Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Castle in the Sky: Colorado Road Trip Part 3

[Previously on the Thinkware Colorado Road Trip: I took a giant detour driving from Colorado Springs to Denver. It should've taken me about 2 and a half hours. I took 12.] 

After 2 days of exploration and (new-found) experience with extreme altitude, I felt considerably more prepared to drive up Mount Evans -- which cradles North America's highest paved road at 14,130 feet. Yes, it is higher than Pikes Peak.

I didn't do so well at Pikes Peak.

Before my trip to Mount Evans, I stocked up supplies in Denver to best prepare me for the drive up. I got snacks, plenty of water, and sunscreen (you are a lot easily sunburnt at 14,000 feet than at sea level, which is also one of the reasons why people get dehydrated easily, which leads to altitude sickness).

Interestingly, the local shops in Denver also offered pressurized oxygen canisters for an instant kick when you need it the most. I didn't think I needed it.

Alas, half way through my drive towards Mount Evans, I realized that I forgot one of my most important gear -- my trusty DSLR. So, most of the images on this blog will be pictures taken on my trusty iPhone 6.

So, off to the highest paved road in North America we go.

An hour and a half hour west of Denver is Mount Evans. The morning drive there was quick enough -- just head West on the I-70 and turn off the highway when you see the gigantic mountain on your left. Weirdly, there weren't a lot of signs advertising the mountain's presence.

Going off the highway, you take a left and drive on this small country road for about twenty minutes before you'd see the entrance to Mount Evans. Along the way, there were an assortment of pickup trucks with ATVs towed in the back. The side of the road also had a number of large country houses, many with a couple of 1960s and 1970s era pick ups parked out front, from old Chevys, GMCs, and even a Datsun.

This place is a bit of a hidden playground.

Half way up the mountain, it became evident that this is unlike any other mountain passes I've driven on for the past two days. It is hard to describe the feeling, but driving on Mount Evans is quite unique on its own right.

If Pikes Peak is America's rallying playground, then Mount Evans is kind of like its evil cousin. The road up Mount Evans is every bit as entertaining as the one on Pikes Peak, complete with all kinds of twists and turns. However, the road is just a little more narrow, just a little more bumpy, and all of these things add up to a much more scary experience.

Vast sections of the road did not come equipped with a guard rail, and yet the road is barely wide enough to fit two medium-sized sedans. This is also a two-way road, which means you will encounter traffic coming down the mountain. On occasions, I'd be approaching a blind corner not knowing that there is a full-sized SUV barreling down on the other direction.

Have I forgotten to mention that I was also driving a full-sized Ford Explorer?

Every now and then, you'd also see hikers resting on the side of the road. Except there is no "side of the road" -- it is basically the edge of the cliff they are sitting on, with raging two-way traffic going on behind them. Can't imagine that they'd find this experience particularly soothing.

Once on the top, you are also greeted by a herd of mountain goats. Yes, mountain goats. It seems like they are so accustomed to people that they were not too bothered by all the curious crowds. Traffic, understandably, grinds to a halt in their presence.

The view is just as advertised. Turns out, there used to be a restaurant and a gift shop here in the 1940s -- dubbed the "Castle in the Sky". However, a fire broke out in 1979 and the place has been partially destroyed ever since.

I found a parking spot in the overcrowded parking lot, and moved around slowly to avoid straining myself and trigger another full-blown episode of altitude sickness -- after all, if I get sick here, it will take easily 2-3 hours to drive back to my hotel in Denver, through the non-guardrailed mountain passes and the resting hikers. And the mountain goats.

This isn't too bad, I thought.

And then I looked to the left: stairs.

Yep. Turns out, the parking lot wasn't the peak of Mount Evans at all. The final 100 feet has to be hiked up on a series of stairs and slopes. I decided to soldier on -- I have come this far now, to turn back would be a crying shame.

I began the slow ascent.

Along the way were hundreds others, young and old. Some of them even brought along dogs too of all sizes. They were mostly happy, with a few exceptions of the young ones. Of course, there is no cell phone reception here.

After about 45 minutes, I made it to the peak, exhausted and slightly dizzy, but tremendously satisfied at what I just managed to achieve. I can officially tell people that I hiked up a 14,000-foot mountain (I'll gloss over the part where I drove up most of the way).

Here, the mood was celebratory. People posed for selfies, had lunch, and were generally enjoying the experience. And then a couple frat guys nearby decided that streaking and running around naked was a feat worth doing.

Most importantly, however, my preparation worked. Despite the hike, I was doing just fine.

I have managed to drive on the highest paved road in North America. This is not something that I'll get to experience very often.

After staying at the peak for about an hour, I made my way downhill and went back to the hotel.

In the span of three days, I have driven to Pikes Peak, the rallying playground I have known to love since childhood; been to Aspen and the Rockies, where the scenery can put places like Scotland and Italy to shame; and Mount Evans, where I can officially claim to have driven higher than everyone I know. Not bad for a short road trip.

Heck, at the end of the trip, I was glad to have the Ford Explorer -- it was the right vehicle for the job, despite my craving for something lighter and sportier. After all, I can't go off-roading in a Mazda Miata.

Coming back to Denver, I explored the city on foot and enjoyed the general quirkiness that is the city. Colorado is a charming place.

I definitely will be coming back.

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