Geography in the News: Pike’s Peak

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and


The state of Colorado and relatives of Zebulon Montgomery Pike celebrated the 200th anniversary in 2006 of the historic expedition that put Pikes Peak on the map. Advertised as “America’s mountain,” Pikes Peak is an iconic equivalent to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Park’s El Capitan and Niagara Falls, according to an article in the Denver Post (July 16, 2006).


As summer vacations beckon travelers, many easterners journey by auto with their relatives and friends to view this country’s many natural sights. Pike’s Peak remains a treasured landmark 2007 years after its first recorded sighting by Zebulon Pike’s group of explorers in 1806, the same year that the Lewis and Clark expedition returned from the West Coast.

Pikes Peak is the best known of Colorado’s mountains, in part because it is the first mountain of the Rockies visible from the east. The mountain is located 65 miles (105 km) south of Denver and 18 miles (29 km) due west of Colorado Springs. Pikes Peak is the highest mountain in the Colorado Front Range, appearing magnificent as visitors approach it from the steppe grasslands of the Great Plains.

Pikes Peak is composed of granite, first formed more than 20 miles beneath the surface as hot molten rock (magma) then cooled. Uplift associated with the Rocky Mountain orogeny occurred about 65 million years ago. Glacial and water erosion since then finally exposed the resistant granite core of Pikes Peak, which today stands high above the surrounding terrain.

The top of the mountain’s snow-capped peak is 14,110 feet (4,301 m) above sea level, rising about 9,000 feet (2,743 m) above the Great Plains. Its slopes rise sharply from the plains with a pine and spruce forest up to a tree line at about 11,700 feet (3,566 m). Above the tree line, its steep and rugged slopes are treeless and barren.

Pike was a 27-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army when he visited the mountain in November 1806 and made an attempt to climb it. Because of inadequate supplies, Pike turned back before reaching the top. Fourteen years later, Maj. Stephen Harriman Long led a party to the top. Soon there followed legions of ordinary people who sought to climb Colorado’s best-known 14,000-foot mountain.

Because of its prominence and Lt. Pike’s attempt at climbing the mountain, early settlers and gold miners proclaimed “Pikes Peak or Bust,” as they searched for the first visual sign of the Rockies on their westward migrations. The Army located a signal corps weather station on the peak in the 1870s and the early meteorological data from this high elevation fascinated the general public, focusing additional interest on Pikes Peak.

In 1888, a carriage road to the summit was built. When Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” in the shadow of Pikes Peak in the 1890s, people became infatuated with her imagery and flocked to the mountain. They rode halfway up on wagons, then on mules and burros the rest of the way.

By the early 1900s, visitors could drive to the top of Pikes Peak on an auto road, described as an engineering marvel. The first July 4 Hill Climb (auto race) was covered by 650 newspapers in 1916, according to the Denver Post.

Pikes Peak is today is one of the country’s most visited mountains. Visitors continue to be infatuated by its geography, geology, biology and history. Two hundred and seven years after Pike tried to climb it, we continue to celebrate this gorgeous mountain named for the man who never made it to the top.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

This article was initially written as GITN 851 Pike’s Peak Celebration (Sept. 26. 2006) and rewritten for NatGeo’s News Watch blog. Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.

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Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..