A cog railway journey to the top of one of Colorado’s 14000 ft peaks
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 the mountain around a series of hairpin bends. Every year there is race held, which is a time trail, 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 degree and takes about an hour an 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 sat their nervously, not expecting to get on. Fortunately we did manage to squeeze on but we separated out a bit along the car.
The trip up Mount Washington was driven by a steam locomotive and was incredibly bumpy, like going across a cobble stone 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 porous rock, and the freezing and thawing of the absorbed water breaks open the granite – resulting these gigantic boulders tumbling down the mountain. We climb upwards and the land opens up to sprawling forests, lakes and grass land. 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 struggled 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 onto 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 sometime now and weaned off these foods we resisted her temptation and moved swiftly on.