Tundra Travels on Mount Evans

Text and photos by Jack Olson
(Reprinted by permission of the author from the Sep-Oct 2012 newsletter.)

mountain goat, Mt Evans
Majestic mountain goat on Mt. Evans, Colorado © Jack Olson

Looming about fifty miles west of Denver, Mount Evans is one of the most spectacular and diverse natural locations anywhere in the West and so close to a major metropolitan area. There is an unmatched combination of wildlife, highest altitude trees, wildflowers galore, endless tundra, a frigid lake, jagged rock formations and cliffs, and a view to take your breath away. Literally.

Zip up Interstate 70 to Idaho Springs, where you take the Mount Evans exit. You have begun your climb up the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in the United States. Winding, curving, and ascending fourteen miles you’ll briefly top out at Echo Lake. Turn up Colorado 5 and the excitement begins.

  For a short distance you’ll loop through dense woodland, but soon the forest drops away and the views expand. Wildflowers sprinkle the roadside, signaling the approach to timberline. Timberline: one of my favorite words. I’d rather hike at and above timberline in Colorado in summer than any other place in the world. And guess what? There’s a nature center right at timberline where you can pull into a small lot. Do it.

rose crowns
Rose crowns at Summit Lake on Mt. Evans. © Jack Olson

Dos Chappell Nature Center is run by the Forest Service and Denver Botanic Gardens. They boast that they feature the highest altitude alpine garden in the world. Paths meander behind the visitor center and little signs identify which alpine wildflowers are blooming at the time. Maybe you’ll be lucky to have someone at the center go out into the garden and answer questions for you. Ask them. Hint: sidle over to the west side, stoop down low, and look for the miniature columbine. Surrounding the alpine garden are bristlecone pines, among the oldest trees in the country. Twisted by incessant winds, they struggle to rise above the mountainside and hang on to life itself.

Head on up the road. Now you’re in tundra country. Tundra: another of my favorite words. After about a mile there’s a parking area on the left. A trail here leads back down to the nature center. The Botanic Gardens may be leading wildflower hikes down this trail in the summer. If you really want to learn your flowers, try to take one of these hikes. 

On and on, the drive rewards your perseverance with sweeping expanses of tundra and rock. My niece’s family and I saw a big herd of elk on the run, thrilling us. You may spot bighorn sheep in this area or even mountain goats. In June, you might just get a close look at the wobbly little baby goats, unbelievably fuzzy and cute. In a few miles, you’ll reach Summit Lake, at 12,840 feet, where you can park. The lake is often partially frozen well into summer.

Take time to wander on trails down to the lake and on a trail to the north beside the lake. Sneak your head over and glimpse the Chicago Lakes, thousands of dizzying feet below. There should be carpets of wildflowers and stunning scenes of the cliffs ascending to the top of Mount Evans. Sometimes rangers or naturalists stationed here with spotting scopes can aid you in finding creatures on the slopes. Many different wildflowers frame the lake, but hunt for the huge rose crowns back along the road. 

Bristlecone pines, Mt Evans, timberline
Bristlecone pines at timgerline on Mt. Evans, Colorado © Jack Olson

Now for the final push. A few pulloffs are spaced along the road to the top. This is the area where you are most likely to encounter mountain goats. Driver, keep your eyes on the road and everyone else look for goats. You’re in a magical mixed land of tundra, rocks, and ponds. More and more of the surrounding, almost limitless landscape opens before you. Driver, keep your eyes on the road!

Finally, you hit the top. The parking area isn’t too big, so let’s hope you started early or luck out. To reach the actual top of the peak you must hike a short, rocky trail to the summit, 14,271 feet. Once on top, there’s plenty of room for many people to scatter, sit, and marvel at the views. Fourteen thousand foot Grays and Torreys peaks poke into the sky to the northwest, Longs Peak and Rocky Mountain National Park occupy the north horizon, Pikes Peak stands tall and isolated to the south, and jumbles of ranges spread in all directions. You may just catch the glint of the sun off the State Capitol dome in downtown Denver.

Caveats: This narrow road has sheer dropoffs and no guardrails. If this scares you, maybe just drive to timberline, or possibly Summit Lake. If you have problems with breathing at high elevations, you shouldn’t take this drive. I had a girl become faint just driving up in the car.

It might be 90 degrees in Denver and 40 on top. Bring warm clothing. The road has indeterminate dates to be open. The Department of Transportation opens the road in May, certainly by Memorial Day. Snows in October finally close it for the season. You might want to go early in the day. The road has become very popular with many cars and bikes.

I have often said that everyone should make a visit to the Grand Canyon once in their lifetime. Everyone who reads this should also make at least one ascent up Mount Evans. If you’ve been before, make another.