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2013: West outdoors

Possibly the most breathtaking part of any metro area around



Many locals think the west side is the best side for playing in the sun, and they may be right. There are so many choices for recreation, it's hard to choose.

"The city's west side is rich with outdoor opportunities," says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, a nonprofit that works to preserve open space and parks and create trails, bikeways and greenways in the Pikes Peak region.

The old standards, like Garden of the Gods Park (1805 N. 30th St., gardenofgods.com) and Red Rock Canyon Open Space (redrockcanyonopenspace.org), are perennial favorites, Davies says. But this year, there are several new opportunities, including biking to the top of Pikes Peak (pikes-peak.com) and legally hiking the Manitou Incline (manitouincline.com).

A few areas remain closed as of press time due to last summer's Waldo Canyon Fire. But as recovery work continues, check back in on those — for instance, Davies says, Rampart Reservoir Recreation Area (Rampart Range Road, tinyurl.com/Rampart-Reservoir), with all its fishing, boating, camping and trail options could open around Memorial Day.

The big ones

Garden of the Gods was recently recognized as one of the nation's 10 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association.

"If you're new to the area, or have out-of-town guests, Garden of the Gods is a great place to start," Davies says. "You'll find every type of trail accommodating all ages and fitness levels."

Dramatic, 300-foot tall sandstone rock formations have been a draw for centuries — from the dinosaurs to the Ute Indians to today's 2 million sightseers who pass through the park every year.

Formally designated as a public park in 1909, when the city of Colorado Springs received nearly 500 acres in a bequest, the land now has 15 miles of easy-to-moderate trails, 30-minute naturalist-led walks daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., mountain bike trails and paved bike lanes, rock-climbing routes and many opportunities to just sit in awe.

To the south, the same rock formation runs through Red Rock Canyon Open Space, which in the 1800s provided quarries for gypsum, sand and sandstone blocks, and was the site of an ore refinery that served Cripple Creek's gold mines. The city of Colorado Springs purchased the nearly 800-acre property, off West Highway 24 and Ridge Road, in 2003 to preserve it as public open space.

Davies said Red Rock Canyon "is considered by many to be just as magnificent as Garden of the Gods, but a little wilder and a lot less crowded."

Since the Waldo Canyon loop up Highway 24 has been closed to public use since last summer's fire that bears its name, Red Rocks has become more popular for hiking, trail running, mountain biking and technical rock climbing. Moderate-to-easy trails give way to spectacular views in all directions. Skilled riders will appreciate the connection from this park to Section 16 (from Mesa or Greenlee trails) and the Palmer Trail Loop.

There's no drinking water or flush toilets, but porta-potties are available. As with other city parks, dogs must be leashed.

No dogs are allowed on the Manitou Incline (manitouincline.com), but now people are, following the Feb. 1 legalization of this well-used natural workout. Built in the 19th century as a railway bed that transported material for a water line, the vertical steps gain 2,000 feet in elevation over Mount Manitou's one mile. Even before it was technically made legal, runners, cyclists, military personnel and even Olympic athletes routinely challenged their stamina on the trail. New rules include no pets, and hours from dusk to dawn.

The top of the Incline deposits you onto Pikes Peak proper, mere feet away from Barr Trail (tinyurl.com/Hike-Barr). Take a left and you'll find a switchback-laden descent back into Manitou. Take a right and you'll find yourself about a third of the way to Barr Camp (barrcamp.com), one of the coolest little outposts on any mountain, anywhere. Caretakers Neal and Teresa Taylor open the doors to their little log cabin from 7 to 7, every day, offering a warm space and clean bathrooms, while selling snacks and hot drinks to passers-through. You can also stay overnight at the camp, and enjoy some of the Taylors' cooking, if you want to make your ascent of Barr Trail's 13 miles into a two-day (or longer) affair. There's also a stream at the camp where you can grab some drinking water — just be sure to treat it first.

On the other side of the mountain is the Pikes Peak Highway (pikespeak.us.com), now open for unescorted bicycling up to the summit from the tollgate in Cascade. A pilot program to allow cyclists between last Sept. 4 and 30 resulted in 1,041 users, according to a highway official. That led to the Jan. 1 opening of the paved roadway to bicyclists year-round.

If you're not up to the challenge of hiking or pedaling the Peak, you can drive up the highway or take the Pikes Peak Cog Railway (515 Ruxton Ave., cograilway.com). Either will get you to the glory — the famous donuts churned out at the summit restaurant. There are other attractions there, too, including an incredible 360-degree view from 14,110 feet above sea level.

The North Slope Recreation Area (tinyurl.com/CS-NSlope) opens May 1 and closes Oct. 20. On Sept. 22, there will be an early-admission day for photographers and visitors. Gates will open at 5:15 a.m. to allow travelers to reach the summit for a sunrise photo op. And once again this year, there will be guided hikes in August and September on the South Slope of the Peak (springsgov.com).

Beyond Pikes Peak up U.S. Highway 24, you'll find countless other spots for hiking and biking, perhaps foremost among them Divide's Mueller State Park (parks.state.co.us/parks/Mueller), with 55 miles of oft-overlooked, but beautiful, trails.

Not to be forgotten

Reining things back in a bit, another new addition to west-side recreational sites is Rainbow Falls (mecacolorado.org), just west of Manitou Springs. The historic waterfall hidden beneath Highway 24 has been restored under El Paso County ownership. New trails run along Fountain Creek, picnic sites have been added, graffiti is gone, and the parking lot is expanded.

Also free to visit and explore inside and outside is Bear Creek Nature Center (245 Bear Creek Road, adm.elpasoco.com/parks), in the western portion of El Paso County's Bear Creek Regional Park near 26th Street and Lower Gold Camp Road. This is the hub for the park's educational programs: Interactional displays including an observation beehive, a wildlife diorama and touch-screen exhibits draw children and adults, as do various programs, such as bird watching, the life of coyotes, moonlight hikes and more. Surrounding the center is a network of self-guided trails, including one that's paved and wheelchair-accessible. The center is open 9 to 2, Wednesday through Friday, and 8 to 4 on Saturday. A great dog park is an important part of this regional park, too.

Not to be forgotten are the smaller city parks (all at springsgov.com), great spots for playing, barbecuing and enjoying summer festivals. Old Colorado City's Bancroft Park, at 24th Street and Colorado Avenue, hosts a weekly summer farmers market (see p. 18) and has a band shell where live music can be heard throughout the warm-weather months. Thorndale Park at 2310 W. Uintah St. has a contemporary playground, picnic tables and barbecue grills, along with tennis and basketball courts.

In Manitou, there's Soda Springs Park (1016 Manitou Ave.), which has a heavily used amphitheater and playground; Memorial Park (500 block of Manitou Avenue) with a playground and numerous summer festivals; and the creekside Fields Park (Beckers Lane and El Paso Boulevard) with a popular skate park and athletic fields.

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