You Can Only Get These Incredible Donuts at the Top of a Mountain in Colorado
Get 'em while they're hot at 14,000 feet.
In 1888, the US Army abandoned what was until then a weather station at the top of Pikes Peak, which, at 14,115 feet, is the highest peak in the Colorado Front Range. That could have been the end of things for the decommissioned building, but the mayor of Manitou Springs, a city whose main street led to the base of the mountain, thought it might be a good idea to use it to sell coffee and donuts to tourists. The mayor of Manitou Springs was correct about this.
Today, more than 750,000 people head up Pikes Peak each year, making it one of the most-visited mountaintops anywhere in the world. Pikes Peak is many things: the highest peak in the whole eastern half of the US; the inspiration for “America the Beautiful”; possibly the most cherished fourteener in the country. The Pikes Peak Summit House is a National Historic Landmark, the natural endpoint of various hiking trails up the mountain, and the continued production site of what have become, over the last century, cult-favorite donuts.
The donuts are almost everyone’s first order of business the moment they summit Pikes Peak, even more so if they hiked there. Made hot and fresh each day by a donut robot that spits out some 700 donuts per hour—that's more than 6,000 per day, seven days a week—they cost just $1.29 apiece, though it’s rare to see anyone get just one. They are the only donuts produced at an altitude above 14,000 feet anywhere in the world.
Like many of the planet’s marvels that can’t survive outside their native habitat, the Pikes Peak Summit House donuts can only really be consumed at the summit of Pikes Peak. Don’t bother asking someone headed up the mountain to bring you back a few as souvenirs. The recipe—top secret, obviously—is optimized for the high altitude; thinner air means lower air pressure, which means a lower boiling point for water. Try taking the donuts to a lower elevation and they’ll collapse, their fluffiness no more. There is no cheating when it comes to the Pikes Peak donuts.
You want one—the full experience—you gotta make it to the top.
The top, fortunately for us all, is highly accessible. Few peaks anywhere on Earth are beloved by their respective hiking communities the way Pikes Peak is by Coloradans, but you can also drive there or take the train. Since 1891, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway has dutifully, and rather romantically, carried visitors to the top. I can remember riding it up to the summit with my mom when I was a kid, watching our ascent until the fog got so thick it disappeared all the trees. In 2021, the 130-year-old engine completed a major upgrade, with brand new train carriages imported from Switzerland, a new depot, and miles and miles of new track to guide you through the hills.
The Pikes Peak Summit House is beloved—because of the donuts, of course, but more broadly because of what the donuts encapsulate to the people who go there to get them. Coloradans are an outdoorsy lot in general, and the mountain and its summit are imbued with personality, history, and character. Most mountain summit outposts, national park visitors centers, gift shops, and that sort of thing are nondescript and interchangeable. The Pikes Peak Summit House inhabits rarified air not just in the literal sense but in that it’s essentially a franchise location that’s become more than the sum of its parts, like when you stumble upon a gas station or a fast-food outpost that’s special in some way specific to that location. There are 54 fourteeners in Colorado; only one of them has a credit card machine.
Due to its continued popularity, the Summit House just underwent the highest-altitude construction project in North America. After a few years of hard work, they’re back at it again with improved accessibility, new interpretive exhibits that detail the mountain’s history, geography, and surrounding landmarks, a trail mix bar, and more. (There are still a few ongoing external updates, so look for wrapped construction in September 2021.) The donuts, thankfully, were served without interruption all along—and in fact, you can now customize yours with add-ons like cocoa, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg if it tickles your fancy.
It’s worth noting that the donuts only come out perfectly when the temperature is just so. The hotter it gets outside, the more likely errant donuts are to veer toward too flat or too fluffy, rather than just right. As the planet gets warmer, the donuts will get mushier. The donut robot may have an unknown, but finite, number of perfect donuts that it will spit out before the mountain air is no longer brisk enough to sustain them, at least not in their highest form. Collectively, though, it’s not too late for us to save them.