Forest animals create the most pragmatic trails to food, water, shelter. Man follows. Ancient travelers, followed by the Ute Indians, then homesteaders and prospectors, used this valley to pass between the plains and mountains. Wagons and then automobiles lumbered up the canyon. Intriguing train tunnels smoked from steam engines of the past. It’s the same story all over the country. What makes this local stretch surprisingly different is that the Ute Trail still exists because the modern version was built in the valley below the original trail, leaving the original trail in place. Somewhat isolated with good elevation gains, the Ute Pass trail still has a story to tell.
Evidence shows that this is one of the earliest migration routes known in the United States. Approximately 10,000 years ago it was a vital gap to approach the mountains beyond, and it still is. If you view this pass on a topographical map it is easy to see why this little valley was so valuable.
Ute Pass is now a gateway to the Rocky Mountains for the camping, four-wheeling, hiking, skiing and biking adventurers of the region. It hosts a steady stream of smiles, bumper stickers, roof top car carriers, happy dogs and mountain toys that are heading for the hills. Driving through scenic Manitou Springs and Woodland Park is an easy way to get into the mountain frame of mind at the start of the journey.
Distance: about 7 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 1,314 feet
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This hike begins at the base of the Manitou Incline. While most people are going up the steep stairway of the Incline, start your journey by bearing right on the gravel trail. Here you will spot the first of several informational signs about the route. It gives us pause to read that there are records of this pass being used in 1779.
After the sign, is it entertaining to note how the trail parallels the Incline for a short distance and gives a unique view looking up at the wooden railway tie steps from below. Soon you will encounter a large diameter pipeline that brings the water from the reservoirs that are adjacent to the Pikes Peak Highway.
After the first major switchback in the trail, you will encounter an intersection with the Northern Incline Trail, a return route for Incline hikers. This is one of two new trails opened in September, 2020, to provide bailouts and return routes from the Incline to the Ute Pass Trail.
As you gain elevation, the big views appear. Below you are the Pikes Peak Cog Train facilities. The brick building for the hydroelectric generation station can also be seen. The Incline is still visible, but your attention is now drawn to the expansive views below. Continue to climb to the first big sweeping turn in the trail. A view to remember awaits you. Now is not the time to hurry.
Near the top of the climb, you will spot some remnants of a building. The stone walls of a small and very short building remain. Due to the small size, we’d like to think it was a sheep pen or similar stock that had a wonderful view of the town below.
A bit farther on you will descend from this high point, but you will soon gain elevation again. This trail intersects a utility road that is access for the pipeline, water tank and pumping station. When you encounter the junction, turn left. (On the return trip, you will be going straight down past the water tank toward Rattlesnake Gulch.) Along this portion of the trail, there is an assortment of weathered iron signs that have been here for a very long time. The 7000’ CASCADE 2 MI sign is the first of several you will spot. Just a few years ago, I explored this trail when it was an almost forgotten path. These signs were exciting finds in the bushes along the trek. Fortunately, the city made the effort to upgrade the Ute Pass Trail to what you see today. The modern signs are informative and enhance the hike, but there is something about the rusty, bent signs that make it feel like an exploration.
The next sign is a favorite, not only for what it announces, but because it has an exclamation mark: “This point marks original intersection of Ute Trail and Ute Wagon Trail!” It looks like a great deal of labor went into stenciling the words then cutting it out with a torch, but they have lasted many times longer than most modern signs. Facing downhill, you will see a little gully with the faintest hint of a road. This is the wagon road that starts at Rainbow Falls in Manitou Springs. It is so overgrown and eroded that one could easily walk right by this important piece of history. This road was replaced in 1872 by a road that parallels the river in the valley below that later became the route for Highway 24. Thankfully the old sign with the exclamation point has kept us from missing this historic junction.
As you descend from the summit of this trail, you will pass under a large diameter water pipe on a trestle built in the 1930s. This was the site of Longs Ranch. Vegetables and non-native plants still grow from the family’s gardens. A modern interpretive sign here tells the story.
Continuing down the trail, a sign from the past states that this is the UPT. This rusty old sign appears to have arrows on either end giving the impression that another trail may have joined here in the past.
Have you noticed that Highway 24 has not been seen? Considering the fact that this trail parallels the busy east-west highway in the valley below, it is surprising that the road has not been seen the entire time. Even more surprising is that the traffic noise does not intrude on the peaceful hike.
The trail now splits into a loop. Turn right to take this loop counterclockwise. You will quickly reach an informative kiosk and then loop around to return to this point. The dirt road you cross continues on, but it is not recommended to go farther at this time. Plans are to have this trail continue on to Cascade and beyond as a vital link of the Ring the Peak Trail.
“This red earth is the dust of my grandfather’s bones…” It is time for a treat and a pause along this loop for thought at the medicine wheel that was placed during the trail’s dedication. Read “A Step Farther” below for more information on this medicine wheel.
After the loop, retrace your steps down this trail. When you come to the junction where you dropped down to join this trail on the way in, continue straight ahead. You will pass the town’s waterworks and storage tank.
The descent gets steeper. There is a trail that is a bit more gentle that cuts off to the left, but stay on the trail that goes straight down the hill. There is an interpretative sign nearby that states this is one of the oldest known routes in the United States. It also emphasizes “Caution Steep Trail Ahead” for good reason. Heed that warning because scree tends to roll underfoot. At the base of the hill, the trail curves to your right. Look for the rusty iron Rattlesnake Gulch sign that is quite old. This colorful name sounds as if it comes from an old Western novel.
The trail snakes behind some townhomes and past an old pulley from the Manitou Incline’s cable car days, ending at the parking lot across from the Cog Railway. Now, it is a simple matter of hopping on the free shuttle bus to return to your vehicle. Or better yet, walk down Ruxton Avenue to a celebratory meal in town. Enjoy, you’ve earned it.
From Manitou Springs, take the free shuttle to the top of Ruxton Avenue. From the bus stop, head uphill and bear to the right to get to the base of the Manitou Incline.
A Step Farther: Wheel in the Sky
The medicine wheel, also known as the sacred hoop, has been used by generations of Native Americans to support their belief that it served the tribe for health and healing. The medicine wheel can be thought of as a metaphor for a variety of spiritual concepts and often takes different forms. It can be artwork like a painting, or it can be a physical construction on the land with the use of stones. Thousands of these symbols have been built across North America on native lands over several centuries.
It has been said that when strangers from different tribes met, they would ask each other, “What land do you belong to?” They felt they belonged to the land where they lived, not the other way around. At each encampment, the medicine man or woman would build a four directions symbol, with a heart stone at the center.
On the Ute Pass Trail, you encounter a medicine wheel. Visitors are asked not to disturb it out of respect. If you hike the nearby Iron Mountain, you will encounter a similar wheel, except you are actually encouraged to add to that medicine wheel.
In your wanderings above Manitou Springs you may see trinket offerings hanging in trees, Tibetan prayer flags or maybe mysterious stone circles built in areas away from the trail. The Ute Pass medicine wheel is just one small piece that makes Manitou Springs such a special town.
Like This Hike? Check Out the Book
This article is adapted with permission from Easy Hikes to the Hidden Past: Pikes Peak Region Edition. Written by local authors Rocky Shockley and T. Duren Jones, the informative and adventurous guide explores hidden historic sites and points of interest in and around Colorado Springs.