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How to hike, drive, or chug up Pikes Peak.

How to hike, drive, or chug up Pikes Peak "A little blue cloud" on the Colorado horizon: that's how Lieut. Zebulon Pike described the Rocky Mountain peak that now bears his name.

Pike may have left his moniker behind (it was actually bestowed later, to commemorate the explorer's 1806 discovery), but he never left his bootprints on the mountain's 14,110-foot summit. In his journal he wrote that "no human being could have ascended to its pinical." How wrong he was. In 1820, the first climber made it to the top. Today, some 300,000 visitors a year, many from nearby Denver (1-1/2 hours by car from the base), hike, drive, and chug up Pikes Peak.

Where those purple mountains

and spacious skies came from

On top, you'll find respite from the overheated plains some 7,400 feet below, not to mention views that inspired Katherine Bates to pen "America the Beautiful."

To the north and west, the snow-capped ridge of the Continental Divide pokes up like the peaks on a meringue pie; to the southwest juts the Sangre de Cristo Range. On really clear days, you can look east across Colorado to Kansas.

It's a good idea to get to the top before noon--especially during summer, when thunderheads pile up on the summit. People pile up, too, particularly on the toll road and train.

Be prepared for any weather. Shorts may suit the 80[deg.] day down in Manitou Springs (where the incline, trail, and train all start), but not snow flurries at 14,000 feet. Through mid-July, expect some snow, in the air or on the ground. And take it easy on top; the air is very thin.

How 'bout a doughnut, darlin'?

Of course, if the weather turns nasty, you can enjoy cocoa and delicious doughnuts at the Summit House cafe. They're served at a winding counter by waitresses who'll probably call you "darlin" or "hun."

And if you yearn for an insulated beercan holder saying "It's cooler on Pikes Peak," you'll love the adjacent gift shop.

Wildlife and flowers

The star attraction may be the summit, but it's hardly the only feature. Bighorn sheep, elk, marmots, and golden eagles live here. Deposits of milky rose quartz and salmon-hued Pikes Peak granite abound. Now through August, tundra wildflowers should brighten the area above tree line (11,500 feet).

Once a month, late June through August, Bear Creek Nature Center in Colorado Springs will offer free tundra hikes. Call (719) 520-6387 for reservations.

Just about anyone can visit some part of the peak. We list minimum round-trip travel times, though we recommend staying longer. One way doesn't actually get you to the summit, but it still gives you a taste of the mountain.

All our approaches head out from Manitou Springs, a quaint, mostly renovated 1860s town snugged up against the mountain's east side, just west of Colorado Springs. To get there from I-25, head west 6 miles on U.S. 24.

Driving to the top: 2-1/2 hours

Ever since a two-cylinder Locomobile putted up the peak in 1901, cars have followed a corkscrew route up the north side, now called the Pikes Peak Highway. On sunny weekends, expect a steady string of cars heading up the well-maintained road (17 miles), some of it paved, some graded dirt. Steepest stretch, around tree line, angles up 10-1/2 percent. No hiking is allowed along the roadway.

To reach the toll road (funds help pay to clear 7 million cubic feet of snow so the road can open in spring), continue west 4 miles on U.S. 24. Turn left at the Pikes Peak sign; the tollgate is 1-1/4 miles ahead. Fees are $4, $1 ages under 12. Through September 5, the route is open 7 to 6:30; from September 6 to closing (usually in October), hours are 9 to 3. For road conditions, call 684-9383.

Swiss-style train tour: 3 hours

Bright red, diesel-powered cog rail cars, two per train, carry riders in enclosed splendor. Seats face both up and down; uphill ones are canted so you won't slip out on the 26-percent grade near the summit. The Swiss-made trains go slowly--great for wildlife-watching.

Trains run up to eight times a day, May through October, weather permitting. Hours are 8 to 5, mid-June through August, 9 to 4 the rest of the year. Reserve at least a week ahead for rides on summer weekends; call 685-5401, or write to Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway Co., Box 1329, Colorado Springs 80901. Fares are $15, $7 ages 5 through 11. To reach the train, take Manitou Avenue west off U.S. 24. Drive 1-1/2 miles; turn left on Ruxton Avenue. The depot is 3/4 mile ahead.

Toe-curling incline: 1-1/2 hours

For a shorter trip without reservations, ride the open-air incline to the top of 8,600-foot Mount Manitou, a bump on Pikes Peak's east side. Children love sitting in the last downhill seat, especially when the cable-driven car climbs the final 68-percent grade. Fainter hearts may prefer sitting back a bit.

There are a snack bar and gift shop up top, and sunflower seeds for hungry chipmunks. The incline, across the street from the cog railway, departs every 1/2 hour from 9:30 to 5 daily in May, June, and September. In July and August, it runs till 9. Fares are $5 adults, $2.50 ages 5 through 11.

Or do what Zebulon never did

The most intimate but strenuous way up Pikes Peak is by foot. Best-known route is the 13-mile Barr Trail (named after its designer, Fred Barr); it heads straight up from Manitou Springs. Hikers often allow two days to make the full ascent, with a stop at Barr Camp (7 miles; snacks, cots available) or Timberline A-frame (8-1/2 miles). Walk down or take the train (one-ways sold on space-available basis, $8).

To reach the trailhead, drive 200 yards past the train station to Hydro Street. Turn right; parking is straight ahead.

You can avoid some of the trail's steepest sections--in brief stretches, the grade reaches 30 percent--by taking the incline to the top of Mount Manitou, then hiking from there to the summit.

For more details, stop by the Pike National Forest office, 601 S. Weber Street, in Colorado Springs; it's open 7:30 to 4:30 weekdays. Or call 633-7619. For USGS maps (Pikes Peak and Manitou Springs quadrangles) and books on natural history and lore, visit the Chinook Bookshop, 210 N. Tejon Street, in Colorado Springs.
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Title Annotation:Pikes Peak, Colorado
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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