The Pike’s Peak Cog Railway pulls its way slowly up the mountain. Through forest and canyon, then across timberline and snow-swept tundra. My wife and I share a wooden seat, watching through wide glass windows as we pass bighorn sheep, then arrive on the summit of the state’s most accessible 14,000+ foot peak. We step out into the wind and clouds.
Pike’s Peak is only 15 miles west of Colorado Springs. Climbers get to the top by walking, running, racing, and railway. The record time to drive up Pike’s Peak highway is 9 minutes 46 seconds; by foot, it is 3 hours 16 minutes up Barr Trailâ€”an ascent of 7,300 vertical feet; by cog railway, it takes a little more than an hour from the depot in Manitou. At the top, we bundle up and explore, looking for a photo op for our third child’s first (in utero) fourteener.
My wife and I are on a rare retreat from our normal 4-jobs-2-kids routine in Boulder, just a few cities up the hogback. We are lucky to take this quick spring break away from it all (thanks to two grandmothers!), and to do a few things we’ve never done before.
After the train descends, we drive back to our hotel, a unique remodeled Victorian home. The Outlook Lodge isÂ in Green Mountain Falls, a small town only 5 miles west of Manitou Springs. The lodge is quiet and congenial, and sitting on the wide, wraparound porch, listening to crows and spying a fox and some deer, we feel worlds away.
In addition to relaxing, I have also traveled here to learn more about the upcoming Green Box Arts Festival in late June, which will feature local artists, workshops, and Tomas Saraceno’s multistory installation, Cloud City, which will be shipped to Colorado (on 16 tractor trailers!) from the rooftop of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
The next morning, my pregnant wife stays put, enjoying the silence of the big empty house, and I boot up for a stab at the Manitou Incline Trail, a local hiking challenge that cuts a vertical scar down the most prominent and steepest hill visible from Manitou Springs.
“THIS IS AN EXTREME TRAIL!” says the sign at the bottom. It begins with approximately 2,000 steps and 2,000 feet of elevation gain in just over a mile. Its steepest section is more than a 60 percent grade. All conversation I hearâ€”at the bottom, in the middle, and at the topâ€”is about the trail itself, as if the Incline Trail is all consuming, which it is, especially when you start stepping.
Getting to the top is an urgent matter once I find myself on this vertical treadmill of pain that eventually pulls me to the top â€” thighs, calves, and gluts screaming the whole way. I make it up in under 90 minutes, only an hour longer than the record holder.
I am especially fascinated by the mix of people drawn to the Incline Trail. From fitness buffs to families, to soldiers from the US Air Force Academy and Fort Carson (both nearby), to out-of-shape schlubs like me, with my slow and steady, rest-every-20-steps pace. At the top, two soldiers slice open a huge watermelon with a survival knife and give it all away. It is the most delicious fruit I have ever tasted.
That evening, I hobble (in pain) and my wife wobbles (in pregnancy) into the Crystal Park Cantina to celebrate Saturday night and my birthday at midnight. We are greeted by the owners, former NFL wide receiver and Manitou local, Justin Armour, and his wife, Cara. We begin our feast.
My wife is eating for two, and I need to replenish the calories I lost on the trail this morning â€” so we dig in. A savory four-cheese queso fundido and low-burning habanero-infused margarita pave the perfect path to a medium-rare carne asada with a side of garlic mash. In between courses and margs, we chat with Justin and Cara and admire the happy buzz of the place.
Tomorrow, it’s back to the reality of two-nearly-three children; but tonight, it’s one more of those spicy margs.
# # #
â€” Joshua Berman is a freelance travel writer.