is prudent, thrilling at the lack of guardrails and sheer drops just inches from their wheels. The photographers and nature lovers in their battered old trucks will observe all of this grimly, through weather-beaten faces that speak of long days and nights spent at elevation.
All of this is yet to come when Mark and I start hiking the rock-strewn, uneven path that covers the final 141 feet between the parking lot and the true summit. In just a few minutes we are at the top, contemplating a vista that stretches more than 100 miles in all directions.
I’m reminded of Isaac Newton, who said: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This, in a nutshell, is the appeal of Mount Evans: in the space of an hour’s drive, you can climb up on the shoulders of the giants who built its road and see farther than the serious-business mountaineers who use crampons and ice axes to summit the mountaintops hundreds of feet below you.
The enthusiasts who have made it their goal to climb every “fourteener” in Colorado—each one of the 53 peaks above 14,000 feet—have a saying about Mount Evans: The first one’s free.
It wasn’t always so. Denver’s earliest settlers had no easy way to get up the mountain that loomed largest in their western landscape. The painter Albert Bierstadt claimed the first ascent in 1863, naming the peak Mount Rosalie for the woman he would later marry. Thirty-two years later, the Colorado legislature voted to rename it “Mount Evans” after John Evans, the Territory’s second governor. At this point, however, nothing distinguished Mount Evans except for its relative prominence: it was the tallest mountain among the “Chicago Peaks” in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.
“The weather was often brutal, the steam shovels experienced difficulty related to the low barometric pressure, and the workers suffered exposure and altitude sickness. The last 600 feet were completed by hand labor in 1930”
The idea of building a road to, or near to, the summit appears to have been in circulation for a while before construction started in 1916. In the next 14 years, the fate of what would become the Mount Evans Scenic Byway hung in the balance as newly created Federal agencies battled with their Colorado-level equivalents for funding and control of the project. These struggles were made worse by the sheer physical difficulty of building a paved road at altitudes never before attempted.
The weather was often brutal, the steam shovels experienced difficulty related to the low barometric pressure, and the workers suffered exposure and altitude sickness. The last 600 feet were completed by hand labor in 1930.
From the very start of the project, the road was planned to be scenic by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and this is true even before it begins its ascent into the clouds. We start our drive from the nearest town, Idaho Springs. It sits at an elevation of 7,526 feet and features everything from artisanal restaurants to fully stocked mountaineering shops.
From there, we take State Route 103 southbound towards Echo Lake Park. The road starts out in lovely fashion, a ribbon set deeply in a perpetual forest of evergreens, unraveling before the Mazda6 Signature’s stitched Ultrasuede dashboard and widescreen windshield, then ascending in a series of thrilling uphill switchbacks that increase in radius before flattening out at Echo Lake itself.
To say that Echo Lake is beautiful doesn’t do it justice. When there’s little or no wind, the water serves as a perfect mirror of the verdant skyline above. After the lake, we reach the entry gate for Highway 5. This gate is closed every winter and does not open again until the weather permits plowing; still, if you arrive in May and are lucky you may have the chance to ascend past sheer walls of carved ice into which travelers often stop to scrape impressive but temporary statements of political affiliation, random humor, or deathless affection.
Until the Mount Goliath Natural Area, Highway 5 functions much like a normal, if narrow, two-lane mountain road. It is here that the effects of altitude start to become obvious. It’s likely 20°F or 30°F lower here than in nearby Denver. We have arrived at the domain of the ancient bristlecone pine. The road, too, is gnarled, hewing closely to a ragged edge often blasted out of the mountain itself. There is no shoulder and no guardrail. Many of the steep climbs seem to point us at nothing but blue sky before revealing a sharp left-hand turn with empty air to the right.
We’re in a bit of a hurry to beat the sunrise, which leads to a pleasant surprise: although the Mazda6 Signature is impeccably quiet at speed and perfectly happy to play the luxury sedan role when it’s on the Interstate, here on the mountain it’s just as pleased to show its aggressive side. Some of the credit goes to the steering-wheel-mounted shifter paddles, which permit rapid changes down to second for each turn then back up to third on the straights, but the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine is the real star. It’s completely unaffected by altitude, which is why the annual hill climb on nearby (but slightly lower) Pikes Peak has been won almost exclusively by turbos since the 1960s.
Reaching Summit Lake, we see a herd of bighorn sheep standing placidly in the middle of the frost-heaved road. This somewhat misnamed body of water isn’t at the summit and it’s not just a lake; it’s more properly described as a tarn, having been excavated by a glacier in prehistory then filled with rain water. Many hikers drive to this point, walking the road the rest of the way or attacking the summit with climbing tools, as was done prior to 1930. Either way, it’s all uphill from here.
The Highest Drive: Mount Evans In Context
If you want to take your car somewhere higher than the parking lot next to the Crest House, you’ll need both your passport and more than a little luck; the next highest road on this side of the globe is in Bolivia, and that one’s not always paved. How does the 14,130-foot elevation of the Mount Evans Scenic Byway compare to other great heights around the world?
It’s not unusual for clouds to form at or below this level, leading drivers to pick along the road at a walking pace until they burst out into the harsh, bare sunlight like jetliners on the ascent. The landscape is almost Martian, a monocolor collection of tumbled boulders and dirt that dusts the road surface into a complementary hue. The road is no wider than necessary, perhaps a lane and a half with the grudging addition of gravel shoulders at every hairpin. It can also get very cold—on the August morning of our ascent, the temperature at Summit Lake was 36°F even though it would reach nearly 80°F in Idaho Springs that afternoon.
It goes without saying that the view is spectacular, but let’s say it anyway. We are surrounded by the Rockies. Many of the peaks wear the faintest cap of snow, with the valleys between them colored in the deep green of thick forest and the clear blue of mountain lakes. The haze-free air extends our view to the horizon in all directions. The bighorn sheep below us are a swarm of woolly dots, and Summit Lake a greenish glacial scar.
Just a few more turns. Best to be careful. We can see the dome of the Meyer-Womble Observatory as we make the final hairpin. Built in 1996, this facility was the highest optical observatory in the world until 2001. In 2012, a fierce winter storm caused unrecoverable damage to the original structure. The dome was rebuilt by the University of Denver, but is now scheduled to be torn down due to lack of funds. There is little beauty to be found in it; the scientists will miss it, but few of the summit visitors bother to make the short walk from the parking lot to its front door.
The Crest House, on the other hand, has captivated visitors since it was completed in 1941. The ultramodern structure once featured a two-story steel-and-glass observation area with a restaurant and gift shop. In 1979, a propane-tank accident destroyed most of the building, thankfully with no loss of life. The U.S. Forest Service secured and reinforced what was left.
Today, it is an open-air platform enjoyed by architecture historians, photographers, casual visitors, and, of course, the mountain goats who are its most faithful occupants. When the wind on the mountaintop goes from a negligible breeze to a physical force with ice-cold fingers, we join the natives taking refuge in the ruins of the Crest House. The wind makes it difficult to speak and we huddle against the stone walls until it passes. Then we are free to stand out on the rocks and survey all that is above and below. There are fireflies flickering along the twisted ribbon down near the lake, a slow but dogged procession of vehicles making their way towards us.
It would appear that company is coming, and come it does in the form of SUVs loaded for bear spotting with long lenses and collapsible monopods. The photographers arrive together, but their communications are limited to the occasional nod. With practiced motions, they assemble along the concrete path leading from the parking lot to the Crest House. The sun’s already up, so what’s this for? Well, at this altitude the sunrise appears to march along the mountains. The lenses swing to follow it.
Behind us, the parking lot starts to fill. There is much slamming of doors, much blowing of breath-warmed air into shivering hands, much deliberately hearty repartee. As far as I’m concerned, they’re late to the party. Standing at the edge of Mount Evans, with the Rockies ahead and 14,000 feet of clear air below, I’m also reminded of what the blues/roots musician Steve Earle once sang about life above the treeline: “Lonesome don’t seem like much/once you’re this high.”