Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain is a beloved landmark and tourist destination for people locally and from around the world, even inspiring Katherine Lee Bates to pen America the Beautiful after experiencing its panoramic vistas. At 14,115’ the summit’s harsh and high-altitude conditions deteriorated the facilities to the point where the team was tasked with reenvisioning the entire summit complex to be a sustainable, well-functioning campus that hosts more than half a million annual visitors, scientific research facilities, and large events throughout the summer. The final design meets the built environment’s most rigorous performance standard, the Living Building Challenge, that mimics nature’s model: cleanly, beautifully and efficiently – the first of its kind at this elevation. The subalpine-alpine region provides critical habitat for wildlife and birds and necessitated delicate solutions to protect and restore the ecosystem that takes decades to establish and thrive. Ultimately, the planning and site design balanced these many goals to guide and disperse crowds of multimodal arrivals and provide singular visitation experiences that honor the historical and tribal stories of its grandeur.
Purpose and Approach
HERE WE FOUND THE SNOW MIDDLE DEEP; NO SIGN OF BEAST OR BIRD INHABITING THIS REGION … THE SUMMIT OF THE GRAND PEAK – Zebulon Pike
The new Pikes Peak Summit Complex replaces and consolidates scientific and communication facilities, and a deteriorated visitor center and surrounding structures. The new one-story, non-building is nestled in the southwest corner of the site and an understated entry rises above grade to greet visitors, opening up the rest of the summit for exploration to take in the expansive and pristine views: a once in a lifetime experience.
Located in the San Isabel and Pike National Forest, it is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Pikes Peak Tourism Historic District. It can be reached by the Pikes Peak Highway, Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway and by foot via the Barr or Crags trails. The overall design intent was to preserve its raw, undeveloped state, just as Zebulon Pike observed from Mount Rosa, and as the Native Americans before him experienced over 200 years ago. The plan addresses a much-needed reorganization of the existing site elements and utilities as well as the flow of arriving visitors. It provides accessibility on this fourteen-thousand-foot mountain peak, while incorporating sustainable practices to the maximum extent possible.
As one of the most complicated design endeavors ever attempted at such an altitude, the design team for the project had many players and moving parts. The Landscape Architect worked collaboratively over seven years to:
- Create the overall site plan and all ecological aspects of the restoration efforts
- Site the building and complete overall grading and finished floor elevations
- Conduct a visual impact assessment of how the landscape blends building and site
- Assessment of durable and contextually appropriate materials
- Provide illustrative and plan view graphics, renderings, and 3D models
- Coordinate weekly with multiple stakeholders, including Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, Colorado Springs, The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Colorado Springs Utilities, USACE, US Forest Service, and numerous local and regional agencies
- Present and develop materials for the public engagement process
- Maintain diligent monitoring of construction administration during the short, weather impacted seasons
The site team worked collaboratively with the architect, engineers, and contractors to achieve a one-of-a-kind complex that balances visitor experience and environmental sensitivity with functionality of a multipurpose campus at fourteen thousand feet.
The one-story summit house is set into the hillside, naturally blending into the surrounding landscape with the pavilion’s roof terraces functioning as extensions of the surrounding tundra. The layout brings visitors closer to the peak’s southern perimeter to experience the vistas that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to pen “America the Beautiful”. The roof terrace’s north extension offers an elevated view of the original 1873 Summit House ruins against the backdrop of Colorado Springs below, and provides a clear building entrance for those arriving by cog railway train.
The site program provides for a complete visitor summit experience while restoring previously disturbed areas back to boulder fields and alpine tundra. The summit and summit house provide anchors on the site and interpretive pedestrian walks connects each space, while preserving/restoring tundra areas and also highlighting historic cultural resources.
Working at 14,115’: Permafrost and Alpine Tundra
The summit of Pikes Peak is located within the subalpine-alpine region, where vegetation is sparse and restricted to patches between boulders or individual plants beneath rock edges. To protect the fragile vegetation at the peak, the design incorporated a durable, maintenance-free PermaTrak boardwalk system. Despite its barren appearance and harsh climatic conditions, the mountain provides critical habitat for a wide range of mammals including elk, bobcats, black bears, bighorn sheep, pikas, and marmots. It is also home to several species of birds, including the rock ptarmigan and American pipit, which nest on the ground in sheltered spots atop the summit.
Working at this elevation, our design solutions inherently needed to account for temperature, weather, slope, terrain, soil conditions, and mitigation strategies to avoid impacts to sensitive environments. With such a short construction season, the documentation and administration needed to be highly organized and – at the same time flexible based on the weather and conditions at the peak. High winds, thunderstorms, and other issues meant that time was a design factor when considering any site visits, from initial assessments to final ribbon cutting.
Telling the Story
The landscape architect coordinated closely with an interpretive designer because signage and site design needed to complement one another throughout. Upon arrival, visitors embark on an interpretive walking loop that encircles the peak, provides space for group/ranger talks, and also connects to the new Summit House. Graphic rails and pylons mark and interpret beautiful viewsheds, historic sites, and key focal points. The site plan accommodates exhibits on measuring the elevation of the peak, early tourism and the cog rail history, views that inspired America the Beautiful, the watershed line, and importance of environmental stewardship. Around the summit, interpretive rails also identify stories of the International Hill Climb, and overlooks of Victor and Cripple Creek.
Multimodal Visitor Experience and Events
It was a design challenge to create a multimodal experience that embraced arrival by vehicle, foot, or train. Vehicular circulation was improved with intuitive two-way linear loops and parking was reorganized to maximize areas of previous disturbance and allow adjacent areas to be restored. Annual international high-volume events were also important considerations to plan for large gatherings of people and vehicles. Separate lots now reduce the need for year-round plowing on the whole summit, and better distribute personal and staff vehicles and shuttle buses.
Environmental Sensitivity and Sustainability
Early in the project, a goal was established to meet the built environment’s most rigorous performance standard, the Living Building Challenge, which recognizes projects that mimic nature’s architecture: cleanly, beautifully and efficiently. The Challenge projects must achieve a series of ambitious performance requirements over a minimum of 12 months of continuous occupancy, focusing on seven key performance areas: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty. As one of Colorado’s first projects participating in the Challenge, Pikes Peak Summit Complex would be the first building at 14,000 feet in altitude. Site elements were critical to achieving the goal, including restorative measures, the reuse of blasted materials extracted from the site, construction waste management, sustainably harvested wood, regional materials, and the lifecycle or durability of materials. One of the most important aspects is durability in order to decrease the lifecycle cost of the building, but also withstand the harsh weather at the summit and the high volume of visitors. The pallet of the materials is simple, selected and carefully analyzed for location, contents, life cycle/durability, and Carbon Footprint.
Significance: Describe the effect and/or value to the general public and the profession
Pikes Peak has been recognized as significant landmark across generations and cultures. It has served as a sacred site for Native American tribes; a beacon to gold seekers traveling westward; an important weather station; and it continues to be one of the City’s primary tourist attractions today. In order to create an exceptional visitor experience that respects the place the peak holds in our cultural and ecological memory, the design carefully considered and balanced a multitude of goals from accessibility and multimodal circulation to ecological impacts and educational value.
There were very few precedent projects for this endeavor because of the ambitious nature of redeveloping the entire complex within the high alpine tundra and permafrost. Pikes Peak sees over half a million visitors annually and the team’s ultimate goal was to balance minimizing the footprint of the facilities with the need to accommodate a high degree of tourists and visitors. The design literally and figuratively elevates people above the fragile ecosystem and celebrates the views that make the journey so inspiring.
- Alpine Bluebells
- Alpine Clover
- Alpine Lewisia
- Alpine Mountain Sorrel
- Alpine Primrose
- Alpine Sagebrush
- American Bistort
- Arctic Bluegrass
- Bellardi Bog Sedge
- Big-Rooted Springbeauty
- Curly Sedge
- Dryspike Sedge
- Dwarf Clover
- Ebony Sedge
- Featherleaf Fleabane
- Front Range Alumroot
- Goldbloom Saxifrage
- Gooseberry Currant
- Hall’s Beardtongue
- James’s Telesonix
- Ledge Stonecrop, King’s Crown
- Moss Campion
- Mountain Avens
- Rocky Mountain Alpine Parsley
- Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine
- Ross’s Avens
- Silky Phacelia
- Snow Willow
- Spearleaf Stonecrop
- Spike Trisetum
- Stemless Four-Nerve Daisy
- Sticky Polemonium, Sky Pilot, Skunkweed
- Sweetflower Rockjasmine
- Tuft Hairgrass
- Twinflower Sandwort
- Whipple’s Penstemon
Documents and Media
Planning Docs (if applicable):