Asked once to describe Colorado, Teddy Roosevelt demurred, saying, “The scenery bankrupts the English language.” Postcards come to life here; landscapes overpower the senses and register somewhere deeper. This is the type of beauty that is not only perceived, but felt.
The mountains of Colorado seem to keep pulling us back. I guess that we both respond to the natural elements we find here . . . cool, crisp morning air, crystal blue skies, the magnificent mountain scenery, rushing streams and clear lakes, and, not the least, the ubiquitous summer wildflowers. Although recent years have taken us far from this state we first visited 20 years ago, its attractions have always elicited fond memories. It was time to renew those recollections, time to reconnect to some special places. For us, this summer’s destination would be the best of all possible reunions.
He likes the fishing, and I like the flowers. And we both think that the awesome mountain scenery makes for the perfect backdrop as we pursue our respective interests. That is why we keep returning . . . in July, when the fish are frisky and the flowers are flourishing. It has been more than twenty years since we made our first trip here and discovered we had a strong connection with this place. Although we have traveled to other awe-inspiring places in the intervening summers, it is Colorado that we chose to return to. We are full of eager anticipation.
There’s a whole lot of rolling farmland and prairie scenery between Indiana and the Colorado Rocky Mountains . . . slightly more than 1,000 miles to be exact. After 3 long days of driving, we were more than ready to see some mountain peaks.
Eastern Colorado is the antithesis of the west side of the state. About half of Colorado lies within the Rockies. Approaching from the eastern plains, the profile of peaks seems to encompass the entire horizon, a continuous, impenetrable barrier. It begins as if a mirage on the horizon . . . you’re not quite sure of what you’re seeing. Slowly the profile of peaks starts to take form as you realize it’s not your imagination. You get a clear idea of why these first mountains are better known as The Front Range.
Extending north-to-south from Casper, Wyoming down to Pueblo, Colorado, the mountains of the Front Range rise nearly 10,000 feet above the Great Plains, containing some prominent peaks with distinctive profiles visible from the I-25 Corridor that more or less runs parallel on the range’s eastern side. With our course set for the Front Range city of Colorado Springs, our first destination was the small town of Manitou Springs.
Laying claim to being situated “at the foot of Pikes Peak”, it was no surprise to see that distinctive mountain profile framed in our truck’s windshield for many miles as we were making our final approach to our first Colorado destination.
Six miles west of Colorado Springs, at the base of Pikes Peak, is Manitou Springs. It has been the quintessential tourist town since the 1870s when visitors discovered the healing waters that the Ute Indians had been drinking for generations. Many of the town’s mineral springs still function today and the water is free. Besides healing waters, the cool mountain air was thought to be good for tuberculosis sufferers. Today you’ll find a quaint downtown lined with small cafes and coffeehouses, eclectic shops and a variety of small art and handmade crafts galleries. Pikes Peak RV Park was a scenic mile stroll from the heart of town.
So, why stop at Manitou Springs? What brought us here to make it a 4-day stay? For one thing, it is a gateway of sorts. The mountains take off from here and there’s plenty of hiking trails that will take you into some pretty great scenery. There’s easy access to the ‘big’ city of Colorado Springs (locals just call it The Springs) where you’ll find a huge variety of eateries and stores of every kind of venue. But maybe most importantly, there’s a great city-owned park and an imposing mountain difficult to ignore, both within a short drive. And that’s where we spent most of the time.
We made a bee-line to Garden of the Gods shortly after arrival. Late afternoon, I had read, was one of the two most desirable times to see this landscape’s best side.
“You wind among rocks of every conceivable and inconceivable shape and size . . . all bright red, all motionless and silent, with a strange look of having been just stopped and held back in the very climax of some supernatural catastrophe.”
~Helen Hunt Jackson, American writer and poet
Starting in the 16th century, Spanish explorers left records of having been here. Later, European and American explorers and trappers traveled through the area, calling the place Red Rock Corral. Then, in 1859, one of two surveyors who were working in the area thought it would make a great place to open a beer garden (something that must have been dear to his heart or at least, sorely missed). His companion, awestruck by the impressive rock formations, thought better. Thinking it a place fit for the gods, he came up with the title Garden of the Gods. And it stuck.
Fast forward a couple of decades, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that someone came along in 1879 and purchased the land—480 acres in all. Fortunately for all of the public, when Charles Elliott Perkins died, his family gave the land to the City of Colorado Springs in 1909, with the provision that it would be a free public park. Since then, the city has purchased additional land and the park has grown to about 1,400 acres. In 1995 the Visitor and Nature Center was opened just outside the park.
It’s a spectacular place . . . an incredible landscape . . . on par with southern Utah and its red rock formations, but even more unique. Vertical sandstone spires, red in color that seem to glow in the warm light of early and late day. Surrounded by the green vegetation of pine and fir trees, with Pikes Peak towering above the whole scene, it’s an eye-opening setting to experience, so exceptionally beautiful that you’ll wonder why it isn’t a national monument.
Early morning is the other time of day when this park can really shine. Once again, the warm light of the newly risen sun puts a golden cast on all those rock formations. In summertime the cool temps of a new day brings in another selling point. A pre-breakfast hike on one of the park’s most popular trails was what we chose to do with our last day in Manitou Springs.
This park is interlaced with some really terrific trails . . . some paved and very civilized, winding through and around the rocks; while others roam over the outlying land where the perspective is more all-encompassing. The Loop Trail that we took combined five outstanding trails that encircled the rocks, eventually leading to a high ridge where we were given a bird’s eye view of the whole enchilada. It was a trail deserving of its high rating and a magnificent start to our day.
The heat that was hitting the West Coast was making its presence felt all the way to the Colorado Rockies. With afternoon temperatures reaching into the low 90s, even the locals were complaining a little. Shady areas brought relief, but out on the trails in the direct sunlight it could be pretty brutal. What a perfect time to seek relief in higher elevations! The answer was literally right at our back door. When the gates opened one early morning, we were among the first to pass through the portal of the Pikes Peak Highway.
Perhaps as embedded in American folklore as the Brooklyn Bridge, Pike’s Peak is America’s easternmost Fourteener (a mountain with an elevation of 14,000 feet or higher). The sentinel rises suddenly, as if to declare this is where the prairie ends, and has greeted settlers heading west much in the same way that the Statue of Liberty greeted immigrants into New York Harbor. Fifty years later, during the gold rush and the movement of settlers heading west, the mountain gained notoriety in the slogan “Pike’s Peak or Bust.”
At an elevation of 14,110 feet, Pike’s Peak towers above the Front Range, dominating the setting. The Ute Indians called it “The Long One.” Zebulon Pike, seeing it in 1806 during an expedition, wanted to name it Great White Peak. It finally ended up being his namesake. Interestingly, he didn’t make it to the top. Attempting to summit it along with a group of his men, he turned around within 15 miles of the summit, declaring that no human could ascend its pinnacle. Fourteen years later, Dr. Edwin James, a botanist with Major Long’s Expedition, succeeded. The summit of Pikes Peak is now reached by a paved automobile road which ascends to the very crest.
Hiking trails, picnic areas and side roads leading to scenic lakes are the supplemental benefits you’ll find along the road. But, at least from my perspective, it’s the views along the drive that are its prime selling point. It wasn’t long before we turned AC off, rolled down our windows and took deep breaths of fragrant pine-scented air. Gotta love that natural air conditioning.
Treeline on Pikes Peak is reached at about Mile Marker 14 and then it becomes a whole different picture. Views open up and the road turns slightly dicey. Grades become much steeper and turns even sharper. Now you’re really climbing up the flanks of this behemoth mountain.
Don’t be in a rush to make the summit . . . this drive is meant to savor. Chris was generous with his pull-overs while I bagged more than a few scenic photos. Looking back to the route we followed, those switchbacks are known as the “Ws”. (I think that is pretty self-explanatory).
A few more switchbacks, one last steep grade and we found ourselves on the summit. Welcome to Pikes Peak! You’ll find a weather station, a high altitude research center and the Summit House, where all the people tend to gather. We took the customary photo ops, and gaped at all the tremendous views. Exploring the farther reaches of the Peak—it’s amazing how spacious the summit really is. And yes, it was a VERY refreshing 44 degrees!
We weren’t the only ones to appreciate the views.
In the late 1880s, inventor Zalmon Simmons made an arduous trip on muleback to the summit of Pikes Peak that he never forgot. He made plans, raised money and in 1889 founded the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway Co. In June of 1891, the company’s first passenger train, carrying a church choir, made it to the summit. The cog railway moves by the meshing of a cog wheel on the locomotive with a special rail mounted between the tracks. Conventional trains can only climb grades up to 6%, but the cog system allows trains to tackle grades up to 38%. The 3-hour, 8.9-mile trip on the railway is a picturesque journey (so they say), and the railway guides provide a running history of the region as you ride.
The experience doesn’t end once you reach the top of Pikes Peak. The drive down is not simply a Repeat Performance . . . it’s a whole different perspective. Sit back and enjoy–unless, of course, you happen to be the driver!
From a magnificent mountain peak,
Melinda & Chris,
just beginning our mountain adventures.