Vacationing in the mountians - any driving tips?

I am a flat-lander from Indiana and I will be taking my family to Denver for vacation this summer. We want to drive our brand new AWD Saturn Outlook up to Pikes peak and other scenic outlooks. My wife and I are concerned over some warnings we have been reading about altitude affecting our brake fluid and engine. We have had some experience driving through the Great Smoky Mountains but nothing like this. Any tips for this trip?

The most important thing to do before your trip is to make sure that all of your fluids are topped off and that your tire pressure is correct. Use the tire pressure specifications listed on the label on the driver’s door jamb, NOT the pressure listed on the tire sidewall.

Once you get into hilly and mountainous territory, the most important thing to do is to remember to use a lower gear, both when climbing a grade, and when descending a grade. If anything, using a lower gear is even more important when descending, because otherwise, you risk overheating the brakes and losing braking power when you need it the most–on a steep downgrade. On a steep grade, 3rd gear is not low enough, and shifting down to 2nd is desirable.

That being said, if the vehicle is heavily laden with both people and luggage, I would advise against driving it up Pikes Peak. Making that climb with a heavy load is not easy on a car, and it is particularly hard on the transmission. If you want to make that climb anyway, leave your luggage and your extra cargo in your hotel room in order to shave a few hundred lbs. off of the gross weight of the vehicle.

Also, since the vehicle is brand new, I would suggest checking the oil very frequently in order to gauge its oil consumption rate. Even a new engine (or, you might say, particularly a new engine) can consume oil faster than you might expect. Carry a qt. or two of the correct specification oil with you, in case you need oil when you are in a remote location.

Modern engines do just fine at high altitudes. You will notice a loss of power but modern EFI adjusts itself and keeps the fuel mixture correct so you don’t compound the natural power loss with a rich mixture.

The majority of mountain roads were built alongside natural rivers and streams which means they zig-zag side to side a lot more than they go up and down. If you limit your top speed so that you don’t have to nail the brakes for every curve, you actually can get amazing gas mileage in the mountains. We got 30 mpg in a Honda Element in the mountains of Taos, NM.

I can’t think of any reason to be concerned about the brake fluid or the engine. Vehicles are designed to be operated under a variety of conditions. Pikes peak is not beyond the capability of your vehicle, assuming you’re not trying to race to the top with an overloaded vehicle.

People drive up and down Pikes Peak all the time, in all kinds of vehicles.

Take a warm jacket, because it might be very cold at the top, and the weather can change quickly and dramatically.

Shift the transmission to a lower gear while descending, to take some of the load off the brakes.

Have fun and enjoy your vacation.

Not to worry; make sure the car is in good shape, all fluids topped up and enjoy the scenery. We live near the mountains and use the lower gears for both going up, to have enough power, and going down, to save the brakes. With an automatic, don’t use overdrive, you may need to use 2nd or 3rd gear to go up Pike’s Peak. Going down, use 3rd or 2nd gear to let the engine help retard your speed and save the brakes.

I crossed the Alps in Europe twice in a 30 HP Volksagen beetle; the car used 2nd gear to up the St Gotthard Pass in Austria, and we used 3rd gear to descend thus saving excessive wear and possible fade on the brakes.

All this should be in your owner’s manual!

Have a wonderul trip!

On narrow mountain roads, downhill traffic yields to uphill traffic. The reason being is that it’s more difficult for uphill vehicles to start moving from a stop on steep inclines.


It’s no big deal, really…Don’t be afraid to manually downshift your transmission on both steep up-grades and down-grades…

Being a resident of the Denver area, I can assure you that you really don’t have anything to be concerned about driving through the mountains of Colorado in your Saturn Outlook.

When you are at extremely high altitudes (12k and higher), it might be worthwhile to pop the brake fluid cap off, and then back on, just to equalize the pressure inside. A friend of mine took his motorcycle up to the summit of Mt Evans, and his hydraulic clutch stopped working correctly. Once he opened up and closed his fluid caps for the clutch and the brakes, everything worked perfectly fine once again.

Only one other bit of advice I can offer:

If you are going slow through the mountains, and there’s a sports car or a motorcycle behind you, PLEASE pull over and let them past. There is nothing worse than being stuck behind someone doing 25 mph in a 55 mph zone for 14 miles that won’t have the courtesy to pull over and let the traffic jam that they created safely pass.


I will add this. There is a possible issue with the brake fluid.

While the owner’s manuals list brake fluid changes (flush), usually every three years, it often is missed. If your car has not had brake fluid service in the last few years, now would be a good time. You will use the brakes more than usual in the mountains and that can heat up the brakes and when it does if there is any water in the system, you can loose the brakes. A fluid change is not expensive so if you need one get it done now.

“A fluid change is not expensive so if you need one get it done now.”

On a brand-new vehicle??

Thank you all for your suggestions. I’ll remember to use road courtesy and let others pass. I was planning on taking it easy on the road to the top anyway. From what I have read there are several scenic pullouts and my wife wants lots of pictures. I was planning on taking extra oil and brake fluid anyway.

The car will be fine.

Don’t hog the steering wheel.

Drive like you are trying to impress grandma.

Get the AAA Tour Book and plan many, many and lots of stops. Make it a learning experience for the kids…and you.

Remember, you are going for fun.

There’s nothing you have to do. Altitude will affect engine output in normally aspirated cars, but not so you’d notice in a Saturn. Your only issue might be coming down Pike’s Peak with your family in the car. I’ve heard the rangers have a halfway station, and will wave you over if your rotors are glowing. If not, keep your nose out for funny smells, and pull over if the pedal gets mushy.

I have four words of advice:

Don’t Worry; Be Happy!

Old Polish Proverb:
You should have absolutely no problem with any new car especially with the v-6 awd. The only recommendation I would have is on the down hill return you should go down in a lower gear so you do not overheat your brakes. We were just at pikes peak last fall what a great drive. You should also go visit the old mining town in the area worth the drive. There is also a wonderful camp ground in the area if you are in to that.You are not too far from the summit area of Colorado(by Frisco, Dillon, Breakenridge, all great vacation spots. What about Rocky Mtn. National park absolutely breatht55aking. Sorry for waxing on about the state but Co. is my all time favorite place if you like high country We are former N. Dakota flatlander residents now living in Phx. and have always loved the highcountry.