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Pikes Peak casts a big shadow, but much of the west is wild

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Congratulations, you lucky punk.

You have just entered the most visually stunning side of town. There are endless treasures to feast your eyes on (and sink your boots and tires and cams into) on the west side, but you can probably guess that any discussion of this area always begins with that mountain.

So let us begin. In 1806, Zebulon Pike, the explorer for whom Pikes Peak is named, wrote about the task of climbing the 14,115-foot mount in winter with insufficient supplies. (He never reached the summit.)

Today, he might be astounded to know that Pikes Peak — "America's Mountain" — is now the second most-visited mountain in the world after Japan's Mount Fuji, with visitors summiting by foot, car, cog railway and even bicycle. Heck, by the 1870s, soldiers were living on the mountain's summit. Interesting footnote: During that time period, one particularly onerous man in uniform managed to convince the worldwide press that his baby daughter had been eaten by giant rats on the mountain.

The area isn't exactly known for its man-eating rodents. Although over the past couple hundred years, the west side has been known as a haven for drunk miners and a place of healing for those stricken with tuberculosis, a hot spot for witchcraft, a spa retreat and a pocket of liberalism. But mostly, it's known for its glorious good looks.

Exhibit 1: It is the view from the top of Pikes Peak that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful."

Exhibit 2: In 1859, the story goes, a poetically inclined white kid showed up at the sandstone wonderland near the base of the peak and was so enamored he dubbed it "Garden of the Gods."

Exhibit 3: The American Indians had noticed the Garden a little earlier — having already held it sacred for hundreds of years.

Lacing up the boots

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back to Pikes Peak (visitpikespeak.com). If you're physically fit, hike the Barr Trail, which starts at the top of Ruxton Avenue in Manitou Springs. You can park in the parking lot at the end of Hydro Street, but be sure to avoid the lot reserved for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. (The Cog, by the way, will haul you to the top of the mountain for a fee in a much less strenuous fashion.)

You'll need to get an early start, to check a weather report, and to pack food, water, emergency supplies, sunscreen and warm clothes. Also, it's a good idea to give yourself a few days to acclimate to our elevation before attempting the climb ­— altitude sickness can make you feel like you have the flu. Barr Trail gains 7,800 feet and stretches 12 miles (one way), so be prepared.

For those not ready for the full hike, Barr Camp (barrcamp.com) is located 6.5 miles up and features a cozy cabin. Many people only make the trek to the camp. Others plan ahead, make reservations, and stay at Barr Camp overnight, then summit the following day.

If you're a little less ambitious, head west up U.S. Highway 24 until you see a large paved parking lot on your right, before you reach the town of Cascade. This is an entrance to the Waldo Canyon Loop trail, which is moderate in difficulty and about seven miles long. It features some good climbs and great views of stratified canyon walls and of Pikes Peak. And there are plenty of less predictable bits of amusement as well, such as a huge boulder that appears to be held back from rolling downhill by two trees.

A little farther up Highway 24, you could try the North Slope Recreation Area (springsgov.com), accessible via the Pikes Peak Toll Road off U.S. Highway 24 in Cascade. Among the 2,200-plus acres on this part of the Peak is a visitors center, three reservoirs (that allow some boating but no swimming) and plenty of hiking opportunities.

And a little farther along Highway 24 from there lies Green Mountain Falls (greenmountainfalls.org). Park and hike up steep Hondo Avenue to where it dead-ends into beautiful Catamount Falls. This is the place to be on the hottest summer days, since the spray is cool and much of the hike is in the shade.

You'll hike up Catamount Trail along the waterfall and climb through the woods, until you reach a grassy meadow called the Garden of Eden, where you'll follow a charming little stream until it hits a dirt road. Follow the road to South Catamount Reservoir and take in the view before heading back. Round-trip, the hike is about six miles. Near the reservoir, you'll see signs for the Ring the Peak trail (fotp.com/ringthepeak/index.html). You can take this trail all the way to Pancake Rocks, around 15 miles one way. But don't be fooled — the trail's not been completed, and it won't loop you back.

For a less challenging outing, make the obligatory visit to Garden of the Godsc (1805 N. 30th St., gardenofgods.com). Start your trip at the Visitor and Nature Center to get a free map. You'll notice that there are trails in the Garden that are suitable for inexperienced hikers, but our suggestion is to take the three-mile Chambers/Bretag/Palmer trail loop. This is the equivalent of ordering the sampler platter at a restaurant: You'll get a view of most of the formations in the park, and the route steers clear of car traffic.

Just north of GOG, the Glen Eyrie trail system, part of the Navigators-owned estate (3820 N. 30th St., gleneyrie.org/hiking), is closed to the public on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But if you can handle jam and scones before you exercise, getting access to the streamside trails and swimming holes is as simple as purchasing admission to an English Cream Tea ($16, 2:30 p.m. Monday, and Thursday through Saturday; Monday through Saturday beginning in mid-May), the Victorian Tea ($21, 11:30 a.m. Sunday) or a Castle tour ($6, 1 p.m. daily), and then allowing your nosh or tour of the grounds to meander off the beaten path. The trails are open to the public free of charge Monday through Thursday, and whether you show up then, or after touring and dining, you must first jump through a few simple hoops before you hit the trails.

Alternately, you could drive to Divide, head south on Colorado Highway 67, continue a quarter-mile past the turnoff for Mueller State Park (parks.state.co.us/parks/mueller), then take a left at the sign for the Crags Campground (Forest Road 383), and drive three miles to the trailhead. Compared to all the driving you'll do, the Crags is a short 3.5 miles round-trip, but worth it for the spectacular views of rock formations. No, this is not just a repeat of the Garden; it is truly worth seeing. Bonus: You can summit Pikes Peak from the backside from the Crags by taking Devil's Playground trail (Trail 753). While it's steep, it's about half the length of Barr Trail.

One note: If you happen to be a dog lover, keep in mind that Fido needs to be leashed. No matter how friendly your pooch is, people have a tendency to freak out when strange dogs charge toward them on trails.

And if your pup needs some time to run free, there's a place for that. Bear Creek Dog Park (21st and West Rio Grande streets, elpasoco.com) is 25 acres of leash-free pooch paradise — as long as your dog isn't aggressive, and you clean up his messes. There's also a dog off-leash area in Red Rock Canyon off the Greenlee Trail, above the main parking lot, which is accessed from U.S. 24.

Gearing up the bikes

Now, it could be that getting around on your own two feet just isn't your thing. No problem. That's why there are horses. Academy Stables (4 El Paso Blvd., Manitou Springs, academystables.com) offers one to three-hour rides in Garden of the Gods. Or check out one of the many other area stables.

If you prefer two wheels to four heels, you're in luck. The area is a favorite for mountain bikers. Head over to Red Rock Canyon Open Space (Ridge Road, springsgov.com) for everything from steep single-track climbs to rolling hills. The sandstone formations here rival those in Garden of the Gods, but you'll notice that some of the rocks have clearly man-made step formations. The area served as a quarry from the late 1800s to the early part of the 20th century, with rocks harvested here used to construct parts of Old Colorado City and other nearby communities.

Red Rock Canyon is the type of place that's fun to explore. There are a series of shorter trails in the central part of the park, with longer loops to either side of the park. Skilled riders will appreciate the connection from this park to Section 16 (from Mesa or Greenlee trails). But in the late afternoon, it's hard to beat the more laid-back pace of Hogback Trail, which meanders above a wide, golden-hued meadow (actually an old landfill, believe it or not) with views of the mountains and canyons.

As long as you're at Red Rock Canyon, you'll also want to check out the freeride area for technical mountain biking near the U.S. 24 parking lot. Plenty of knee-skinning fun to be had here, between the short pump tracks, teeter totters, berms and beams.

If you love riding your bike but aren't so hot on the whole falling-off possibility, there's always Rampart Range Road, which starts in Garden of the Gods near Balanced Rock. A wide dirt road, Rampart will take you to Woodland Park if you're motivated (and beyond, if you're crazy). The route has some gorgeous views of Pikes Peak, as well as towering cliffs and lookouts into the forest. In autumn, the aspens put on a little show here, and since the road is lightly used (except at the height of tourism season), you can check out the changing colors in peace and quiet. Once you make it the roughly 22 miles to Woodland Park, by the way, you'll want to go to the Donut Mill (310 W. Midland Ave.) for an enormous cinnamon roll or a cone of Blue Bell Ice Cream.

And if you're going to Woodland Park anyway, then you might as well head up to Rampart Reservoir (via Rampart Range Road), about halfway between Garden of the Gods and Woodland Park. The reservoir allows nonmotorized boats and has a launch ramp. In summer, it's a popular spot for fishermen (those who aren't busy enjoying world-class fly fishing along South Platte River), as well as hikers and bicyclists. Lake and peak views are abundant here, as are cool breezes off the water. An 11.6-mile single track loop trail along the reservoir's shores features a series of small hills with some tricky obstacles thrown in for good measure. It's suitable for bicyclists of most skill levels; less advanced riders can walk the difficult sections. For courtesy's sake, ride the trail clockwise.

Belaying and playing

Alternately, if climbing and bouldering are your gig, there's plenty to enjoy without leaving the Springs. To climb in Garden of the Gods or Red Rock Canyon, register first at the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center or risk a whopping $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail. In the Garden, secluded bouldering at the Snake Pit, east of Kindergarten Rock and of the road, features V0 to V7 routes on compact sandstone. Watch for rattlesnakes and bring a crash pad. Alternately, climbs are allowed within a limited area in Red Rock Canyon, which features 90 bolted routes ascending to 130 feet.

For those who like to experience the wild from more of a distance, the west side has plenty of city parks to enjoy, including Manitou Springs' Soda Springs (1016 Manitou Ave.) and Memorial (500 block of Manitou Avenue). Memorial features the beautiful mosaic-ed "Manizoo" sandbox and a playground for the kids. Soda Springs, meanwhile, has a covered bandstand with stage. Both host festivals in warm months.

Head to the east, and you'll hit The Fields, a park with creekside walking paths, tennis courts and a popular skate park. If you're more of a tennis or basketball fan, you'll find courts that satisfy at Thorndale Park (2310 W. Uintah St., springsgov.com), or Bear Creek Regional Park (21st Street and Argus Boulevard, elpasoco.com). Bear Creek, by the way, also has facilities for volleyball and archery. And Jackson Park (1111 Holland Park Blvd.) has four tennis courts, too.

Click here for a West Colorado Springs map!

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