Since the first Europeans ventured into the Pikes Peak region during the 19th century, eager entrepreneurs have sought to exploit the mountain.

We’ve built a trail, a railroad and a highway to the summit, and we handed over the majestic summit plain to a souvenir shop, a doughnut bar, a communications tower, a sewage plant, the Army’s “High Altitude Research Lab” and a gravel parking lot.

At long last, plans are underway to consolidate uses into a single summit complex.

All  the junky buildings currently on-site will be razed and replaced with a Summit House structure worthy of its iconic site.

For the plans to have progressed this far is something of a miracle. It required close cooperation among existing users, a complex funding agreement among stakeholders and strong leadership from the folks on the front line. (Full disclosure: I have been part of the process since the early stages.)

But this carefully constructed deal still may fall apart.

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City Councilor Don Knight, with support from Mayor John Suthers, is beating the drum for a plan to construct an infrared/optical observatory on the summit.

The proposed observatory’s footprint would be substantial. Dmitri Klebe, who has been pushing the concept for nearly a quarter-century, envisions a 28-inch telescope on a circular deck 35 feet in diameter with an 18-by-12-foot dome.

Backers claim that a big honkin’ observatory would be a great asset to our community.

The Forest Service has nixed the proposal, noting that astronomy would be a “new use” on the mountain.

Proponents argue that astronomy actually isn’t a new use, since a team of scientists led a dozen telescope-bearing mules up the mountain to observe a solar eclipse in 1878.

Using the same logic, you could argue for incorporating dozens of other projects into the Summit House.

How about a high-altitude demonstration garden, honoring the 19th-century Manitou mayor who transported a couple of wagon loads of dirt to the summit, planted some seeds and tried to claim the summit under the Homestead Act?

And why not a Pikes Peak Marathon Hall of Fame, or a Hill Climb Hall of Fame?

What about a launch facility for hot air balloons, or perhaps the world’s longest zip line?

The problem with the summit is that there are too many uses, not too few.

Addressing the Summit House Communications Committee a couple of weeks ago, Stuart Coppedge of RTA Architects and the design team talked about the project design process. He said a new Summit House has to accommodate the needs of existing users, conform to federal law (the summit, defined as everything above 14,000 feet, is a national historic landmark) and, above all, consider the specific needs of visitors.

The 600,000 folks who reach the summit every year seek a unique experience. They don’t come to look at buildings, but to explore the mountain, to understand what it is to be 14,000 feet above sea level, and to see wonderful things.

But it’s a crowded, jostling environment. In the summer months thousands of visitors arrive every day, equally distributed between the highway and the cog railway.

Another special-use building wouldn’t enhance their experience, but detract from it.

Observatory proponents insist they can raise all the funds necessary to build, operate and maintain the facility.

But they haven’t answered basic questions: How much would it cost; how would it be integrated into the new summit complex and where would the money come from?

And they don’t seem to understand that the dance card is full; the train has already left the station; there’s no room at the inn.

The project is already launched and it doesn’t make sense to abort it for an unfunded idea.

Backers claim that a big honkin’ observatory would be a great asset to our community.

They might be right, but we don’t own Pikes Peak. If we believe our propaganda, it’s “America’s Mountain.”

If so, we can’t decide to stick a telescope on the summit just because it would benefit the Colorado Springs economy or encourage local students to pursue STEM careers.

As managers of the Pikes Peak Highway and the summit complex, we are stewards, not owners. We have no property rights, but only the duty and privilege of caring for the iconic mountain, even as we build a new Summit House for generations to come.

Pikes Peak is magnificent in and of itself.

We improve the summit by subtraction, not addition.

Editor’s note: John Hazlehurst is a member of the Colorado Springs Summit House Communications Committee. 


  1. Applause and kudos to anyone encouraging science and education for our community. However, the idea of any kind of astral observatory on Pikes Peak is deeply flawed by the population in this region and light pollution. The fact is, CS and the Pikes Peak region generates so much artificial electric light here at night it makes productive science in astronomy difficult if not impossible. Most Earth bound observatories are located in remote regions now. A scientific climate study and weather station would be quite appropriate but that might require local Republicans to admit climate change is happening at all. So that’s unlikely.

  2. What Council and the Mayor seem to forget is that the Forest Service is the ultimate arbiter of what is allowed on the summit of Pikes Peak. If they say “no” to an observatory, however cool it might be, there is no appeal.

  3. John, you ask where the money will come from. That’s easy. Just like every other pet project, the money will come from the road repair budget.

  4. I was not against the observatory at first. However, seeing how that team has been bullying opposition and politicians has really pushed me to the other site. My vote now stands with the USFS. No new uses. I would, however, like to see the summit opened (just the road) at night so we could use our own small scale telescopes or for star trail photography.

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