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There's a Pikes Peak you've never heard of - in Iowa
Reprinted from a story I wrote in 2006 for a Gazette special edition on the 200th anniversary of Zebulon Pike's expedition.
Pikes Peak towers above the town, visible from almost any vantage point.
Named for Zebulon Pike, the explorer who first climbed the peak, it has been a symbol of the town for generations, ingrained in the community’s sense of self. Locals call it simply “The Peak.” And it’s in Iowa.
That’s right, Iowa.
A year before the 1806 expedition that took Pike — almost — to the Colorado mountain that bears his name, he was sent on a 5,000-mile journey to find the source of the Mississippi River. He didn’t find the source and in fact didn’t locate any previously unknown streams or lakes. He did find a 500-foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi, which he told his superiors would be an ideal site for a fort.
“A spring in the rear, level on top, and the view of all the country immediately under your feet,” Pike wrote of the bluff that would, within 12 years, bear his name.
The Army chose another location for the fort, but Pike’s name became linked to the hill that, unlike the Pikes Peak here, he actually climbed.
“We like to boast that we’re the first Pikes Peak,” said Matt Tschirgi, manager of Pikes Peak State Park, which includes the bluff, the highest point anywhere along the Mississippi at 1,130 feet above sea level.
The park, perched above McGregor, Iowa, attracts at least 250,000 visitors a year and is the biggest attraction in one of the Midwest’s most picturesque areas.
“Pikes Peak is probably one of the best draws we have in eastern Iowa,” said Robert Moses, executive director of the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce. “It overlooks the Mississippi and you can see three states.”
It’s well-known that Pike found the Iowa mountain more than a year before he set eyes on the blue peak in the distance that became known as Colorado’s Pikes Peak.
According to Matt Mayberry, director of the Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs, there are historical references to “Pike’s Hill” in Iowa as early as 1817. The first reference to Pikes Peak in Colorado was in 1818, on a map drawn by one of Pike’s fellow explorers.
Pikes Peak wasn’t a commonly used name for the Colorado mountain until the 1830s, Mayberry said.
“I guess you could make the argument (the Iowa bluff) was identified with Pike before our Pikes Peak,” said Mayberry, a native Iowan. “I don’t think Iowa’s can compete with this one, so I think it would be a pretty weak claim to fame.”
Though people occasionally call Iowa’s Pikes Peak State Park thinking it’s home to the 14,115-foot mountain, Iowans have no illusions about their peak overshadowing Colorado’s.
“I would suspect, to Iowans and people in the area, it’s quite wellknown,” said Norman Lincoln, city administrator of McGregor. But, he added, “I would suspect the big mountain is more well-known in the world.”