The first time I heard about Lookout Mountain, the first thing I thought of was teenagers making out in their cars half an hour after sunset. It just seemed like the kind of place a crazy new high school couple, with access to a vehicle along with the freedom that comes with it for the first time in their lives, would go. It is that perfect middle ground for high schoolers starved for both attention and alone time. They are far enough out of the “public eye” (i.e. social circle) to not feel too awkward, but not far enough out of the “public eye” to not get the recognition they crave.
To some, the fact that I automatically defaulted to this thought process is a demonstration of a disturbing level of immaturity. But, I am strangely comforted by the fact that my mind occasionally defaults to such ideas and pursuits. One of my goals as I get older is to never lose that youthful sense of wonder that makes everything seem so significant and magical early on in life. Sure, if I were still trying to take high school girls “up to Lookout” at this age, it would be quite pathetic! However, I take significant pride in the ability to still see places like this and imagine it’s possibilities from a perspective that is quite youthful, while still approaching it with the wisdom and maturity that I have gained over the years by being an astute observer of the world, humans, and human nature.
So, although my first thought of this mountain was one of 16 year olds making out in cars and possibly allowing themselves to go further, I came to understand it’s cultural significance to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains when it became the first major mountain I climbed on my bicycle after moving here from Illinois. In a way, Lookout Mountain welcomes people like me to the world of cycling in the Rockies the same way I imagine it welcoming those 16 year olds to “adulthood”.
As the stormy weather that plagued Colorado the week leading up to Memorial Day came to a close, I decided to pursue this mountain in another unique manner. I decided that on Monday, I would hike up the Mountain, using the Chimney Gulch and Lookout Mountain trails. Then, on Tuesday, I would ride my bike up Lookout Mountain Road.
Regardless of whether one decides to pursue this mountain on foot or by bicycle, it begins at a (relatively) light to moderate level of difficulty. The trail heads up a gentile slope that would be considered “moderate” in terms of hiking. The bike ride is up a slope that most with little or no climbing experience would consider quite difficult, but it is a bit over a mile into the ride before the climb picks up.
While the bike ride does offer some amazing views, and I would argue better views of the Denver skyline, about a mile into the hike, some waterfalls form at this time of year, when rains are significant, giving me a whole new perspective of Lookout Mountain.
It is at this point cyclists will encounter their first major set of switchbacks (along with some steeper terrain). The hiking part also picks up in intensity.
Just after the halfway point comes a somewhat easier part of the climb. It is at this point the road somewhat flattens out for cyclists, and most can shift up a gear or two and pick up a few miles per hour in speed.
Roughly 2/3 of the way up the mountain, the hiking trail meets up with Lookout Mountain road for the second and final time, at a place called Windy Saddle Park (near Windy Saddle Peak).
Windy Saddle Park offers a great view of the Clear Creek Valley to the West. The photo to the left was actually taken back in April on a previous bicycle trip up Lookout Mountain, while the one on the right was taken on Memorial Day. Colorado is typically a very dry state, with a very brown or red look (depending where you are). However, the week preceding Memorial Day was quite wet, with daily thunderstorms, and even four consecutive days of hail. These photos, taken from the same place, demonstrate how different Colorado can look during different seasons and weather patterns.
After Windy Saddle Park comes the most challenging part of the trip, regardless of whether one is hiking or cycling. Cyclists will encounter a series of switchbacks with a higher grade and frequency than the switchbacks in the earlier part of the climb. When I continued on the hiking trail, I had anticipated the same increase in intensity. What surprised me was the sudden change in tree density. It felt as if we had suddenly left the wide open and entered a forest.
There are two trail junctions in this more challenging (although still not “14er” level) part of the trail. First, the Beaver Brook Trail, which is a longer trail that winds through the rest of Jefferson County, breaks off to the right. Luckily, these trail junctions are clearly marked so nobody spends hours wandering around wondering when they will finally get to the top. The second junction is with the Buffalo Bill Trail, which goes to the part of the mountain where Buffalo Bill’s grave is.
Lookout Mountain is not a single peak. It is more of a mound. One one end of the mound is the tower most commonly associated with Lookout Mountain. On this other end is Buffalo Bill’s Grave. Buffalo Bill’s Grave is a great destination point for cyclists. There is a gift shop at the top offers water for free, nice bathrooms, and great snacks. Being pretty much at the same elevation as the other side of Lookout Mountain, one can stop and turn around without feeling like they cheated themselves out of part of the climb.
While (excluding driving) there are two ways up the mountain, there are three ways down. One other thing I discovered about Lookout Mountain is that it is a popular place for hang-gliding/ para-sailing.
Depending on the day of the week and conditions, it is not too terribly uncommon to encounter around a dozen gliders taking off and landing at different points on the east side of the mountain.
Between the awkward adolescents in their cars just past sundown, cyclists like me achieving our first significant Rocky Mountain climbs, and hang-gliders soaring through the air over town, Lookout Mountain is truly a place where dreams come true. It is a place where people feel a sense of achievement, a sense of advancement, and a sense of welcome into what’s ahead. For cyclists like me, it is even more challenging bike rides, higher into the mountains. For those adolescents, it is adulthood, and all of the challenges that will come. Either way, it is both magnificent and scary, but best appreciated by looking upon it with the same sense of wonder that we begin our lives with.