Where to Find It: Manitou Springs
Distance: 3.5 miles roundtrip: about .9 miles to the summit and 2.7 miles to return on Barr Trail.
Difficulty: Extremely tough, but doable for almost anyone willing to pace themselves.
Best by: Hiking. Elite athletes can manage a quicker pace.
Average Ascent Time: About one hour, depending on your physical condition and willingness to suffer.
Verified Fastest Known Time, Bottom to Top: 17:45, Joe Gray, champion mountain runner in 2015.
The low din of the city begins to fade and is replaced by the rhythmic crunching of gravel beneath my feet. The steady thump of my pulse keeps a beat, and each breath provides harmony to the effort.
I’m a one-man band making music for myself as I slowly ascend the famous Manitou Incline, an old railroad bed that ascends 2,000 vertical feet in a little less than 1 mile. It is one of the most popular hiking trails in the West, famous for punishing cardiovascular workouts, gorgeous views and a fun, quirky community of hikers whose laughter and good-natured banter keep the vibe friendly and light.
The Incline trailhead is nestled in the foothills near the Pikes Peak Cog Railway on the western edge of Manitou Springs. From there, a series of railroad ties form a staircase that sweeps skyward in a steep, straight line. It provides a quick escape from life’s daily grind.
Following a years-long process of discussions and political wrangling—it literally took an act of Congress—the Incline officially opened to the public in 2013. Since then, the trail has been refurbished in an effort to control erosion and secure the heavy ties in place. With the final phase completed in November 2017, it looks different, cleaner, according to its regulars.
“It’s not as rugged and rustic as it was,” says Mary Griego, who made her first ascent in 2011. “It seems like it’s a little steeper in some places, but the ties are not as far apart, so it seems easier, especially at the top.”
The effort required to reach the Incline’s summit at 8,590 feet, is a test for all. But there are other challenges, such as finding a parking spot, that require an insider’s knowledge. The best way to reach the trailhead is by the free, year-round shuttle bus that operates daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the winter months. The shuttle departs every 20 minutes from Memorial Park, near the corner of Old Man’s Trail and El Paso Boulevard, in Manitou Springs.
On my own ascent, I climb slowly on, embracing the demands of the grade, which tilts to 34 degrees in some places, a 68-percent grade. My breathing resembles the labored gaps of a steam engine as I reach the bailout at roughly the halfway point, where tired hikers can access Barr Trail and head back to Manitou Springs. Construction crews installed a bench at the bailout, a natural place to recover, hydrate and enjoy the unique experience.
Cold weather keeps many away, but Denise Flory enjoys Mother Nature’s winter moods. She recalls a recent climb in early December when she climbed with friends through a thick fog, breaking through the clouds to bathe in Colorado’s sunshine on the Incline’s final stretch.
“It was nice and quiet,” she says. “Everyone out there, of course, is always encouraging, but when you get bad weather, folks are even more encouraging.”
The steepest section begins after the bailout, surging about .25 miles to the false summit, where the Incline gets the last laugh. There is more climbing to do, but the summit is in sight. The grade settles a bit, and my legs and lungs recover enough to make the final push.
Soon enough, happy chatter from the summit becomes audible. My final steps are punctuated with friendly greetings from people I’ve never met. “You’ve made it, good job,” they say.
A brotherhood of sorts binds those who tackle the Incline. Longtime incliner Michael Everson shed 50 pounds on the Incline following knee surgery years ago. He now makes the climb multiple times each week.
“The people make it fun,” he says. “We have our Saturday morning regulars. We seem to see each other sporadically through the week, but on Saturday we’re all climbing. It feels like I’m required to be there.”
I turn to look at the city below. Miles to the east, the plains of eastern Colorado meet the sky. I’m close to and far from civilization. Others are looking as well, snapping photos, enjoying the view and the company of new friends.
How to Get There: Exit Highway 24 at Manitou Avenue, and head west toward downtown Manitou Springs. After .9 miles, turn right on Old Man’s Trail, and look for the free parking lot and shuttle stop at 10 Old Man’s Trail. Shuttles run approximately every 20 minutes, seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Limited parking is also available at the Barr Trail Parking Lot for $20 per day, and on Ruxton Avenue for $10 per hour.
Incline All Year
Want year-round inspiration for your Inclining? Local photographer Rob Lucas creates an annual calendar of Incline photos. Find it at ManitouIncline.com.