Let us sing a song of Pikes Peak Summit House Donuts:
Oh beautiful and deeply fried
Sweet amber wheels of grain (sugar and mystery)
A fluffy nosh on mountaintop
A brick on fruited plain
As has been said in earnest, probably by no one, ever, anywhere else in the world:
“If you don’t eat this doughnut now, you’ll regret it.”
On top of America’s Mountain, 14,115 feet above sea level, it’s the prevailing advice.
“Taking the doughnuts down to lower elevations will make them go flat. They’re not going to stay fluffy,” Summit House operations manager Maria Paniagua said. “The recipe is adjusted to this altitude, so even if you knew the secret ingredient, you wouldn’t be able to re-create them down in the Springs.”
Colorado has 54 mountains with summits above 14,000 feet. Pikes Peak is the only one with a credit-card machine. Visitors here are greeted by rarefied vistas and a deteriorating boardwalk-style souvenir shop and snack counter from the 1960s that will remain open until such time as the new $50 million visitor center slated to take its place demands otherwise.
Do not be distracted by the views or the construction. You can shop for postcards and T-shirts later (so long as you wash your hands first). Fortification by “world famous” doughnut is what you need, and if the gut-and-nostalgia-goosing smell hasn’t already commandeered your compass, just follow the signs.
Each year, about 750,000 people venture to the top of Pikes Peak. Not everyone gets a doughnut, but — for the workers who make and sell them, nine hours a day, seven days a week — it can seem as if they do.
“The early people who get here, right away the first thing they want is a doughnut,” Paniagua said. “A lot of people don’t make it to the register. They’re, like, ‘Sorry, I already ate it.’”
Among her many duties, Paniagua oversees the kitchen where the legendary treats are made. The process begins as soon as workers arrive and start feeding ingredients into the Donut Robot, before 8 a.m., and continues, at a peak rate of more than 700 doughnuts an hour, until about 5 p.m., when stock usually is deemed enough to handle demand through closing time.
Between those hours, creation happens more or less nonstop behind the scenes, where a pair of industrial, stainless-steel hoppers dispenses dollops of raw deliciousness into America’s “highest deep fat fryer,” just a few feet from what has got to be America’s “most conflicted trash can.”
Doughnuts that don’t make the cosmetic or structural cut — and those left unconsumed when it’s time to go home for the night — get tossed.
“Quality control is very important, and the doughnuts are made fresh every single day,” said Paniagua, 38, who no longer indulges. “I’ve been here 11 years. If I’d kept eating them, I’d be … whfffff.”
Sadly, 250 calories at elevation is still 250 calories.
It’s impossible to say whether the recipe today is, as claimed, the same used 130 years ago, when the mayor of Manitou Springs started selling coffee and doughnuts to tourists out of a decommissioned Army weather station.
It’s also unknown whether Katharine Lee Bates enjoyed one during the summit excursion that inspired her to write “America the Beautiful.” If she did, the experience didn’t bear mention in her diary entry recounting the rapturous impressions that would inform the opening stanza of her 1895 anthem.
The no-frills confections have drawn misguided comparisons to cake doughnuts, but to those who know them intimately, “that doesn’t even come close.”
Paniagua can share the basics — flour, sugar, evaporated milk and a fry-bath that leaves them both crispy and so oil-infused they might be flammable. But that other ingredient is so hush-hush it wasn’t even leaked to the Food Network when a crew visited to shoot footage for a show featuring the deep-fried delicacies.
A low-oxygen environment isn’t the only factor affecting outcomes.
“When it’s hot, sometimes they come out more mushy, or if it’s too, too hot either they go flat or they fluff up too much,” Paniagua said. “We kind of let the weather have its way with them. When it’s the right temperature, they come out perfectly.”
Quirks of high-altitude cooking, plus legacy, branding and that closely guarded recipe, are technically what make these otherwise-quotidian confections unique.
What makes them so special is something more ineffable.
“It’s good, but I think it’s also the fact that I worked my butt off to get it,” said Michelle Rudd, 45, of Columbia, Md., after her first summit of Pikes Peak — and first Donut — with husband and hiking partner Joe Spelta, on a late morning in mid-July. “I don’t normally eat doughnuts, so the fact that I’m eating one is a big to-do.”
No matter how you access them — on wheels, via a 19-mile crawl up vertiginous, switchback Pikes Peak Highway, or on foot, by trail — these $1.29 morsels demand a steep buy-in.
“I think they just taste better because, by the time you get to the top, you’re kind of tired, even if you drove. It’s a white-knuckle trip, especially for us, from Wichita, Kan.,” said Jarrod Steele, 31, here with wife Kelsey and their two young sons. “You feel like you made it to the top, and you can relax now. It’s your reward.”
The Steeles had their first doughnut experience as newlyweds a decade ago, reaching the top of Pikes Peak the old-fashioned way, with a group of friends, after a punishing, 13-mile hike up from the base of Barr Trail.
“We were considerably more tired then. I remember everybody saying at the time that it was the best doughnut they’d ever had,” said Jarrod.
“I don’t know if it really was,” added Kelsey, “or if we were just so tired and hungry we thought it was.”
Honestly, does it really matter?