Much of the fame of Pikes Peak is due to its location near the eastern edge of the Rockies. Unlike most other similarly tall mountains in Colorado, it serves as a visible landmark for many miles to the east, far into the Great Plains of Colorado. As one drives south on Interstate 25 towards the city of Colorado Springs, it comes into view from a distance of more than . On a clear day, the peak can be seen from Denver (over north), and from locations near the Kansas border to the east.
Pikes Peak is made of a characteristic pink granite, called Pikes Peak granite. The pink color is due to a large amount of potassium feldspar. The granite was formed by an igneous intrusion in the Pre-Cambrian, approximately 1.05 billion years ago, during the Grenville orogeny.
Edwin James was successful to reach the summit in his attempt during a summer month's attempt. Later, some suggested "James' Peak," after Edwin James, the first man who successfully climbed to the summit. However, in this area there was another "James' Peak" which made identification of the peak a confusing issue. The name went back and forth until it was settled with a uniquely identifiable name.
Originally the peak was called "Pike's Peak", but in 1891, the newly-formed US Board on Geographic Names recommended against the use of apostrophes in names, so officially the name of the peak does not include an apostrophe. In addition, in 1978 the Colorado state legislature passed a law mandating the use of "Pikes Peak" only. Even so, the old name is often seen.
The first non-natives to sight Pikes Peak were the members of the Pike expedition, led by Zebulon Pike. After a failed attempt to climb to the top in November 1806, Pike wrote in his journal (emphasis added):
This entry has led to an oft-stated claim that Pike said no one had ever, nor would ever reach the top of Pikes Peak. Placed in context, he is making a reasonable assessment of his men's prospects of reaching the top in difficult circumstances.
The first European to climb the peak came 14 years after Pike in the summer of 1820. Edwin James, a young student who had just graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, signed on as the relief botanist for the Long Expedition after the first botanist had died. The expedition explored the South Platte River up as far as present-day Denver, then turned south and passed close to what James called "Pike's highest peak." James and two other men left the expedition camped on the plains and climbed the peak in two days, encountering little difficulty. Along the way, he was the first to describe the blue columbine, Colorado's state flower.
Gold was discovered in the area of present-day Denver, Colorado in 1858, and newspapers referred to the gold-mining area as "Pike's Peak." Pike's Peak or Bust became the slogan of the Colorado Gold Rush (see also Fifty-Niner). This was more due to Pikes Peak's visibility to gold seekers travelling west across the plains than any actual significant gold find anywhere near Pikes Peak. Major gold deposits were not discovered in the Pike's Peak area until the Cripple Creek Mining District was discovered southwest of Pike's Peak, and led in 1893 to one of the last major gold rushes in the lower forty-eight states.
In July 1860, Clark, Gruber & Company began minting gold coins in Denver bearing the phrase "Pikes Peak Gold" and an artist's rendering of the peak on the obverse. As the artist had never actually seen the peak, it looks nothing like it. In 1863 the US Treasury purchased their minting equipment for $25,000 to open the Denver Mint.
The uppermost portion of Pikes Peak, defined as that part above elevation, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
There are several visitor centers on Pikes Peak, some with a gift shop and restaurant. These centers are located at 6 mile, 12 mile and the summit itself, and there are several ways to ascend the mountain. The Manitou and Pike's Peak Railway is a cog railroad operating from Manitou Springs to the summit year-round, conditions permitting. Automobiles can be driven to the summit via the Pikes Peak Highway, a 19 mile (31 kilometer) road which starts a few miles up Ute Pass at Cascade. This road, which is unpaved after the halfway point, was made famous worldwide by the short film Climb Dance featuring Ari Vatanen racing his Peugeot up the steep, twisty slopes as part of the annual Pikes Peak International Hillclimb race. The road has a series of switchbacks, treacherous at high speed, called "The W's" for their shape on the side of the mountain. The road is maintained by the city of Colorado Springs as a toll road.
The most popular hiking route to the top is the Barr Trail, approaching the summit from the east. The trailhead is just past the cog railway depot in Manitou Springs. One can walk, hike, or bike the trail. Runners race to the top and back on the Barr Trail in the annual Pikes Peak Marathon. Some have pursued oddball feats on the trail, such as dribbling a soccer ball or walking backwards to the top. In 1929 Bill Williams of Rio Hondo, Texas, pushed a peanut to the summit with his nose over the course of three weeks. Another route begins at the Crags Campground, approaching the summit from the west. .
Conditions at the top are, for the most part, not hospitable. The thin air contains only 60% of the oxygen available at sea level. Snow is a possibility any time year-round, and thunderstorms are common in the summer, bringing hail and wind gusts occasionally of over 100 mi/hr (160 km/h). Lightning is especially dangerous above the treeline. A signboard at the cog railway depot in Manitou Springs provides the summit temperature every day, a number that is rarely higher than , even in mid-summer.
Since 1969, the summit of Pike's Peak has been the site of the United States Army Pike’s Peak Research Laboratory, a medical research laboratory for the assessment of the impact of high altitude on human physiological and medical parameters of military interest.
Pikes Peak was once the home of a ski resort, but it closed due to a lack of snow; Pikes Peak does not receive the massive snowdrops that some other mountains do. Expensive snowmaking was required to make the resort feasible, and the high winds on Pikes Peak would often blow the artificial snow away ("to Kansas" as one of the former owners of the resort put it).