As you approach Colorado Springs from the south or the east, majestic Pikes Peak dominates the landscape. It’s a view that’s inspired artists, photographers and at least one poet. Katherine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful, a poem that became our unofficial national Anthem, after she had seen the view from the top of the mountain.
You too can enjoy the panoramic views from the top of Pikes Peak. One way to get to the mountain’s summit is on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Their trains ascend to the top of the 14,115 foot peak, an 18 mile round trip, in a total of 3 hours and 10 minutes (including 30 to 40 minutes at the top). The views are spectacular and the scenery is pristine. The train, which runs year round, has a seasonal schedule. Because of varying weather conditions, not all trains make it to the top. Pikes Peak Cog Railway will advise you on the day of your trip if the train can make it to the top. They run two types of trains. The large trains consist of two permanently articulated cars and hold 214 passengers. During busy season, they add a single unit, the Aspen car, which holds 74 passengers. The smaller train precedes the larger on the journey up the mountain. As the train ascends the mountain, the conductor will share points of interest and the mountain’s history with passengers.
Your journey starts at the depot located west of historic Manitou Springs, Colorado. The comfortable wide-windowed, Swiss-made trains you ride today are a far cry from the original ones that first ascended the mountain in 1891. In the early days, trains were steam-powered; today, engines are diesel-fueled. Cog railways, used for climbing, differ from conventional trains. Train engines drive the wheels on the track which creates movement. On a cog railway, the rails are there merely to keep the cars on the track. The engine drives a cog mechanism (similar those found in a watch) on a rack rail. When the cog and the rack rail mesh, the train moves.
The first part of the ride takes you along cascading Ruxton Creek in Englemann Canyon, past stands of fir trees and boulder fields. At the Minnehaha switch, where ascending and descending trains can pass each other, you’ll view Minnehaha Falls. Stay alert as you go through Deer Park; you just might spot mule deer. When the train passes through Four Mile Siding, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the mountain’s summit.
The grade steepens as you continue on your journey. Above the tree line, you’ll see alpine tundra and perhaps even a yellow-bellied marmot or a Big Horn Sheep. The mountain is home to one of the largest herds in the Rockies. The views are incredible. On a clear day, to the east you’ll see “amber waves of grain,” on Colorado's eastern plains and even into Kansas. There are also spectacular Rocky Mountain vistas from here. The Sangre de Christo range extends south to Santa Fe; look southwest and behold the Collegiate Range. To the north, you can see the Denver skyline and if you look down toward the southwest, you’ll glimpse two historic mining towns, Cripple Creek and Victor.
You’ll have 30 to 40 minutes on top; they’ll let you know the exact amount of time when you get there.
Explore the summit, of course, the views are incredible. Some of the best are on the north side, overlooking the “Bottomless Pit;” be alert and careful. It’s a long way down! Looking west, you’ll see the Continental Divide. Remember to bring your camera so you can memorialize your visit. You can also use the facilities and/or grab a bite to eat at the Summit House. Listen for the 10-minute warning, a long blast on the train whistle.
Photos by Don Nadeau, BidOnTravel.com
On the way down, the conductor will go through the train and check with all passengers to see if they have any questions about the mountain, the train or the day’s experience.
A few things to know if you're going to the top of Pikes Peak:
Altitude sickness symptoms include:
Important cog railway trip information:
Author’s note: You may see two figures about the height of Pikes Peak. The 14,110 feet figure is now obsolete. With the invention of more sophisticated measuring equipment, at the beginning of the 21st century, they discovered that the mountain was five feet taller than previously thought. The 14,115 figure was confirmed by spokespeople at both the Pike’s Peak Cog Railway and the Pikes Peak Highway.
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