The weather forecast in Denver calls for a couple of very hot days and ideas start circulating about where to go to escape the heat for a cool and enjoyable day trip with the family. Less than a two hour drive away is the summit of Mount Evans where not only is there an escape from the hot temperatures but an adventure of being able to watch a group of mountain goats up close and personal, plus some of the best mountain vistas available close to town.
Not only does the drive go to the top of this 14,000-foot peak, where temperatures will be 20 to 30 degrees cooler than in the Denver metro area, it leads to a group of mountain goats that call the mountain home and can be found on just about every visit to the top of Mount Evans. The 15-mile road to the summit is the highest paved road in North America and offers some breath-taking views almost the entire drive up from its start at Echo Lake, a popular spot to do a little fishing as it is stocked each year with trout.
With between 90 and 100 mountain goats in the Mount Evans region, spotting them is typically not a problem. In fact, they are so used to people there are several spots where all that is needed is to step out of the car and they will come and walk right around and through the people in the area without any cares at all. While the goats and other animals on Mount Evans may seem tame, they are wild animals and should not be touched or fed, as there have been instances of people being bitten, charged, or kicked.
To make the most of a day visit up Mount Evans first stop at Summit Lake, 10 miles up the road from the base of the mountain at Echo Lake Lodge. Goats and other animals can be found around this area as well as a variety of mountain wildflowers. Of the more than 60 wildflower species found in the area the most common include alpine clover, spring beauty, penstemon, king’s crown, and stonecrop. On occasion a few columbine and mariposa lily might be found as well as paintbrush at the lower elevations on the mountain.
Short treks lead to some magnificent views of Summit Lake and the surrounding wall of mountain ridges and a quarter-mile walk from the parking lot leads to an overview of the Chicago Lakes Basin area. This is a must see spot as the view down the valley offers a glimpse of a series of lakes from this high elevation to the basin below. If not accustomed to the high altitude, walk slowly as the lack of oxygen will literally take your breath away. Also drink plenty of water throughout the day while on the mountain to stay hydrated and to ward off altitude sickness if prone to this.
Besides the mountain goats, other wildlife found on Mount Evans include bighorn sheep (usually ewes and young), marmot, pika, elk, mule deer and a variety of birds with the most popular to spot being ptarmigan.
The main attraction on Mount Evans, though, are the mountain goats and in particular the babies. They are born in late May and early June around the time the road to the top opens. Once they are several weeks old, multiple family groups will gather together and the young will romp around and play with each other putting on a wonderful show. It’s not uncommon to see up to 10 babies in an area at times playing with each other.
Some of their favorite antics include climbing on top of each other as if playing king of the hill and jumping from rock to rock. Even at this young age they are pushing each other around to show dominance for when they become adults and prepare for mating season. Special moments occur when a mother and baby approach each other where they might do a nose touch as a sign of affection or the baby climbs all over its mother.
Some of the more popular spots the goats like to congregate are at a couple of ponds near mile marker 13 and at the several switchbacks between these ponds and the top. The summit parking area is a great place to stop and look for them. The mountain goats show up here at least once during the day and on some days they can be found here all day.
From the top of the mountain, views of numerous other peaks of 14,000 feet elevation are visible. The most prominent are Mount Bierstadt just to the west, Pike’s Peak to the south and Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park to the north. Beautiful mountain views surround you from the top and no matter which direction you face, there’s a magnificent view. Interpretive signs provide the names of quite a few peaks that can be spotted from the summit.
Many people go home disappointed from a trip to the top of Mount Evans and say they didn’t see any mountain goats. Just because there are quite a few in the area, there are times they aren’t right next to the road. Making the drive from the top down to Summit Lake and back up several times will enhance the possibility of seeing them. Patience is a key to spotting wildlife and knowing they could be around a rock outcropping that isn’t easily accessible means waiting a little bit for them to show up and the entertainment of the young ones playing with each other is soon to begin.
They typically take a rest in the middle of the day so if they are just laying around when first spotted, wait a little while and the young will get up and active at some point.
On the drive down from the summit, a good stop is at the Mount Goliath Natural Area, home to a 1,700 year old bristlecone pine forest. These trees are some of the oldest in the country and have some very unique character as they have been shaped by strong winds for centuries and have a very distinct and interesting bark. There is a self-guided interpretive walk through a small portion of the area that explains some of the details of the trees and other plants found here.
There is a $10 fee per car to take the road to the top but holders of a National Parks pass can enter for free. If arriving before the entrance station is occupied, leave the pass visible on the dash when parking and leaving the vehicle. If you do not leave the care at any time you do not have to pay the fee but it’s very rare to make this drive and not leave the car.
Access to the summit is only available from Memorial Day through Labor Day with the road to Summit Lake, located five miles below the summit sometimes open through September based on the weather conditions. Once the snows start accumulating the road is closed for the winter, as there is no maintenance on the road at this time of year.
Regarding weather, always be prepared for either a thunderstorm or possibly even a snow shower while at the top as well as cool and even cold temperatures in the mornings. Even in July and August early morning temperatures can dip into the 30s or 20s at this elevation. Taking along a warm coat, gloves and cap is always recommended for a trip to the summit, especially if going very early in the morning.
To reach Mount Evans from the Denver area there are two routes that can be taken. One is to venture west on I-70 to the Evergreen Parkway exit (252) towards the town of Evergreen. Turn right at Squaw Pass Road, Colorado Hwy. 103, and go west until you reach Echo Lake. Turn left at start winding your way up the 15-mile road to the summit. Another way to reach Echo Lake where the road climbs to the top is to go west on I-70 to the town of Idaho Springs and take exit 240, which is the other end of Colorado Hwy. 103, and go south 15 miles until you reach the entrance at Echo Lake Lodge, a visitor center and restaurant known for its great homemade cinnamon buns and other specialty items.