There are many things that can draw me to a trail; the challenge, great views, history or just the fact that it is there. This trail had all of those! I knew when I planned our Colorado vacation, Pikes Peak would be on our agenda. As a child living (briefly) in Colorado, we often had relatives visit and explore the area. Pikes Peak was a regular destination and we generally accompanied them. The idea of driving to one of the highest Rocky Mountain Peaks, along with the bonus of fluffy, warm donuts at the top made it a must-do for everyone. I was looking forward to sharing one of my favorite childhood destinations with my own children.
The trail is often done as an up and back which totals 26 miles. The elevation gain is over 7800 feet which of course means a descent of 7800 feet as well. A hike of this magnitude is out of my ability as a 1-day hike so I opted to drive up and hike down. I discussed my plans with my family and had only one who wanted to join me on my hike. We had 5 on the drive up, but our hiking herd was limited to just my daughter and I.
There are several option for getting to the top of Pikes Peak. You can hike up, bike up, take the cog railway or do as we did and drive the Pikes Peak Highway. It is a toll road ($12 per person or $40 for a car load of 5), is 19 miles long and paved all the way to the top. It was a white knuckle drive for me, not because of the road itself but rather because I was afraid we would blow a motor on our poor little Geo Tracker. Make sure your vehicle is up to the task of driving up a mountain! And of course make sure your brakes are up to the task of driving down! If you are planning to solo hike, or everyone in your group is planning to hike, the cog railway might be a better option. They do allow one-way trips. The truly hardy can just hike the entire trail up and back. The truly crazy can have bikes hauled to the top and ride down.
We made it! No trip to the Pikes Peak Summit would be complete without donuts. The elevation makes them especially light and fluffy. Just don’t try to take them down the mountain for later, your donuts will end up as pancakes. Fun to see but not so good to eat!
After spending some family time and buying some souvenirs to send back in the car, we made our way to the upper trail head. The metal signs along the trail date back to the original construction of the trail. The mileage was off in places but I’m glad they were left for the historical value!
We had a beautiful, clear day for hiking. We had originally planned to drive up the mountain the day before but there was a big thunderstorm assaulting the peak at the time. What a difference a day can make!
Fred Barr was a miner and a trail guide for burro pack trips. He was a visionary whose dedication to the trail gives us the incredible hiking opportunity we have today. One has to wonder if he ever imagined that his trail would still be in use over 100 years after it’s construction! It is even the site for the Pikes Peak Marathon, an annual extreme trail running event. There have been no burros on the trail since the 1960’s but people of all ages still hike past the memorial sign just below the upper trail head. Barr Trail was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1979.
There were a few snow fields near the summit and we had one section of trail that required crossing a bit of snow. It was well packed and there were no regrets about leaving the snowshoes and crampons at home.
Shortly after leaving the summit, we encountered a series of switchbacks know as the 16 golden stairs. Each “stair” was a complete switchback and no, we did not try counting them! This is one of the steepest sections of the trail and an area that made me realize that forgetting my hiking poles was going to be a very regrettable mistake. Even without my poles, I was grateful to be going down and not up. Our timing was such that we were meeting quite a number of people nearing the end of their ascent. They were quite impressed with how fresh we looked until we confessed that our trip to the top was by car, not by foot!
Marmots are actually large squirrels. This is a Yellow-bellied Marmot known to frequent the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains. They are noisy critters and best known for stealing lunches.
I’ve often joked that I plan to hike until well into old age and die by falling off a mountain. (My kids would say I’ve already accomplished the old-age hiking part!) Here is a lady who spent her golden years enjoying the fabulous Rocky Mountains rather than wasting away in a nursing home. I hope she passed away on a glorious, sunny day and her last vision was one of incredible beauty.
The boulder fields and open meadows soon gave way to trees and beautiful flowers. We had fewer and fewer people passing us on their way up. Occasionally we would be passed by people descending but for the most part, we had this section of the trail to ourselves.
Halfway down the trail we came to Barr Camp. Built by Fred Barr between 1922-1924, it offers respite to weary hikers and overnight guests. Reservations are required and accommodation choices include a bunkhouse, private cabin (sleeps 12), lean-tos (sleep 3) and tent spaces for those with their own tent. Snacks and drinks are available to everyone. Breakfast is included for overnight guests and dinner can be purchased on some nights. We were even offered left-over pancakes from the morning breakfast. We declined the pancakes but Casie did buy a Coke. There is no potable water available but a creek runs through the camp for easy access to water for filtering. The creek was ice cold and several campers were using it to cool their drinks. Surprisingly, dogs are allowed both on the trail and in the camp as long as they are leashed. They are not allowed in the buildings and of course the expectation is that you clean up after them. It was beautiful area and we took the time to rest a bit and have a snack. While dispersed camping is allowed along the trail, this is a nice stop at the halfway mark and offers such luxuries as picnic tables and restroom facilities.
The plants, trees and flowers changed as we reached lower elevation. Indian paintbrush speckled the trailside.
The lower elevations were full of interesting rock formations that looked like they were formed with coarse sand and pea gravel. The formations looked fragile but were quite solid. I thought this one looked like a giant hiking boot! It would be interesting to learn the geologic forces that resulted in these rock sculptures.
The signs of civilization became more prevalent as we neared the bottom. We picked up LOTS of company after passing the spur trail to the Manitou Incline Trail. This apparently is very popular with local runners as most of the people passing us were doing just that.
Casie had been growing increasingly frustrated with my slow pace and wanted to join the runners. I told her she could run when we hit the 1 mile mark. I would meet her at the bottom after my last mile hobble. My hiking mantra, “never forget your hiking poles, never forget your hiking poles, never forget your hiking poles…”
And now began what I believe is one of the longest half-miles in trail history! My knees were screaming and cussing my forgetfulness. I was entertained, however, by a couple who appeared to be on one of their first dates. At least that is what I gathered from their conversation that they were not shy about sharing. We played leap-frog along the trail as they would hike past me, then stop to play kissy-face for a bit. They seemed a bit annoyed by my company but there really was little I could do about it. A note of advice to future lovebirds. If you want your love-fest to be private, choose a less popular trail!
The moon was rising over the trees as I made my way down the final stretches of trail. Casie joined me about 1/4 mile from the bottom. She had made the last mile in under 14 minutes which I thought was quite good for a non-runner and someone what had already hiked 12 miles down the side of the mountain. She then hiked back up to make sure I made it down ok. Apparently I did something right raising her! We managed to keep ahead of the lovebirds and the company helped me keep my mind off my achy knees.
We did it! The hike took 7 hours, 15 minutes for me to complete with a couple of stops for snacks and many, many stops for pictures. It was a beautiful day on a very scenic trail and great company.
I would say this is a must-do trail and one that I would consider worth traveling to do. The Colorado Springs area has so much to do and Pikes Peak should be on everyone’s list. The trail is well maintained, well marked and the views are fantastic. The options are many, from day-hiking to backpacking, up only, down only or up and back. You can go up (or down) the mountain by car, motorcycle, bicycle, cog railway or by foot. In other words, there is a hike/adventure available for everyone! The only caveat, the trail does not cross any roads so once you start, you are committed. The altitude is a factor to consider and you will need to acclimate if you are not already. Parts of the trail were quite busy but it did not take away from the trail experience. This is a trail I would do again if the opportunity arose.