Updated: July 8, 2013 at 9:38 am
Climbing Pikes Peak is sublime. Whether by road or trail or train, the way clambers up and up through ancient forests until the pines break on a wind-driven tundra. Still the climb goes on, above the clouds, along the jagged crests of billion-year-old granite, past trotting herds of bighorn sheep, through gardens of tiny alpine flowers as tough as time.
It is the jewel of our region.
Then you get to the summit. And it's ... crappy.
Literally. A persistent sewer leak in the 1970s melted the permafrost, causing the summit house to slowly sink into the ground. It's now held up by jacks. The summit's observation deck - a popular spot for weddings - is also the roof of the septic system, and as one city report, noted, putting it mildly, "can often have an obnoxious odor."
Most of the mountaintop is dominated by a parking lot. On good days the prime parking spot is occupied by a garbage truck. On bad days, there is also a sewage truck.
The summit house, a squat, plain structure built in 1964 - not a high point in American architecture - has almost no windows despite its 360-degree views. The ceilings leak. The foundation is failing. It is so structurally suspect that in the past it has been condemned.
"It looks like a cross between the single nastiest roadside gift shop you can imagine and the Fuhrer's bunker," said John Hazlehurst, a former City Council member who has pushed for decades for improvements. "Pikes Peak is America's mountain but we treat it like America's junkyard."
Scattered around the summit are even uglier metal structures erected by the Army and Colorado Springs Utilities that prompted one visitor on Yelp.com, echoing many, to post, "The view of natural splendor at the top is spoiled by crappy buildings that to me made the top look like the back alley of a strip mall. Whose great idea was that?"
The city of Colorado Springs, which owns the summit house, and the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the land, have planned for decades to clean up the summit, but lack of money, lawsuits and competing community priorities killed all efforts.
As the city stalled, the average annual number of visits to the peak declined 34,000 in the past decade, compared with the 1990s.
Now, 20 years after the start of the last serious attempt, the city says it is finally poised to give the summit an extreme makeover.
In coming years, the city will have money to put toward rehabbing the summit. Additional money could come from the Army, Utilities and the state tourist funds. And, officials say, all the involved parties are beginning to plan.
"Everyone agrees it needs to be done. The summit experience certainly could be more pleasant," said Jack Glavan, manager of the Pikes Peak Highway, a city enterprise that owns the summit house. "We're hoping the timing with funding and everything else is finally right."
A commercial fourteener
A building of one kind or another has stood atop Pikes Peak since 1873 when the Army built a two-room stone weather station to record wind and temperature data.
In 1882, as more tourists began making the trek by foot and mule, the Army added to the building to make room for visitors. A portion of one wall still stands today by the septic tanks.
The Army abandoned its weather station in 1888. It was taken over by the mayor of Manitou Springs, who started selling doughnuts and coffee to tourists.
The construction of the Pikes Peak and Manitou Cog Railway in 1891, and the steady stream of visitors it brought, ensured the peak would have a doughnut shop for generations to come.
It was somewhere not too far from this doughnut shop in 1893 that Katharine Lee Bates looked out from the summit over purple mountains and fruited plains and was inspired to later write "America the Beautiful." Whether she consumed a doughnut is lost to history.
In 1900, the summit house expanded to include a two-story observation post tourists could climb for 25 cents. In 1917, a second summit house was built on the western side of the summit to serve the growing number of tourists coming up the newly improved auto road. The building was destroyed by fire in 1953 when its boiler exploded, leaving only the original summit house, which kept on churning out doughnuts until it was demolished in 1964 to make way for the current building, completed for $500,000.
Peak or pit?
The inspiration Bates encountered on Pikes Peak more than a century ago is hard to find today.
The summit house is stuffed with foreign-made trinkets and crude-humored T-shirts and junk food, but has almost no displays highlighting the peak's history and ecology. There are no tourist-friendly trails to the best-view points. Families shuffle around in mud and slippery gravel, past dirty hoses and a dilapidated shack with a sign that says, "caution open pit."
There is little trash on the summit, but only because persistent winds blow it down into the talus below where it lasts for decades.
"You look at all that and just want to cry. How can we do this? How can we sit back and let this happen" said Hazlehurst.
The summit has been a problem for quite some time.
Recognizing the shortcomings, the city decided to redesign the top in 1995, adding trails, overlooks, redesigning the parking lot and tearing down the failing summit house.
A local architect hired by the city designed a grand 35,000-square-foot structure in the style of an Aspen ski lodge, complete with covered train parking and a cupola peeking from the top. The upper floor would be lined with windows and educational exhibits. The ground floor would be a restaurant and gift shop tied together by an ostentatious entryway.
"It was really overdue. So many people visiting the peak see it as a disappointment," said former County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, who, with Hazlehurst, has pushed the city to revive the project.
As the project went forward, things started to fall apart. To find the estimated $10 million for the job, the city hired a fundraising consultant for $100,000. She was able to find only $2,000, according to a Gazette article from 1998.
The cost estimates soared to $40 million, even as features such as the cupola were whittled off. Still, the city pushed ahead, planning to fund the project with revenue from the Pikes Peak Highway.
Then, in 1999, the Sierra Club sued the city, claiming gravel sluicing off the highway was mucking up the local streams and violating the Clean Water Act. A federal judge agreed and ordered the city to pave the road - a project that would cost millions and take a decade to complete. "It also effectively killed any talk of the summit house - there was simply no money left," said Jeff Hovermale, who worked on the permits for the project for the U.S. Forest Service.
Now things are looking up. The paving is done. The $15 million project was completed in 2011.
With paving done, the highway can devote $500,000 to $800,000 per year toward building the summit house, according to the city.
Bensberg and Hazlehurst gave a detailed proposal on the summit to the city in November.
"We have picked up where they left off and have begun the planning for a new facility," said city parks director Karen Palus.
Mayor Steve Bach is "very supportive of this project," she said.
The renewed interest in the summit comes at a perfect time, said Glavan, the Pikes Peak Highway director. Colorado Springs Utilities and the Army plan to replace their buildings on the summit, and the Forest Service is encouraging them to merge the three into one building and share the cost, he said,
Utilities is not opposed to the concept so long as the move makes sense, said spokesman Steve Berry.
In the next six months, Glavin said, he hopes a task force of the stakeholders, which include the city, Utilities, the cog railway, the Forest Service, the Army and the National Park Service (because the summit is a national landmark) and others, will start meeting, then permits can be granted by the Forest Service and a public process can begin to redesign the summit.
If all goes well, construction could start in four years, Glavin said.
Don't expect an Aspen ski lodge this time.
"I think we'll be looking at something a little smaller that blends with the environment and is more sustainable," Glavin said. "In the process we can clean up the summit, make it more presentable."
The city still has about $1 million for design and construction left over from a federal earmark in the 1990s, and can apply for additional money from state tourism programs, he said.
The project will include adding trails, redesigning parking, and dealing with the sewer smell, Glavan said.
"Its been a long time, but the stars may finally have aligned," said Hazlehurst. He said decades of delay may ultimately be a blessing because the intervening years have brought an increased use of sustainable design.
"I would hope if they do redo the summit, they throw the design contest open to the world and get something really special," he said.
"Not showy, but something that seems to have the permanence of the mountain itself."
Contact Dave Philipps