by Kenneth Harper Finton (Photos by the author)
An hour from my Colorado home another world of exists, a wilderness of tundra, alpine forests, and the twisted trunks and branches of the bristlecone pines. Mount Evans, at a measured high of 14,271 feet, is the highest summit of the Chicago Peaks in the Front Range a few miles from Denver, Colorado. It is the highest paved road in North America, visited by many thousands of tourists between Memorial Day and Labor Day, closed to traffic the rest of the year because of the extreme elevation. This is a world where where summer is unknown and snow can fall any day of the year.
In Colorado, every thousand feet gained in height is like traveling 600 miles further north. Driving the road to the summit is like going through Canada to Nome, Alaska. The landscape and weather is like the most Northern parts of the North American Continent. The forty-five minute drive to the summit compresses distance. It is like driving from Denver to the Arctic Circle.
The alpine tundra is one of the harshest environments for life on the planet. It is consistently bombarded by intense sunlight and buffeted by high winds. Flowers do bloom during the short spring season, but the leaves contain an anti-freeze-like pigment that converts sunlight to heat called anthocyanin.
Predators like mountain lions are found anywhere on the mountain. Black bears tend to stay below tree line. Bighorn sheep and herds of mountain goats roam the mountain at will, retreating to lower elevations when the weather is very bad.
The highest astronomical observatory in North America is at the summit. The Crest House Restaurant was built on the early 1940’s but burned down in 1979. The stone wall remains have been turned into a place of observation and contemplation today. The rock foundation and walls remain as a windbreak for mountain travelers, and the viewing platform is one of Colorado’s premier scenic overlooks.
It is just a day trip to the top of The Mount Evans Scenic Highway from Denver. The journey snakes and climbs through nearly 9,000 feet of elevation gain, from the high plains of Denver through five climate zones to the summit of Mount Evans, one of 54 peaks in Colorado that soar to 14,000 feet and above – the famous Colorado “fourteeners.”
When traveling in a car it is easy to forget that you are in one of the most inhospitable areas in Colorado. Average temperatures in the summer are around 42 degrees. The sun is capable of burning the skin badly and the winds can be strong enough to blow you off the peak.