By Bill Plock
Ok. Mt Evans wins as the best climb (not the hardest) in Colorado but not only for the one big reason you might think. Yes, thanks to Covid and not allowing cars vastly improves the experience, but there are some other factors why I believe Mt. Evans tops Pikes Peak for the top 14er climb. But it’s like choosing chocolate–there is no bad choice.
When Bicycling Magazine put Mt. Evans at the top of the list of the 30 toughest climbs in the world (article here) I scoffed. Pikes Peak is much harder in my opinion and so are a handful of others I have done like Guanella Pass, Kebbler Pass, Trailridge Road (from Estes), Mt. Gibraltar (CA) and many others. But overall I would say Mt. Evans is the most enjoyable, for now at least, in Colorado.
After riding Mt. Evans yesterday, I think its a better and more enjoyable ride for several reasons beyond the lack of traffic. It can accommodate a wider variety of people because of its easy access, relatively mild road grade and it is free (Pikes Peak charges $15, not a big deal but don’t forget your money). There are several ways people ride Mt. Evans. You can drive to Echo Lake and ride the 15 mile, 3,500 foot climb. Many people start in Idaho Springs (the route of the famous Bob Cook Memorial race) which adds 13 miles and 3,600 feet of climbing. Also, many start in Bergen Park (just outside of Evergreen) and climb Squaw Pass with a slight descent to Echo Lake adding 16 miles and 3,800 feet of climbing. So there are many options and meeting points which offers a wider range of experiences.
Thanks to Covid and no cars it’s QUIET. It is serene. With the entire road to yourself it relaxing and peaceful and it feels like you are getting away with something riding it so alone. It took me a while to quit looking back for cars. When I did I felt like I was immersed in nature with big views, marmots and goats and the only noise I heard was the clicks of a free wheel going down the road and lots of joyful conversations and deep breaths heading up.
With NO CARS (did I say that already), you can choose your line, avoid things, and you don’t need to hug the white with a small bit of dirt between you and a thousand foot drop. You can look around. Sure maybe the road is rougher but I felt more relaxed overall. More at peace and able to enjoy nature and the beautiful Colorado mountains!
Mt. Evans is a very linear and a relatively gentle climb, making it more doable for people maybe not used to high alpine climbs. It’s rarely steeper than 4.5% with the altitude really the biggest challenge. This is unlike the steeper Pikes Peak that averages over 6% with places over 10%. But the road is much smoother on Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans’ roughness can be a deterrent.
For a decade or so I have refused to ride Mt. Evans with its rough descent. I rode it once a long time ago and that was enough. As beautiful as it is, I just hated getting beat up by the road and its expansion cracks and heaved pavement due to harsh freeze and thaw conditions that in places twist pavement like taffy. And with cars and cracks it left little room for error.
For whatever reason, Pikes Peak’s road doesn’t have these ruts and rough parts. Even though Pikes is a steeper and harder climb, the smooth descent always attracted me. Both peaks offer spectacular views and Pikes Peak does have a visitor center with donuts so there is always that. But therein lies the biggest difference, especially now. The amount of people on Pikes Peak—it’s a bit of a circus. And even when Mt. Evans allowed cars, there are generally more people on Pikes Peak with its access to more recreation. When the train ran, it would get very busy on top.
Pikes Peak can feel busy and crowded. The traffic, especially once you get beyond the lower ranger station doesn’t really feel dangerous as most folks are going slow and often cheer you on, but there can be a lot of traffic. It can makes some of the sharp turns harder and it takes away from nature and feeling of space. There are also a lot of bike tour outfitters that drop people off so they can ride downhill only. This is problematic in that those vans follow the riders and if there is a slow one, traffic gets backed up quite a bit.
So descending can be hit and miss due to traffic interrupting that free feeling of the smooth pavement and cold air as you swoosh down the mountain. And you can feel boxed in and not as safe as you might like. Therein lies the huge advantage of Mt. Evans this year.
I chose to ride my gravel bike with 40mm tires to help absorb some of the cracks but most people were on road bikes. I like the gravel bike option as I didn’t really care how fast I climbed and maintained a nice steady pace. The couple of extra minutes it took to climb, for me, were worth the more comfortable descent.
The Echo Lake Lodge had a food truck in the parking lot and there is camping nearby to make a night of it.