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High altitude can play some strange tricks in Denver, the Mile High City

Colorado State Capitol
Colorado State Capitol
Rich Grant

Denver really is exactly 5,280 feet above sea level. By an amazing stroke of good luck, one of the spots that is precisely one mile high is on the west steps of the State Capitol Building. In fact, there are three spots.

Mile High Step
David Falconer for VISIT DENVER

When the capitol was constructed at the turn of the century, the city fathers carved "One Mile Above Sea Level" into the 15thstone step. However, in the 1960s some college students from Colorado State University re-measured the steps and found that the true mile high spot was a few steps higher, the 18thstep. A brass marker was added at the actual spot.

Then in 2004, more accurate measuring equipment established the true mile high spot is actually three feet higher so a third marker was added on the 13thstep.

Other places in Denver exactly a mile above sea level include a running path around City Park just west of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and a row of purple seats in Coors Field.

Mile High Panorama

The mountain panorama visible from Denver is 140 miles long and includes 200 named peaks, 32 of which soar to 13,000 feet and above. The most visible peak from Denver is Mount Evans. At 14,260 feet in elevation, it is the highest peak along the Front Range and one of 54 peaks in Colorado that soar to 14,000 feet or above. Two other Fourteeners can be seen clearly from Denver on most days: Pikes Peak, located 60 miles to the south, and Long's Peak, located 50 miles to the northwest.

There are over one thousand peaks in Colorado that are at least two miles high. Between Longs Peak and Pikes Peak, there are dozens of snowcapped summits easily visible from Denver. Metal plaques on the open air rotunda of the Capitol building identify and name each of the visible peaks. It is against state law to build any structure that would block the view of the mountains from the rotunda of the Capitol.

Other plaques pointing out the names of peaks from Denver include Cranmer Park at 4501 E. 1stAve., and Cheesman Park.

Life a Mile Above Sea Level

Being a mile above sea level does present some differences in day-to-day life. For one thing, the sky really is bluer due to less pollution and water vapor in the upper atmosphere. Baseballs, golf balls and footballs travel 9 percent farther. Special high altitude tennis balls have to be made using toned-down rubber and less pressure and basketballs are inflated with 7-10 pounds less air than at sea level.

In Denver, water boils at 202 degrees instead of 212 degrees, and it takes four minutes to soft boil a three-minute egg and 17 minutes to hard boil an egg -- five more than at the beach. Baking in Colorado is an adventure and requires experimentation with different recipes, generally using less yeast and baking powder.

But high altitude is excellent for beer, causing it to have more fizz and carbonation. However, be careful opening champagne bottles. Most of them are bottled at sea level and the change in pressure in Denver's light air causes the cork to fly out much quicker.

In fact, be careful drinking any alcohol for the first couple of days. Since the lungs have to work harder to get oxygen into the blood in high altitudes, alcohol is absorbed into the blood system quicker, speeding up the effect that a couple of drinks would normally have. The bottom line -- two or three drinks in Denver will pack more of a wallop than at sea level.

Strangely enough, winters feel much warmer in Colorado because high altitude means there are fewer air molecules pressing against your skin. Also, the low humidity in Denver produces a "dry cold" that most people find less penetrating than a "wet cold" at sea level.

Perhaps the most serious consideration in high altitude is ensuring proper sun protection. Mile high Denver receives 24% more ultraviolet radiation than sea level cities. The air above the mountain resorts has only half the protection from the sun's harmful rays that can be found at sea level. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must.

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