Ascending Mount Evans by car - a story of my journey up the famous mountain on my quest to photograph the wild mountain goats.
The disjointed line of vehicles snaking their way up and down the narrow switchbacks of Mt. Evans was comforting in the respect that all drivers, at least on this day, were taking the journey slowly and carefully - however, meeting the unsuspected ghost mobile on the blind hairpin turns made my contained acrophobia swell and recede like an agitated Pandora’s box. Steeling my nerves was easy as we negotiated the inside turns - the outside lane, however, demanded more of my attention.
Living in Colorado for the past ten years, I had longed to drive the “Road to the Stars” to photograph the elusive mountain goats known to frequent the summit, but sadly my soul-mate and travel partner is resigned to the world below 12,000 feet due to altitude sensitivity. Flying solo for my first experience up the highest paved road in North America was unappealing, so I solicited the favor of a fellow photographer who has made the trip up scenic Highway 5 before.
The first part of the trip was a huge confidence builder - nothing more than traveling a lovely, two-lane road through forested areas up the big hill to Echo Lake. We stopped to have our lunch, cameras on the ready just in case a critter happened to wander by. Children laughed and played near the water’s edge as iridescent dragonflies buzzed our sandwiches. Having completed of the first leg of our journey, we rolled onward and upward towards the blue sky.
I had ultimate faith in my driver/friend, Eivor. After all, she had made this trip in her trusty Subaru numerous times before - but as the road narrowed and we ascended, only on occasion would I allow my eyes to wander past the chalky artwork embedded on the dusty, old, blue van just ahead. Keeping up a good amount of chatter, Eivor drove confidently and talked about the wildlife we hoped to see… marmots, pikas, Rocky Mountain sheep, elk, ptarmigan and our primary quest, the mountain goats…while I performed my duties as shotgun driver, gauging the inches between road and drop-off. Answering her questions demanded multitasking - something my brain was having difficulty with given the altitude and my preoccupation with the scenery below our tires. Examining my lackluster responses, I concluded that maybe I wasn’t as brave as I had promised Eivor, but that was information I withheld in case she dared not take me with her on future excursions. As a distraction, I frequently consulted my GPS, calling out the numbers to gauge our progress but secretly confirming exactly how far at this point we would plunge if an oncoming car hogged the asphalt trail. Bikers and hikers alike were ahead, then behind us as we passed. “Good for them!” I mumbled to myself from the safety of our car. I couldn’t imagine hiking or biking up the side of a mountain with this altitude!
Each time we turned, I thought that surely we had reached the top, but yet another stretch of highway lay before us as we crept along. The road teased us with its masquerade, but to my relief, not every hairpin turn bespoke a fall to eternity. As we neared the summit, the asphalt became a mere black strip through inordinate amounts of rock and shale, but thankfully, our ascent was almost over.
After a forty-minute drive from Echo Lake, which felt like an hour or more, we reached the summit and to my surprise - a large, paved parking lot existed at the top of this fourteener, and it was full! Here at the top of the world were lots of cars, people and restrooms plus the ruins of what used to be a restaurant back in the day. “Holy cow!” I thought. The engineering feats of us humans never cease to amaze me. We conveniently slipped into an almost obscure parking space, used the very clean restrooms, chatted with the park rangers for a moment, then set off on foot to look for the pikas that make their home near the parking area. Not finding any of the cute little creatures, we returned to the car to retrieve a layer of warmer clothing. Even though it was a bright, sunny day in late June, the wind was chilly at the top. Eivor pointed out a line of people hiking through the shale up to a slightly higher point of view above the parking lot, but I declined her invitation to participate. The vistas at this altitude were magnificent - I didn’t need to go any higher to appreciate the snowcapped peaks and sparkling blue mountain lakes below.
Not seeing any large animals at the summit, we hopped back in the car and began our descent. Just a short way down we spotted some marmots and pulled over onto a generous turnout. They sounded their alarms to one another as we quietly moved into their territory, but once we staked out our position and became still, they popped up everywhere, going about their daily business of grazing, sunning and comically reprimanding one another. One handsome guy posed on a rocky precipice with the valley far below. Too cute for words, we watched them until our fingers were too numb to work the cameras. As we returned to the car again, this time for hat and gloves, we spotted our quest just over the hill - a herd of big, white, mountain goats with babies! Within hiking distance, we were soon close enough to photograph. Our shutters clicked away as they grazed among the wildflowers ignoring our presence. We moved with them but stayed far enough away to avoid confrontation. Because these animals are quite tolerant of humans, it is easy to forget that they are wild however, the razor-sharp horns that glinted in the sun convinced us not to tempt fate. The goats moved about effortlessly, but we were not so quite nimble in our attempt to remain incognito. Did I really see, or did I just imagine a look of disdain on the older nanny’s face as we stumbled around? The effects of the altitude could not be ignored when we became easily winded and fatigued as we climbed up and down the large rocks.
As the daylight began to wane and the temperature started to drop, we retreated back to the car and continued our descent down the mountain. Just one switchback down a priceless opportunity appeared - 4 baby kids with a Nanny drinking from a small mountain pool. Tired but excited, we pulled over, collected our cameras, and once more hiked out towards the group. These babies were much more active at play than the ones we photographed earlier. We laughed at their antics - bounding jumps, leaps, and rookie attempts at rock climbing. Never still for more than a few seconds, they were a challenge to photograph.
Finally, we bid the goats good-bye and started down the mountain once more. By this time, the snaking line of cars had disappeared and only the occasional vehicle appeared out of nowhere making their ascent. Eivor and I relived the highlights of our afternoon as she piloted us towards the base. Maybe it was because of the natural endorphins I had accumulated during the wildlife encounters of the day or maybe my apprehension of this mountain was conquered, but whatever the reason, the pleasant trip down the mountain was over in a flash. As the day faded into pink and orange hues, I knew that the blue sky over Mt. Evans would never bother me again.
Twin kids resting while mama grazes.
If You Go
The peak of Mount Evans, one of Colorado's massive fourteeners, stands proudly at 14,265 feet. The road up to the top is the highest paved road in North America. Such an elevation brings an abundance of snow and ice therefore the road to the summit is open only in summer - usually from Memorial Day through Labor Day. If you have a question regarding the road conditions and whether it is open, you can contact the Idaho Springs Visitors Center at 303-567-4832 or check-in with the Colorado Department of Transportation or Google the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Mount Evans.
The weather can change quickly and abruptly so be prepared with multiple layers of clothing even if it's warm and sunny down at the base. Be safe, enjoy the ride, and take in all that the mountain has to offer.
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