Starting for Colorado Springs Early…WAY Early!
We got up and on the road at 6am today. We were headed to Colorado Springs to spend the day with our friends, Joe and Lexi. They wanted to get a jump on the crowds heading up to Pike’s Peak, so we agreed to meet at their house at 6:45. Neither Becky nor myself are what you call “morning people”…but in three days, we would be back home—in the Eastern Time Zone, which is two hours ahead of Colorado. So as much as we’d have loved to sleep in, it really was practical to get going way early.
The sun was already cracking the horizon by the time we got on the road. The air was a little hazy, but that only added to the dramatic look of the golden light and dark shadows on the terrain ahead of us, and on the Rocky Mountains to our West. Though we were heading from one major city to the next, the drive was a mere 45 minutes, thanks to my cousin’s house being as close to the edge of Denver’s suburbs as you can get. The farther south we went on I-25, the more it felt like we were in the foothills rather than on the plains like in Denver.
Now Lexi and her family are originally from Cleveland. I met Lexi on the exact same day as I met Becky for the first time, actually! She was already a good friend of the family by then. Becky’s sister, Rachel, was actually in Lexi’s wedding three years ago. Lexi ended up in Colorado Springs with her two brothers when her mom remarried a few years before that. Lexi’s husband, Joe, was good friends with Lexi’s brother, who recently married one of Rachel’s best friends after he moved back to Cleveland. Lexi came in for our wedding, and we met Joe when they both came in for her brother’s wedding. So yeah…we know Lexi and her family…but today would be our first time really getting to know Joe. So far he seems like an OK guy…
Pikes Peak Cog Railway
We pulled into Joe and Lexi’s driveway a minute or two after 6:45. They both rushed out and told us to jump in their car so we could get to the train in time to get good seats. For the rest of the day, Joe did all the driving, which was an awesome break for us!
In 20 minutes we were at the station for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in the mountain town of Manitou Springs. Parking was painless, and we were in line for good seats for the first train of the day, which departed at 8am. The station was rather compact, with just enough room for a ticket office, a gift shop, small restrooms, and an area to queue passengers boarding the train. Unfortunately, they do not allow outside food or drinks—not even water bottles—and therefore the prices remind you of what you’d pay in a movie theater. Joe was kind enough to buy each of us a 32-ounce bottle of water, but my eyes popped out when I saw it cost him $13!
Speaking of water, I was glad that we were on the first train, and therefore there was not double the amount of people because of returning passengers. I’m sure the small restrooms get quite a bit of use since there are no restrooms aboard the trains. Altitude and hydration were still foremost on my mind, being that even on the ground we were already at 6,000 feet. Since it’s a 60-90 minute trip each way, I knew that managing my drinking and peeing would be critical to my comfort today.
As we waited for the train, we could see splendid examples of the reddish colored Pikes Peak granite all around. This rock was everywhere in and around Manitou Springs, and really contrasted well with the green of the pines and aspens all around us in the golden rays of the low morning sun.
We were on the train and out of the station at 8:07am. From here on up to the top, the conversation amongst ourselves was intertwined with that of our conductor and tour guide, Luke. Luke was a young man who looked to be at most 25, but easily could have been much younger. He shared quite a bit of history on Pikes Peak and the railway. He shared that Pikes Peak had several names before it was finally called Pikes Peak. The mountain is named after Zebulon Pike, who mounted an expedition to climb to the summit, but failed. And while Pikes Peak is but 1 of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners”, or mountains over 14,000 feet, there are very few mountains between it and the Great Plains. This makes it the most prominent mountain in Colorado’s Front Range, making it appear to stand alone for hundreds of miles over the Great Plains to the east—all the way to Kansas.
As Pikes Peak has a story that is unique among Colorado’s mountains, the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway also has a unique story among Colorado’s railroads. Back in the 1880s, railroads were built primarily for industrial purposes to take advantage of the state’s many mining opportunities. After a ride to the summit of Pikes Peak on the back of a donkey, Zalmon Simmons of Kenosha, Wisconsin and founder of the Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Company, saw a business opportunity. He decided to build a railway to make it way easier to go to the top of Pikes Peak, and he did it purely for tourism. He went home and lined up investors, and two years later he was taking people to the top of Pikes Peak for a cool $5 each—that’s $125 in today’s money. The railroad was a hit back then, and since our early train was completely full, I’d say it’s still a hit today. The good news is that the cost of tickets has not kept up with inflation, as round-trip tickets cost only about a third of $125—and that may be why they sell water at $3.25 per bottle.
Anyway, there are three cars on each train heading up and down the mountainside. There’s an aisle down the middle with three seats on the left side going up, and two seats on the right side. The seats are arranged front-to-front and back-to-back, meaning every passenger faces another passenger. Before we embarked on our 18-day journey, a friend back home warned us that we want to get seats that angle up rather than down. And about 15 minutes up the mountain, Luke suggested that we introduce ourselves to the folks across from us—we were heading into our first 25 percent grade, and we’d probably be getting more familiar with them as a result. This was easy for us, because we knew each other, but we followed his advice nonetheless. Becky and I were angled down on the way up, though, and we really didn’t have any problems staying in our seats.
Each set of seats facing each other has it’s own window. On the bottom, the windows are all open, and it’s easy to see over them and take pictures. By the time you pass the tree line into alpine elevations, the temperature is decidedly cooler, so Luke told us we could close our windows and turn on the heater for the rest of the trip. The heater made things quite comfortable in spite of the 36°F temperature at the summit. I would still recommend having at least one or two extra layers of long sleeves handy though, not just for the trip, but the summit too.
Before we reached the top, Luke advised us that we’d have a little less than an hour there, and that the train whistle would blow ten minutes before departure. He said it was important for round-trip passengers to be on the train at departure—Otherwise we would “slowly transform into hikers—and what a hike it is! Thirteen miles in one direction from the summit back to Manitou Springs. And for you runners out there thinking, ‘thirteen miles!’, yes, they do have a marathon each year, going up and back down the mountain.”
The Summit of Pikes Peak
So we reached the summit at the elevation of 14,115 feet above sea level, with sunny clear skies and a temperature of 38°F. About halfway up the mountain, I struggled not to think about my bladder, so on arrival I bee-lined for the restrooms. Curse the effects of altitude and dehydration! The good news is that the restrooms are wonderful, nicely heated with sinks that mysteriously have far more water pressure than the ones at the station on the bottom. The building also houses a gift shop and cafeteria, and is right next to the train platform and the parking lot at the end of the Pikes Peak Toll Road. I will say that after white-knuckle driving on the heights of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park yesterday, taking a train confined to its rails up the side of a mountain was a much less nerve-wracking way to go.
Someone at the bottom told me that I should go out and enjoy the view when we get to the top—many people go straight to the concession line and end up waiting so long that they run out of time. After finishing in the restroom, I took this advice and checked out the vantage points. The sides of the mountain are 100% rocky and quite steep. There are a couple of overlooks with those giant binoculars that cost a quarter. You could easily see for miles and miles into the distance across Colorado Springs and the Great Plains beyond. I shot a handheld panorama on what I think was the north side of the mountain, and then we all went inside to warm up.
I chugged as much water as I could while we waited in the concession line, hoping I’d be able to fit in one more restroom run before we got back on the train. While I moved a little slower, mostly because of the cold, I felt as good as I ever had in spite of the extreme altitude. Joe very generously bought us all coffee and hot chocolate, along with a half dozen of “world famous” Pikes Peak donuts. I wondered what could be so unique about the donuts, and Becky reminded me that they may be cooked differently because of the altitude. When I tasted them, I didn’t find them remarkably different, except for the novelty that they were made at the summit of Pikes Peak.
We went outside again and took pictures of each couple just before the train blew it’s whistle for the ten-minute warning. We were all settled in on the train when I realized that I would be wasting several minutes when I could have been outside shooting more photos! So I told everyone I’d be back and bolted out. I ran over to a more easterly overlook so I could get some shots that included Colo Spgs (pronounced “CO-lo spgs”, just like it sounds…I’ll get back to this in a bit).
After a few minutes, the train blew its whistle again…I wasn’t sure I should panic though, since no one else was rushing back to the train. I asked a couple of EMS workers if it was just another warning whistle, but neither of them were quite sure. The only thing that was certain was that the train was not actually leaving right this minute…so I still had time to hit the restroom one last time…which I did, as fast as I could!
I knew one last pit stop would make me way more comfortable on the way down, and I made it back to the train with at least a minute or two to spare. Either way, Joe was waiting at the door, just in case they decided to take off without me. He had more planned for the day, and me hiking 13 miles would have cramped all of that hahaha!
On the way back, Luke reminded us to let him know of any animals we spot along the way. On the way up, Becky saw one of the smaller animals, a marmot—but we hadn’t seen any of the bighorn sheep that live in alpine elevations this time of year. A few minutes later, another conductor pointed one out that I saw only briefly.
The ride down was delightfully comfortable for me. My bladder was in no need of urgent relief the entire way down. The train was warm from the heater running the entire time at the station. It was much quieter too, since Luke told all of his stories on the way up, and was now making rounds with all of the passengers on the train. He had a couple items for sale, and he answered any questions we had. When he came by, we thanked him for his stimulating commentary.
Back at the bottom, with our window now open, we could feel that it was still summer, although not quite as warm as Colorado typically gets. We got off the train, went yet again to the restroom, and met up back at the car.
From the train station parking lot, Joe drove us down to a public parking lot near the center of Manitou Springs. All of the parking here uses electronic parking meters that are placed at each lot and at regular intervals along the street. Manitou Springs is a lovely little town nestled in the mountains with a rushing river flowing between and under the many art galleries, shops, and restaurants that serve tourists passing through to the cog railway, the Barr Trail, or the Pikes Peak Toll Road. With all the congestion downtown, it’s best to pay for whatever parking you can find and plan to walk.
We sat down for lunch at one of the restaurants, although I forget which one. The food was good and our server was excellent, but the menu was in a state of flux as new ownership had just taken over. As a result of the menu overhaul, they ran out of a few of their drafts and some of the dishes. The food and the western decor made it seem like the place had potential.
After lunch we had a couple of hours left on our parking, so we headed down to the Manitou Springs Penny Arcade. This place is chock full of classics, including old pinball machines and games from back as far as the 1940s, and as new as the 1990s. Many of the older machines were still in working order and still only cost a penny or a nickel to play. I tried my hand at an old shoot’em up with Joe that I barely understood—it looked about 50-75 years old with an analog score counter and all analog controls—I never knew they made them so sophisticated that long ago! I also gave some from the 1980s video game era a try, like Ms. Pac-Man and Tron. When I was a kid, my dad bought a miniature Ms. Pac-Man game and taught me how to clear off the board and get over 100,000 points…my skills have considerably diminished though. I spent quite a bit of time on Tron, where I could destroy the MCP, disc my way into an interface tower, drive a tank, or attempt to survive the light cycles. Most of the games were pretty easy on the first level, but I kept striking out on the light cycles after getting lucky with a good move on my first try…glad I’m a user and not a program!
Heading Over to North Cheyenne Cañon
Around 2:30 or 3, we gathered up and headed out for our next adventure. Joe drove us through Colorado City, another historic town turned into an entertainment district along the lines of Manitou, sans mountains. Then we headed back into the mountains in North Cheyenne Cañon Park. Throughout the entire Colo Spgs area, the orange-red color of the rocks make everything seem magical. While heading into any canyon is awesome in and of itself, the colored rocks made North Cheyenne Cañon that much more dramatic. If only we had time to go hiking here!
I suppose I ought to take a moment here to address the whole Colo Spgs thing. It really seems to be the actual name of the place, since I don’t recall seeing one single official highway sign that didn’t abbreviate Colorado Springs as Colo Spgs! As a result, I have decided to pronounce it the way it is spelled. The funny thing is, I started doing this around Joe and Lexi, and they had no idea what I was talking about. Once I told them it was what all the signs said, laughter erupted, since they knew it was an accurate observation. It was so universally abbreviated all over the state that you began to wonder if it was beyond the public means to purchase large enough signs for the entire name. I mean, I come from a place that manages to spell out names like Willoughby Hills, Upper Sandusky, and at least most of Middleburg Heights. So even though the name Colorado Springs has a great ring to it, for me and the state of Colorado, it shall forever be known more simply as Colo Spgs. I guess when you have Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods, you don’t feel like you need to bother with big names.
Helen Hunt Falls and Gold Camp Road
Anyway, back to Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Cañon…which by the way isn’t named after the actress, but rather for Helen Hunt Jackson. She was a 19th Century poet and writer who advocated for better treatment of Native American people. The parking area here was small and congested, but while the falls are not large at 35 feet, they are quite photogenic.
At the small visitor center here, we saw a bold little hummingbird at the feeder. Hopefully I got a decent picture of it, because it was probably the last decent picture I got that day. Dummy me brought all of my photo gear down, but never bothered to put a spare charged battery in my smaller bag when we left Joe and Lexi’s. We were way across town now with rush hour and possibly evening thunderstorms approaching. I suppose I should congratulate myself for having made it through almost the entire trip without having this problem, and that it happened on a day when I was really more interested in my friends than the photographic opportunities.
From the falls, Joe drove us up a positively gorgeous switchback to Gold Camp Road. Gold Camp Road is a dirt road that winds its way around the side of Mays Peak at the top of Cheyenne Cañon. Hundreds of feet below, we could see the road we drove in on, and from Point Sublime the entire city of Colo Spgs. Joe was quite sure of his driving, and enjoyed antagonizing the fears of us flatlanders as we ascended to higher heights with fewer guardrails. It was still fun though, with cool little one-lane tunnels and spectacular views.
Garden of the Gods
Gold Camp Road heads north along the edge of the city, past several highly perched and highly expensive dwellings on the mountainside. A short jaunt down a couple more roads lead us to the incredible Garden of the Gods. The rocks here were lit with the most amazing late afternoon light. Oh if only I’d remembered my batteries!
We did not stop at this time though, since Becky wanted to stop and see Lexi’s mom before she and Lexi’s stepdad went out for the evening. Joe was also kind enough to run us by our car so I could reload on batteries.
Our timing on everything worked out just fine, except that we made it back to Garden of the Gods when a storm was about to roll in. Since it was 7pm by then, the good light was gone anyway, and the rains came just a few minutes after I grabbed one or two shots. Next time I intend to shoot some panoramas, since the rock formations here are absolutely spectacular.
Dinner & Departure
For dinner, we stopped at a national chain restaurant we don’t have back in Cleveland, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. It was almost like a sports bar had a baby with the Cheesecake Factory, minus the cheesecake. Afterwards, we hung out for a while at Lexi and Joe’s, before heading back to my cousin’s in Denver. We were so happy we got to see Lexi again and actually spend some real time with Joe. Lexi and I got to talk shop a bit since she too is serious about photography. We look forward to returning to Colo Spgs to see our friends and pounce on the ample hiking opportunities here.
Our drive back to Denver was swift and uneventful. I looked forward to sleeping in tomorrow morning and exploring Downtown Denver, along with meeting a photographer colleague for lunch there. I was especially excited to hang out with my aunt and all my cousins at the evening cookout!