From Pikes Peak to the red sandstone spires of Garden of the Gods, Jen Murphy finds her Rocky Mountain high in the natural wonders towering over Colorado Springs
If you’re afraid of heights, you’re going to have a tough time in Colorado Springs. In the last 24 hours, I’ve spent more time in the air than on the ground. The mountains are the star of Colorado’s second-largest town, particularly Pikes Peak. Nicknamed “America’s Mountain,” the iconic 14er inspired the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” and is the second most-visited mountain in the world after Mount Fuji. In the 1880s a two-day mule ride was required to make the 14,115-foot ascent. Today, a 13-mile trail leads hikers to the summit, and cars can drive the 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway. But, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is the most effortless way to appreciate the famous views.
I notice passengers buying oxygen before they board. Even though we won’t be expending any energy, the altitude at the top can be dizzying, the conductor warns. The red Swiss rail cars seem to defy physics as we crawl up the 8.9-mile track. Ponderosa pines and blue spruce give way to a lunarlike tundra as we creep above the tree line and see the snowy peaks of the Continental Divide looming in the distance as if floating on clouds. When we reach aptly named Windy Point, snow gusts obscure our view. At 12,129 feet, we are just below the summit but the conductor informs us that we’ll need to turn back because late-spring snow is blanketing the tracks ahead.
Now that I’ve gotten a bird’s-eye view of Pike National Forest, I’m ready to explore its trails. The drive along Gold Camp Road to the popular hiking area of Cheyenne Canyon passes through old railway tunnels carved into the mountainside. “Locals say if you leave a white car in the tunnel overnight it will be covered with handprints from the ghosts of miners the next morning,” says Andy, my guide from Adventures Out West. Andy explains how the 1858 Pikes Peak Gold Rush ignited Colorado’s mining industry. Hikers and mountain bikers have now replaced gold-seekers in these mountains, but the expanse of the trail network means you can still avoid crowds.
Andy leads me up the Seven Bridges Trail, a moderate hike that hugs North Cheyenne Creek crisscrossing seven wooden bridges. Most people turn back after the last bridge, but Andy promises the meadow that lies just beyond is worth the extra scramble. Driving back down Gold Camp Road, we pull off at a lookout. From above, The Broadmoor resort looks like a town within a town. The gold rush may have brought the first settlers to Colorado, but it was the opening of The Broadmoor in 1918 that brought tourists. Today, the 3,000-acre property boasts 10 restaurants, six tennis courts, three golf courses, a spa and fitness center, and four satellite wilderness resorts. I could spend an entire week here and still not experience half the property.
In 2014, The Broadmoor purchased Seven Falls. A 10-minute shuttle from the resort, the series of seven waterfalls cascades dramatically down a 1,250-foot-wall box canyon and, like most Colorado Springs attractions, the falls require a vertigo-inducing climb. The thought of lunch at Restaurant 1858 motivates me to tackle the hike to Inspiration Point before I descend back down the 224 steps. Opened last September, the restaurant sits beneath the falls, and its menu is an ode to the immigrants who traveled West heeding the cry “Pikes Peak or Bust!” Wild boar chili-topped nachos and barbecue trout fritters served with tangy Creole mustard are the perfect rewards after a morning of outdoor adventures.
There’s no better way to end the day in Colorado Springs than with a sunset hike in Garden of the Gods, a free public park where the draw, not surprisingly, isn’t flowers, but towering sandstone rock formations. When two surveyors discovered this red rock wilderness in 1859, one suggested it would be the perfect spot for a beer garden. His companion, a more poetic man, replied it was a place “fit for the gods to assemble.” In my opinion, both were right. A registered National Natural Landmark, the park centers on a cluster of otherworldly red cliffs popular with local climbers. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground and follow the Palmer Trail to the Siamese Twins, two adjoining towers that perfectly frame Pikes Peak as it takes on a golden glow in the distance.
I awake with aching calves, yet one last climb awaits. Colorado Springs is home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and on a tour of the 35-acre complex I observe athletes preparing for this summer’s Olympic Games. I’m humbled by their athletic feats; my hikes now feel like a mere warmup. “If you want an Olympic-worthy workout,” says my guide, “you have to do the Incline.”
I’m up before sunrise to test my fitness against Mother Nature’s StairMaster. The trail starts at 6,600 feet and climbs just over 2,000 feet in less than a mile. My jog turns to a slow and steady march, but when a man in his 70s sprints past me I double my efforts and reach the top in just under 40 minutes. When I catch up with the man, he high-fives me, then asks if I’m training to hike Pikes Peak. I’m surprised to find myself breathlessly nodding yes. Maybe it’s the lack of oxygen to my brain, or maybe I’ve finally acclimated to Colorado Springs’ high-altitude thrill.