I get this question often: How tall is Pikes Peak? But what is the right answer? The height of the mountain has has shrunk since Pike thought it was 18,000 feet high. Well not really, but the measurements given over the years have gotten lower. So let us take some time to look at this.
Basic geometry says if you know the height of two objects, and the distances apart, you can figure the height of the third. As surveyors got further and further from their starting points, any errors just grew. Back in the 1880s they thought it was about 14,200 feet. It was a short time later defined as 14,147 feet. The United States Geological Society gave it a height of 14,109 in 1913. The running joke in Colorado Springs became, “It is because all those tourists took rocks home with them.” Actually, it was just more accurate measuring. One newspaper story blamed the shoe leather wear from the many tourists who rode on the cog railway. It was suggested that perhaps the railway ought to haul a few thousand loads of replacement rocks. The railway has never had freight cars, so just how they would get the rocks up there was a puzzle.
As it so happens, every year they haul a lot of rocks and gravel up to the top. They fill in holes caused by erosion from melting snow and rain by hauling up rock from lower on the mountain. The mountain would certainly have taken on a strange look if they had tried to get it back up to 14,147. It would have pointed the flat top.
In the 1940s the measurement was raised to 14,110 feet. The joke then was that they had hauled up some rocks to even it out. A few years ago 14,115 feet was announced, using GPS measurements. A few signs, and trinkets now display the mountain’s “new” altitude, but signs up top, where all the tourists stand, still say 14,110 feet.
That brings up another question. I have seen several locations for the actual Pikes Peak summit. Over the years there must have been a couple dozen spots identified as the true summit. Some were signs, and a couple were structures made of stones. I know a couple of these were destroyed when spring snow was plowed out of the parking lot. There is a USGS medallion in the rocks not far from the site of the old highway summit house. Oh yes, there have been several different summit houses. From 1916 until about 1960 there were two, one for the highway, one for the railway. After fires the summit houses were combined into one structure, which is now being replaced.
America’s Mountain may be taller now with all the construction. Digging the hole for the new Pikes Peak Summit House, they had to put the rock somewhere. They are starting to fill in the hole a bit, but the summit has been changing with this building project.
E.M. “Mel” McFarland is an artist, historian and railroad enthusiast. He is a Pikes Peak region native and has written a handful of books and guides highlighting the area’s rich history. Contact Mel at email@example.com.