A photo of the famous high altitude doughnuts at the top of Pikes Peak, from 2009. (Erin Bibeau, provided by city of Colorado Springs)

The recipe for the doughnuts made at the top of Pikes Peak is so important, so secret, so proprietary that it’s kept in a safe. Employees who work anywhere near the doughnuts must sign a confidentiality agreement to ensure the recipe doesn’t leave the property.

This spring, these beloved — and slightly mysterious — high-altitude treats are getting a reboot as part of a massive construction and renovation project at the mountain’s 14,115-foot summit.

When the new, 38,000-square-foot Pikes Peak Summit Complex opens (hopefully at the end of May), it will do so with a brand new, eco-friendly doughnut machine. But don’t worry. Though the doughnuts are getting a machinery upgrade, the new equipment shouldn’t affect their flavor or texture.

“We’ll find out,” said Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak-America’s Mountain, a self-supporting enterprise of the city of Colorado Springs. “We hope not.”

Construction crews work on what will be a huge glass wall that will have incredible indoor views at the Pikes Peak Summit House Complex under construction May 06, 2021. The complex will feature a much larger visitor center, full retail area, large cafeteria, updated ADA compliant ramps and walkways, spectacular views and their famous doughnuts. The summit is slated to open at the end of May and the new visitor center is anticipated to open in June 2021. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

The new doughnut machine is just one piece of a much larger puzzle to make the new summit complex one of the most eco-friendly buildings in Colorado — and beyond.

The new, $60 million-plus complex — which includes a visitors center, a high-altitude research laboratory and a municipal utility facility — aims to be net-zero for energy, waste and water consumption. It’s also on track to become the first Living Building Challenge-certified facility in Colorado, a hard-to-achieve, international, sustainable-building standard.

The facility incorporates an impressive array of green features, including an on-site wastewater treatment plant; a vacuum toilet system; extra insulation; a radiant heat system; customizable heating zones; sustainable building materials; heat recovery; a rainwater harvest system for future use; low-flow water fixtures; and an off-site solar array.

The building’s southeast orientation also helps protect it from the summit’s intense north and west winds (which can reach up to 150 miles per hour) and allows it to take full advantage of solar thermal heating. New pathways for visitors will help control foot traffic and restore the delicate tundra vegetation of the summit.

The building’s appliances, including the new doughnut machine, are also designed to help conserve energy. Rather than using a traditional exhaust hood to help ventilate grease and smoke, the new doughnut machine is self-contained and ventless. This means the building’s HVAC system can use less energy pulling in and heating fresh air from outside to make up for the lost air removed with traditional exhaust fans.

A worker completes work on a door frame in the kitchen next to a large doughnut machine at the Pikes Peak Summit House Complex under construction May 06, 2021. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

“In this case, the make-up air was driving a lot of the heating because, at altitude, the air is a lot colder so we have to heat the new makeup air before recirculating it,” Glavan said. “If you eliminate the need for exhaust fans in the kitchen, you don’t have to replace as much of that air.”

The new machine, made by Belshaw Adamatic, is so large — about 1,500 pounds, 92 inches tall and 84 inches wide — that crews had to bring it in early, then finish the building around it.

“The doughnut machine was sitting in there for a very long time, and that’s why we can joke that we built the building around the machine,” Glavan said.

If you go

After undergoing a $100 million renovation that started in October 2017, the historic Pikes Peak Cog Railway — the highest railroad in the country — is reopening this spring with renovated tracks, train cars and cogs. The train departs from the new Manitou Depot, then travels 9 miles to the mountain’s summit. All told, the round trip train ride takes about three hours, but visitors can also opt to hike or bike a leg of the journey. Built in 1891, the railway has been owned and operated by The Broadmoor since 1925. This June, the Broadmoor is planning to host a celebration in honor of the railway’s 130th birthday. Go to cograilway.com for more details.

With the reopening of the historic Pikes Peak Cog Railway on May 20, visitors can ride the train, drive, hike or bike to the summit. In addition to the sought-after doughnuts, the complex’s new menu will include house-made soups, sandwiches, paninis and salads, with an option for visitors to order ahead as they make their way up to the summit.

Even with all these new, lighter food options, it’ll still be difficult to resist the pull of the doughnuts, which were the first thing visitors smelled when they arrived at the old circa-1960s Summit House (which crews demolished while building the new complex).

“Some of the people (who ate them) I’ve heard justifying it by saying that up there, at altitude, there are zero calories,” Glavan said.

Though exact details are a bit fuzzy, the doughnuts reportedly date back to 1888, when the U.S. Army shut down its summit weather station and the mayor of Manitou Springs began selling coffee and doughnuts to visitors who made it to the top of Pikes Peak.

The doughnut recipe that’s still being used today was first developed in 1916, according to Jacob Leithner, chef manager/food and beverage director at Aramark Pikes Peak.

“To this day, it’s still hand-written — we don’t have it electronically anywhere,” Leithner said.

Though the recipe is top-secret, it wouldn’t be any use to a baker trying to replicate the famous doughnuts at a lower elevation anyway. And the doughnuts are only good at the top of Pikes Peak; bring them down the mountain and they turn into “doughnut pudding,” Leithner said.

Crews work on a railing at the Pikes Peak Summit House Complex under construction May 06, 2021. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

“With baking at sea level, you either use yeast, baking powder, baking soda or a combination of the three, and you need a certain amount to get the dough to be able to push out against the atmosphere,” Leithner said. “As you go up in altitude, you have less pressure, so the dough has a lot less to push out against. It was all about figuring out the perfect balance of flour to water to leavening agent. It’s absolutely fascinating.”

For their part, members of the summit’s culinary crew are excited to try out the new doughnut machine and begin making the O-shaped, golden brown snacks again after a long pause during construction.

They’re also working on some yet-to-be-revealed doughnut surprises for the new building’s grand opening, just in time to serve the hungry crowds who’ve likely missed the summit doughnuts in their absence, too.

“It’s the mystique; anything with a secret ingredient and a secret process for making it is always very attractive,” Leithner said. “The fact that you can go up to 14,000 feet, see downtown Denver on a clear day and enjoy a doughnut that was made up there — that you literally cannot get anywhere else, made in the tallest kitchen in America — it’s a very unique experience.”

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