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Colorado: Manitou Springs and Pikes Peak

It was a chilly start to the day but we expected it to warm up through the day and there was not a cloud in the sky. An ideal day to go to the top of a 14,000-foot peak! Pikes Peak rises 14,110 feet above Colorado Springs. It is one of 50 peaks in Colorado over 14000 feet – in fact, it is number 31 (the tallest is only about 14350 feet). There are several ways to the summit; walk, car or railway. We chose the latter. The route by car is interesting, the road is a dirt track that snakes its way up the top of the mountain around a series of hairpin bends. Every year there is a race held, which is a time trial, to reach the summit.

The railway that climbs up to the top of Pikes Peak is another example of a cog railway. In fact, there are only 3 in the USA and we will have done 2 of them after this trip (we have already been on the Mount Washington cog railway). The average gradient on Pikes Peak is 25 degrees and takes about an hour and a half to get to the summit. As with the other cog railways, traction comes from a rack and pinion as opposed to rolling along a track as with traditional railway locomotives. In our (well at least Mark’s) great wisdom we had not booked our tickets ahead of time and of course when we arrived there were a great number of people there already. It was Veterans Day weekend and lots of schools were closed for a long weekend and of course and this being a gloriously clear day the crowds had turned out – and unlike us had bought their tickets in advance. We had to go on standby and sit there nervously, not expecting to get on. Fortunately, we did manage to squeeze on but we separated out a bit along with the car.

The trip up Mount Washington was driven by a steam locomotive and was incredibly bumpy, like going across a cobblestone street on a bicycle with solid tires. This was a whole lot smoother, which is just as well because the seats were not too comfortable. The locomotive on this occasion was a diesel, so wasn’t quite as atmospheric but was certainly much quieter. The initial part of the trip passes through a gorge with steep granite cliffs rising either side of the mountain, with large boulders lying at the base from years of weathering. On the trip up to the summit, we get a story of the mountain’s geology and history from the conductor.

The granite peaks of the Rocky Mountain Range were formed by volcanic action millions of years ago and like the sandstone peaks of the Badlands, these are eroding but at a much lesser rate. Granite is a porous rock, and the freezing and thawing of the absorbed water breaks open the granite – resulting in these gigantic boulders tumbling down the mountain. We climb upwards and the land opens up to sprawling forests, lakes and grassland. Pikes Peak is a major source of water for Colorado Springs, providing 30% of the cities water requirements which is evident by the man-made lakes. This mountain has always been a major landmark and received its name from the pioneer Zebulon Pike, who was sent West after the US government acquired lands through the Louisiana Purchase. Pike tried to climb the mountain but failed.

At 12,000 feet the trees disappear and the landscape turns to grassland and scrub and that is the way it remains. Finally, we reached the summit and leave the train for 40 minutes or so. The views were spectacular from the top and on this, we could see summits of mountains over 150 miles away and Colorado Springs was clearly visible below.

We stood outside for a few minutes, but it was cold (as testified by the fact that there was snow on the ground). We retreated inside and settled down for a cup of hot chocolate and a high altitude doughnut (the doughnut-making process does not work so well at 14000 feet). The thing that we did notice was the thin air, we were all struggling a bit with breathing and Jack and Karen soon developed headaches (Karen nearly passed out in the restroom). All too soon it was time to leave and we started our descent. As the conductor passed through the train and asked for tickets he picked up my British accent and asked where I was from and I provided my usual off pat answer – “England”. The conductor then went on to say that he had visited England several times and loved the railways there and has a friend who runs a railway in a small place called Leighton Buzzard. Of course, Karen’s ears pricked up and told the conductor I lived there and my parents still do. We spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries about the various steam railways around the UK. Finally, 3 ½ hours after starting out we reached the bottom. It was a good deal warmer and breathing was easier once again.

After disembarking the rail car we went into downtown Manitou Springs to check out the shops. We wandered into a few stores, but as it was 5 pm by now most were closing for the day. We did find one gift shop open and it turned out to be run by a British woman (they get around these British women), who like some old-world siren, lays in wait for unsuspecting, passing Brits to lure them into her web with some delicacies from their homeland. Having lived in the States for some time now and weaned off these foods we resisted her temptation and moved swiftly on.

Best time to visit Manitou Springs

The best times to visit Manitou Springs are from March to May and from September to October. That’s when you’ll find slightly cooler (yet still comfortable) temperatures as well as fewer crowds and bargain rates. Another perk for fall visitors: the foliage. Expect to see the surrounding mountains speckled with bright reds, oranges and yellows. Warm summer weather draws visitors in droves, leading to price hikes at hotels and congested attractions.

Other places to visit close by

1. GARDEN OF THE GODS

Comprising 1,300 acres of sandstone formations the Garden of the Gods, close to Colorado Springs, is a wonderful place to explore on foot, by bike or even try out some rock climbing. Come to see what has drawn human beings to this wonderful place for millennia.

2. ROYAL GORGE

Royal Gorge is a wonderful natural marvel in itself, a 1000 foot plus deep gorge cut through the mountains by the Arkansas River. Early pioneers to the area recognized the beauty of the spot and also it provided an access route for the railways through the mountains. The railroad passes through the base of the narrow gorge just feet away from the bubbling rapids of the Arkansas River.

Today, not only can walk across a suspension bridge over the gorge you can also take a gondola ride over the canyon plus many other attractions  – including some very thrilling ones!

3. CLIFF DWELLING MUSEUM

The 40 room site was originally located in McElmo Canyon, which is in the southwest corner of Colorado near Mesa Verde and Dolores. The process of relocating these cliff dwellings began in 1904 and was completed in 1907 when the preserve was opened to the public. Virginia McClurg, the original founder of the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association, hired William Crosby and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings Ruins Company to begin this process. They wanted to preserve and protect these dwellings from looters and relic pot-hunters.

Where to stay near Manitou Springs

1. CLIFF HOUSE AT PIKES PEAK

Experience the Victorian splendour of The Cliff House at Pikes Peak. Built back in 1874, the Cliff House has been serving guests for over 145 years now, longer than the number of years Colorado has been a state.

It was originally built as a stagecoach stop. They called it “The Inn.” When the gold strikes in the Pikes Peaks region played out, travellers started to surge and that’s when they decided to open their doors to guests. The interest in the ancient mineral springs also began to rise.

The Cliff House is now a part of the National Registry of Historic Places. They have 54 elegant guest rooms and luxury suites that are packed with modern amenities.

2. KINSHIP LANDING

Kinship Landing was specifically designed not just to welcome travellers, but to serve as a hub for locals, naturally mingling the two crowds that have plenty to share with each other, given the opportunity. The 80-bed boutique certainly offers lux options with suites that include fully-opening garage door windows, LED fireplaces and extravagant soaking tubs, but it’s the other end of the spectrum that makes this property seriously special. Co-founded by world travellers on a budget, Kinship Landing offers high-quality hostel accommodations in a full-service hotel with bunk rooms so chill you may want to stay there no matter your budget.

3. BLUE SKIES INN

If you need privacy and a little bit of pampering, then Blue Skies Inn could be the best place for you while staying in Manitou Springs. This friendly and charming B&B is located at the base of Pikes Peak. They have three separate houses with guests rooms that have an average size of 450 square feet. The suites have a bedroom, sitting room and bathroom.

What makes Blue Skies a special retreat are its unique rooms. Every suite has a theme and offers special views of the surrounding forests. This is also perfect for family reunions and small occasions

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