Travel

You Can Only Get These Incredible Donuts at the Top of a Mountain in Colorado

pikes peak donuts
Must be consumed immediately, for scientific reasons. | Courtesy of Pikes Peak Summit House
Must be consumed immediately, for scientific reasons. | Courtesy of Pikes Peak Summit House

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 14er 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 moreso if they hiked there. Made hot and fresh each day by a Donut Robot that spits out some 700 donuts per hour -- 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 any 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 -- most of the time, anyway -- 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 early 2019, the train closed for renovations; it’ll be back in 2021.

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 14ers in Colorado; only one of them has a credit card machine.

Due to its continued popularity and ability to draw in tourism, the Summit House is now in the midst of the highest-altitude construction project in North America. The donuts, thankfully, are still being served without interruption. 

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.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.