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Pikes Peak Cog Railway: Rocky Mountain High

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Pikes Peak Cog Railway: Rocky Mountain High

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.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway station near Colorado Springs, CO

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.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway view on way to summit.

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.

Big horn sheep adjacent to Pike Peaks Cog Railway

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.

View from Pikes Peak toward the east, Colorado Springs

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.

Last stop Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Colorado Springs, CO

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.

If you go:

A few things to know if you're going to the top of Pikes Peak:

  • The temperature at the top can be 30 degrees cooler than at the bottom. Bring a sweater.
     
  • Bring a hat and sunscreen. You are 14,000 feet closer to the sun, the air is thinner and you’ll burn quicker.
     
  • To help avoid altitude sickness, drink lots of water.
     
  • If you have any health issues, check with your physician to make sure the high altitude will not exacerbate them.

Altitude sickness symptoms include:

  • Headache
     
  • Dizziness
     
  • Nausea
     
  • Upset stomach
     
  • Tiredness

Important cog railway trip information:

  • To avoid disappointment, make reservations in advance. While sometimes there’s space at the last minute, that is not always the case.
     
  • The cog railway runs all year round on a seasonal schedule. In late fall, winter and early spring, due to weather conditions, the train may not always make it to the top and they don’t always know in advance.
     
  • The trains do not have restrooms.
     
  • They do not allow outside food or drink on the train. You can pick up food at the Cog Wheel Café in the depot and bring it with you or you can grab a bite to eat at the Summit House on top of the mountain. Because of space limitations, outside food is not allowed in the dining area there. It can be a bit too chilly for a picnic on top.
     
  • At the summit, listen for the long blast on the train whistle. That’s the 10 minute warning that the train is leaving. They will leave without you and as the railway folks point out, it’s a LONG walk down.

Passengers on Pikes Peak Cog Railway
 

 Got Altitude t-shirt, Colorado Springs. Elevation should be 14,115'.

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.

A  big thank you to Billie Frank, who writes extensively about Colorado and New Mexico, her current home. Enjoy her articles in the previous link and also her Santa Fe Travelers blog.

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