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Climb America's Mountain

Three hikes on Pikes Peak

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As I sat in the A-frame shelter watching the shadow of Pikes Peak creep out over Colorado Springs, I couldn't help but wonder if any of the people below, were looking up at me on the mountain.

Likewise, whenever I am stuck in town, I find myself looking longingly at the mountain and wishing I were there again -- hiking the trails, crossing the valleys, exploring the ravines and cruising along the ridge tops.

An unusual feeling of serenity comes over me whenever I am on the Peak -- a feeling that washes away all my worries, as if they can't reach me at that elevation. It is a feeling that you may be able to attain as well, just by hitting a trail, and letting your troubles drain out the bottoms of your boot soles.

Pikes Peak is the perfect location to give it a try, with thousands of acres of National Forest, and hundreds of miles of trails -- and it's less than 30 minutes from home, no matter where you live in the city.

The most well-known trail on Pikes Peak, also the one considered to be most difficult, is Barr Trail. Barr Trail begins in Manitou Springs at the end of Ruxton Avenue. To find the trailhead, take Highway 24 to Manitou Springs, then follow the signs for the Cog Railway up Manitou Avenue to Ruxton. Pass the Cog Railway depot and the Manitou Power plant and make a right uphill to the parking area for Barr Trail. Get there early, as the trailhead parking is usually full before 6 a.m. in the summertime.

For many people the first three miles of the trail are the most difficult. Barr Trail begins with a steep ascent switching back through the yucca and scrub oak. If you don't start early, this can also be the hottest part of your day. After the first mile, you will reach the shade of pine trees, but don't rest yet; there is still plenty of climbing ahead. The trail continues its steep grade for a couple more miles until you drop down to cross a branch of Cabin Creek. From here, a couple of quick switchbacks will take you to the ridge top and easier hiking. The trail levels out for a bit, and you will even enjoy a couple of short downhill sections as you head toward Barr Camp.

Barr Camp is just about halfway if you are climbing to the summit, or it makes an excellent stop for lunch if you're day hiking. There are also cabins and A-frame shelters available for rent if you would like to spend the night. Services at Barr Camp are very limited, so come prepared and be sure to pack out what you bring in.

From Barr Camp, the trail winds up through the valley and then begins to ascend again toward the summit. Several extremely long switchbacks will make you wonder if you are ever going to reach timberline, but be sure to pause long enough to enjoy the views through the aspen and the ghost forest of dead trees left after a fire.

The next major landmark you will find is the A-frame shelter located just below timberline at 12,000 feet. For anyone who wants to break the round-trip hike into two days, this is an excellent place to spend the night. The shelter is enclosed on three sides and offers wonderful views out over Colorado Springs to the plains. There is a small stream nearby providing fresh water, but be sure to filter before drinking. Open fires are discouraged here, so use a backpacking stove to minimize your impact.

Barr Trail leaves the A-frame shelter and quickly emerges from the trees as it winds its way up the peak. It meanders north across a large, flat area before cutting south again across the face of the peak. There is a great overlook here peering down into the Crater, a deep cirque carved by glaciers. Catch your breath here for the last mile and the 12 golden stairs to the summit.

Barr Trail is 13 miles one way, and gains over 7,000 feet in elevation, quite an accomplishment for most people to finish it. Even more impressive for those who turn around at the summit and head back down.

But Barr Trail is just one way to see one portion of Pikes Peak.

On the north side of Pikes Peak, just off the Pikes Peak Highway a little-known jewel awaits the energetic hiker. Elk Park Trail is a quiet path that begins just above timberline and drops down to Barr Camp. Unlike most trails on the Peak, this one gives you a good opportunity to trek downhill first.

Finding the Elk Park Knoll trailhead can be the trickiest part of the entire hike. One mile above Glen Cove there is a metal gate used to close the upper portion of the highway in winter. Just before you reach this gate, there are a pair of metal posts that mark the turnoff to Elk Park Knoll. The first time you make this turn, it can be a little intimidating as the road drops off steeply and it seems like you are driving off the side of the mountain.

The trail begins just below at a small parking area and drops through a talus field down to timberline. You probably won't encounter too many people along the trail, as the highway toll discourages many users.

This first portion of trail is actually the remnants of an old road, leading down to an abandoned mining area. At just over one mile, you will reach North French Creek and a fork in the trail. To the right, the trail climbs through a gentle valley and past the ruins of several mining cabins. Continue to the head of the valley and the Oil Creek Tunnel. Originally a mine, the Oil Creek Tunnel now is the headwaters of North French Creek. A large boiler still stands outside of the tunnel as a memorial of sorts to the abandoned mine. Backtrack to the intersection and continue down Elk Park Trail toward Barr Camp.

From the fork, the trail follows the creek a distance before you reach the intersection with Severy Creek Trail. This trail is currently closed to protect an endangered species of trout living downstream. Please respect the current trail closure.

Cross North French Creek here and head up to the ridge overlooking Manitou Reservoir. The trail levels out as it crosses a high meadow before dropping down to meet the South Fork of French Creek. The trail follows the creek for a short distance before climbing a ridge and then dropping down to Barr Camp. It is just over five miles from the trailhead to Barr Camp.

No overnight parking is allowed on the Pikes Peak Highway, and all cars must be off the mountain by 9 p.m., so you will need to head back to the trailhead before dark.

Pikes Peak Highway is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer months, weather permitting. You must purchase a summit pass to get to Elk Park Knoll. These cost $10 for adults over 15 or $35 per carload. You can also purchase an annual pass for $50 for adults, or an $80 family pass for two adults and two children.

A much more well-known and popular hike is the Crags Trail on the northwest side of Pikes Peak. To find the trailhead, take Highway 67 south from Divide toward Cripple Creek and turn off at the Crags Campground sign on your left. The campground and trailhead are located a couple of miles down the bumpy, winding road from the turnoff.

The trail begins at the east end of the campground. Starting out fairly wide and flat, the Crags Trail follows a stream into a scenic valley surrounded by beautiful rock formations. In this valley the path splits, but both trails lead to the same overlook. Following the right fork, the trail leads to the head of the valley and then ascends steeply to a saddle overlooking the reservoirs of the North Slope Recreation Area. Continue climbing up to the left through boulders and along slabs until you reach the highpoint of the Crags. Here you will find views from the eastern plains to the western mountains broken only by Pikes Peak.

After taking a well-deserved break atop the Crags, head west and down the other side to reconnect with the main trail in the valley. Be careful when descending this route, as it is much steeper than the way up, with plenty of loose rock. The entire round-trip is only three miles, which combined with the relative ease and beautiful vistas make it an excellent destination to bring your children or out-of-town visitors.

There are many other excellent trails on Pikes Peak, and hundreds within a short drive of Colorado Springs. Whether you tackle the challenge of Barr Trail, the peaceful serenity of Elk Park Trail, the beautiful vistas of the Crags, or any other trail in the area, be sure to respect your fellow hikers and the environment as well.

And when you look down over Colorado Springs, remember the less fortunate who are looking up at you and dreaming of being there.

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