Travels With Steve
submitted by Steve Oakes, Main Library
A day’s drive away from Kansas City is one of the most well-known mountain peaks in the United States, Pikes Peak (14,115 ft) in Colorado. It is not the highest mountain in North America (that belongs to Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley, located in Alaska 20,310 ft), nor is it the tallest in the state of Colorado (Mount Elbert at 14,439 ft).
It is named in honor of American explorer Zebulon Pike and lies within the boundary of Pike National Forest, west of Colorado Springs.
Pikes Peak from a distance. Ironically, Zebulon never set foot on the mountain named after him.
Pikes Peak is one of the 58 mountain peaks in Colorado that have an altitude over 14,000 feet and Colorado has more “Fourteeners or 14ers”, than any other state in the union.
Hiking to the top of these mountains ranges from easy to difficult and thousands of people each year “summits” one or more of these mountaintops. A few dedicated souls make summiting all of Colorado’s 14ers under their own power a noteworthy achievement, and indeed, it is. There is even a website dedicated to assisting persons with such ambitions www.14ers.com.
However, such ventures are not for everyone. For one, the physical nature of humans going above 14,000ft requires ones attention. There is forty-three percent less oxygen available at 14,000 than at sea level. Generally (but not exclusively), older persons and those with compromised respiratory systems may suffer altitude sickness above 8,000ft. Often headaches are the most common initial symptom but other symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea, insomnia, weakness and lethargy, as well as flu-like symptoms. A person’s condition could worsen or more severe altitude sickness may prevail, the longer, and or higher, a hiker or traveler ascends. In extreme cases, death may happen.
In addition, for every 1,000 foot in elevation gain, there normally is a drop of four degrees in temperature. Hypothermia can occur at temperatures as high as the mid 50’s and the opposite is a concern as well, heat exhaustion and possibly heat stroke. Plenty of fluids, sunscreen (the higher you go, the higher the ultra-violet ray exposure becomes, even on cloudy days) and outdoor specific clothing worn in layers, is strongly encouraged. During the summer months, weather conditions can change rather quickly and afternoon thunderstorms are common. These can be potentially fatal to anyone going above tree line in exposed areas. These ingredients may sound like a recipe for disaster but when considering hiking up a mountain there are proven strategies resulting in rewarding and fun adventures.
In this article, I hope to reveal how hiking Pikes Peak can be done safely, and relatively easily.
First, to summit Pikes Peak is a formidable challenge that needs to be taken seriously. Luckily, there are many resources available to assist trekkers that will ensure success as well as provide for alternatives in case the journey “goes south.” This article does not cover in depth, physical conditioning, nutrition, and gear, and assumes the reader has some hiking experience and is ready for a little bit more of a challenge.
Nearly all hikers take the Barr Trail from the trailhead in Manitou Springs just west of Colorado Springs. It is a scenic trail maintained by the US Forest Service and volunteer groups, and is just over 13 miles in length. The Barr Trail has been around for over 100 years and originally built by Fred Barr. The Forest Service rates the trail as more difficult due to the long sustained grade (up to 11% in a few areas) with a 7,800 foot elevation gain.
The trail does have many attributes that make it safe. For one, parts of the trail get a lot of use, especially the first three miles from the Manitou Springs trailhead. Many residents of Manitou and Colorado Springs use the trail as part of their exercise routine. Not just a few, but a countless number on good weather days. This is both good news and bad news for hikers making the trek up to the summit.
The good news is that those first three miles of trail, you are not alone and if something were to happen (like a sprained ankle or other malady) there will be plenty of people available to stop and hopefully provide assistance. The bad news is that the vast majority of these persons are returning to the trailhead because they have done the “Incline,” (more on that just ahead) and they are often running. This three-mile stretch of trail is one of the steeper sections, not very wide and contains a lot of switchbacks. As a result, you need to be careful as the potential for hiker/runner conflicts is elevated*.
* Side note: Legally, mountain bikers may, but rarely do, use Barr Trail.
Suggested skill level is Expert
The other bad news is that parking is limited at the trailhead and you may have to pay for the privilege of being close to the starting point. Plus, if you are not familiar with the trailhead, there are two jumping off points for adventure at the parking lot. One adventure is hiking the trail, the other adventure is a self-imposed torture/workout known as the “Incline.”
According to the non-profit Visit Colorado Springs (VCO), the “Incline” is a series of 2,744 steps (defined by large railroad ties) and gains nearly 2,000 feet of elevation over less than 1 mile. The average grade is 45% with sections up to 68%. It’s not for the faint of heart, but people from all walks (or climbs) of life have successfully conquered it. It is, perhaps, the most unique and challenging trail in the country, attracting runners, military, Olympic athletes, and hiking enthusiasts from around the world. More than anything, the Manitou Incline is famous for dishing out a tough workout. For more info visit https://www.visitcos.com/things-to-do/outdoors/manitou-incline-near-colorado-springs-colorado/.
So to avoid pummeling your body be sure to take the trail at the east end of the parking lot nearest the restroom building (the trail is fairly well marked).
Side note: A map is not necessarily needed. A number of websites offer downloadable GPS files including this one. https://www.mapmyhike.com/routes/view/3187998811
I was amazed at the number of persons doing the incline on a weekday of our visit in May 2018. Coloradans take their fitness seriously and I suspect there would have been far fewer runners if we had started our hike a little later in the day. We started first thing in the morning when many people try to get their workout in before the start of their workday.
From the beginning, as you progress up the trail, you gain altitude rather quickly. Again, the first three miles contains a lot of switchbacks. After that, you are likely to encounter others that are trail running, conditioning, or practicing for the annual Pikes Peak Marathon. Beyond mile three, the grade of the trail is a lot less steep with fewer switchbacks. In addition, if you are using a very safe approach to summiting over two or more days, you are half way to mile six and Barr Camp, the halfway point to the peak.
At 10,200 feet, Barr Camp is not only America’s highest hiking cabin, it is a cute little collection of rustic, remote buildings. It is open year round and features clean composting toilets, picnic tables, inside seating, and for purchase, snacks, hot drinks and merchandise. Plus, one can overnight, various accommodations are available. There is the Main Cabin bunkhouse which features hostel style lodging where individual bunks can be rented, the Upper Cabin contains bunkbeds for up to 12 people, or the LEAN-TO Shelter (which we rented). The LEAN-TO is enclosed on three sides, is elevated off the ground and has a four-inch foam mattress. The last option, is bring your own tent camping. All overnight reservations include an all you can eat breakfast! Check out their website at https://barrcamp.com/.
One of the LEAN-TOs available for rent.
The amenities at the camp are rustic and cellphone service is spotty, but the caretakers that are present, can assist with reasonable hikers needs. The facilities are accessible primarily by the foot trail, however in case of emergency, other means are available. Within the vicinity of the camp, a stream provides water for those that can filter it for safe consumption and use, but the camp itself does not have potable water for the public.
The main building of Barr Camp is a great gathering place to hear the tales of other trekkers. There is a register where visitors can record their name and hometown, date, and if they had visited before. The log book revealed guests from across the US and other countries as well. A number of records were from repeat customers, or they were from the Kansas City area, which made sense due to the proximity of the location. We adored the camp and pledged we would return, for a possible long weekend stay.
On the day we arrived, we witnessed a comical story. A man in his fifties and a younger man in his early thirties entered the lodge after depositing their backpacks on the veranda. The older man introduced himself and his nephew. He was very gregarious and friendly too. He explained it was his nephew’s first time to Barr Camp but for him, he had been there on several occasions, however, the last time was about nine years ago. He also was not shy in admitting he made a major mistake that caused their hike to camp to be more difficult than normal. He stated that at the beginning, even though the trailhead looked familiar, it seemed a little different. He said he did not recall there being so many steps. As it turned out, the two of them took the wrong trailhead and were on the “Incline.” When they got about halfway up the Incline, he had realized his mistake. However, he did not share that with his nephew and so he decided to just endure the hardship and carry on. When they got to the last step at the top, off to the side was a sign pointing them in the direction of the Barr Trail. At that point, he clued his nephew in on his mistake and apologized profusely. He was afraid his lack of recognizing something was terribly wrong would forever cause his novice nephew to hate him and the idea of hiking/backpacking. His nephew took it in stride and said he would probably laugh about it later. They also looked at the bright side of their misadventure. By taking the Incline, they shaved two miles off their hike to Barr Camp. Instead of hiking six miles, they climbed one mile, and backpacked three. Plus, they had bragging rights, for not many people can claim to have climbed the “Incline” with fully loaded backpacks!
I did my ascent with my wife and daughter. I had not hiked with my daughter in the mountains before so we planned to be cautious and spend two nights in one of the LEAN-TOs. This allowed us to reduce what we would need to carry in several ways. For one, since we ordered the optional dinner as part of our reservation, we did not have to carry food, or a cookstove or fuel, for our evening meals. We packed a couple of sandwiches and snacks for the hike to the camp, and for our summit hike the next day. In addition, we carried rain gear, a first aid kit, warm clothing and our sleeping bags. Secondly, there was no need for a tent and since breakfast was included, the weight of two morning meals was avoided.
Increasing our safe approach was altitude acclimation. In mountaineering, the general rule of thumb is for every 1,000 foot gain in elevation, one should spend a night at that elevation. Although we were not quite at a critical height to follow that guideline, camping at 10,000 feet would help our bodies prepare for the additional 4,000 feet of elevation gain the next day.
Our second day would be a longer day, mileage wise. Again considering safety as a top priority, we doubled down on our use of Barr Camp. We planned to hike six miles to the summit, rest as time allowed, get water and possibly a snack, then hike back down to Barr Camp for another dinner and to spend the night. Our packs would be lighter than the day before as we had consumed some of our trail food and our bedding stayed in camp. Altogether, it would be a total of twelve miles of hiking, but the last six would all be downhill.
Our summit push went quite well. Before departing we checked current and forecasted weather conditions. We were cleared for takeoff! Four miles up the trail we would hit treeline, which at that point we would assess the weather again to see if afternoon thunderstorms were likely. Also, we would look for the emergency shelter in the area, in case it was needed. We also established and agreed upon a turnaround time of 2pm, meaning if we did not reach the summit by that time, we would abandon the summit attempt (a common safety measure in mountaineering). The time threshold would allow us enough time to hike back down to Barr Camp while it was still light out and most importantly, be in time for that all you can eat chili dinner!
Emergency shelter near treeline
From Barr Camp to treeline, the trail continues its slow ascent up the mountain. More and more, the summit looms larger. Once you get to treeline, you are left with two miles of hiking. The uninhibited view allows you to see a bit of the development at the top. Also, you can see the path of the trail to a large extent. The trail does become harder at this point and with a half mile to go, you hit a stretch known as the 16 Golden Stairs. Indeed it is the steepest section of the entire length. They are not actual stairs, nor are they golden. Instead it is a series of steep switchbacks through a boulder field that does not provide an opportunity to take a shortcut. The footing is precarious and following the tail is sometimes challenging as the path is over rocks and not well worn turf. The saving grace of the Golden Stairs, is that there are usually a considerable number of people on top (that got to the summit by way of a motorized vehicle) and you can easily see people and hear voices, providing reassurance that you are almost done.
At the summit, you may see wildlife, both the two legged and four legged kind, such as…….
Currently the Pikes Peak summit is an active construction zone as a new complex is being built. The 12,000 square foot Summit House (which is open for business) will be replaced with a 38,000 square foot facility which will house a visitor center, restaurant, gift shop, and other amenities. It is scheduled to open in the spring of 2021 and will significantly improve the experience of the 600,000 annual visitors. The summit also marks the end of the line for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Although the railway suspended service in 2018 for much needed upgrading and maintenance, it plans to reopen in May 2021. The railway provides another possibility for assistance to hikers getting folks off the mountain and back to Manitou Springs, which is the base of its operations. On infrequent occasions, the railway has been used to ferry distressed hikers from the Barr Camp area as well.
… marmots, pikas and big horn sheep
A multitude of commercial shuttles and tour groups visit the summit most days, which adds another layer of unscheduled service that can assist foot bound trekkers, albeit at a cost. All these resources at the top provide multiple safety outlets and alternatives if hikers need to go to “Plan B” or even “Plan C.”
On a clear day you can see hundreds of miles off into the distance (one sign says all the way into Kansas!). The Summit House can provide a nice respite and the facilities, in most cases, can be depended on (occasionally the singular toll road up the mountain is closed due to inclement weather, thereby closing the facilities) as a source of water and food allowing foot-bound adventurers to carry less weight. With all the activity however, one could easily get distracted and lose track of time causing a hasty retreat down off the mountain before darkness sets in or bad weather.
In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates ascended the mountain and was so moved by the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and sweeping plains, she wrote the poem that ultimately became “America the Beautiful”.
A hike of eighteen miles is not outrageous for most accomplished hikers, especially when a good part of the journey is going down a mountain. In most cases it would be totally safe and doable to do the summit over two days. Two common approaches include; hike to the summit then back down to Barr Camp the first day (18 miles), followed by a short, six mile exit hike on day two; or, hike six miles to Barr Camp on the first day, then hike 18 miles the next day (from Barr Camp to the summit, then 12 miles down to the trailhead).
If you opt for a third day, as we did, day three would be a relatively easy day. For us, we spent a second night at Barr Camp. On day three, we started with our provided breakfast, then hiked the remaining six miles down to our car in Manitou Springs.
Manitou Springs is a beautiful little mountain town that actually lives up to its name. There are 18 public natural springs, each with a little different mix of minerals providing distinctive tastes. If you like going on a treasure hunt, one can easily spend a couple hours searching for these natural curiosities, each one with a fascinating backstory. The town has its share of gift/souvenir shops, plus an ample array of restaurants. Exploring the town is a great way to cap off your visit once you leave the mountain.
For many avid hikers, two full days would be more than sufficient to hike the twenty-six miles roundtrip. And since the roundtrip is the perfect distance for a marathon, on one day every year, the Pikes Peak marathon foot race is conducted. The race requires entrants to be pre-qualified and is limited to 800 runners.
To summarize, using a multi-day approach to reach Pikes Peak can be a fulfilling and relaxing experience. Yes, there are challenging sections and the climb in altitude is significant, but in all my years of hiking in various mountains, our three day approach to an up and down hike of Pikes Peak, was in my opinion, the easiest mountain hike I have ever done.
Hiking up to the summit of Pikes Peak puts you in the minority. There are several easier options, but you must pay for those services.
Pikes Peak Cog Railway is the highest cog railway in the United States
A popular option (as mentioned earlier) is the historic Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which started service in 1890. In March of 2018, service was stopped, due to operational and maintenance concerns. New equipment has been purchased and the rail line is being rebuilt in time for re-opening in May, of 2021.
Also, there is a toll road operated by the nearby city of Colorado Springs. The 19 mile road is well maintained but subject to closure based on road/weather conditions. One might think the easiest way to summit, is simply to pay the toll and drive. In 2018, three days after we came down the mountain, my brother and his wife tried the drive. They never made it. Around 10,000 feet, my sister-in-law got nauseous and dizzy. They were in a van full of relatives that paid the non-refundable $50 toll only to see a little bit of scenery before turning around. She may have been fine taking the three day hiking approach. We’ll probably never know.
For some, enjoyment of the mountain tops is best done vicariously. For Pikes Peak, the hiking attempt can be done safely, and with relative ease, with the proper preparation. More information will be provided during my Pikes Peak program tentatively scheduled for April 2021 at the Main Library. Details forthcoming.
Side note: The library has a number of books on backcountry hiking. Hiking and Backpacking by Wilderness Education Association; editors, Marni Goldenberg, Bruce Martin and, Backpacker and Hiker’s Handbook by William Kemsley, Jr. are just two examples. Also, Hiking Kansas City by William Eddy and Richard Ballentine is a useful guide where one can practice their skills and test gear on local trails.