From the 14,000-foot summit of America’s Mountain to the depths of nearby underground caverns, the Pikes Peak region of Colorado’s Front Range can be a cool place to play.
The region’s official visitors’ guide lists no fewer than 50 attractions, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface for outdoors-loverswho want to hike, bike, camp, fish, ride horses or participate in water sports, such as world-class whitewater rafting.
Pikes Peak looms large over Colorado Springs and neighboring Manitou Springs. The view from the summit, a sweeping 360-degree vista of the plains to the east and the Continental Divide to the west, inspired Katharine Lee Bates to pen “America the Beautiful.” On a clear day, you can see all the way to Kansas.
No matter how warm and sunny it may be down below in Colorado Springs, take a warm jacket and hat to ward off the brisk winds and chilly temperatures on top.
Driving up Pikes Peak is an adventure in itself, and takes several hours for the round trip, depending upon how many times you stop to gawk at the views. Most passenger cars can climb the mountain fine – the 19-mile highway is paved part way up, and the road is wide enough at most points you don’t feel like you’re going to pitch off the side if you meet another car.
Despite these cautions, the drive actually isn’t that hard. Thousands of flatlanders do it every year!
Don’t want to drive it? Consider the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the highest cog railway in the United States, which opened in 1891. Sit back and relax during the slow but steady climb to the top and an equally slow descent, with great views both ways. In summer, you may catch glimpses of marmots and bighorn sheep.
Thinking of hiking it? Just remember, it’s about nine miles and a 7,500 foot gain in elevation from the train’s station in Manitou Springs to the top of the mountain, via Barr Trail.
Fit for the Gods
The red sandstone rock formations of Garden of the Gods, a 1,300-acre city park, make the perfect picture frame for Pikes Peak, which is often photographed between the Gateway Rocks. At the top is a formation called the Kissing Camels – you’ll understand when you see it.
Stop first at the visitors’ center and learn more about the park before entering it. You can drive only the perimeter of the park, if you wish, but don’t stop there. Get out and walk a bit.
Here, you’ll find the Three Graces, Cathedral Spires, Balanced Rock and other intriguing formations. Rock climbing is allowed only if you have the appropriate skills and gear, and you must register at the visitors’ center. It looks easy to get up the rocks (and can be) but you may need a helicopter or rescue team to get you down – and that’s a pricey thrill.
Balanced Rock is a popular spot for tourists to safely indulge their need to climb around. Since the 1800s, people have had their pictures taken “holding up’’ the rock for a silly photo.
Pick up a trail map from the visitors’ center if you want to do some hiking among the pinon-flanked hills. Keep an eye out for the occasional prairie rattlesnake, black bear or mountain lion (ask at the visitors’ center how to deal with those eventualities).
The 1920s Trading Post, the only manmade structure in the park, features a large array of American Indian art, Western wear, kitschy souvenirs and a snack bar.
In a Canyon
Drive into the box canyon that is home to Seven Falls, and the mid-day temperatures drop. The tree-lined rock walls offer shade, while Cheyenne Creek cools things off. What’s billed as “the grandest mile of scenery in Colorado” tries very hard to live up to its name. At the end of the road, waterfalls come crashing down into a frothy pool.
Don’t just stand at the bottom and admire it. Climb those 224 steps to the Eagle’s Nest observation tower (or, if that’s too tough, ride the elevator).
Once on top, you might as well hike around. It’s so lovely up there, author Helen Hunt Jackson asked to be buried above the falls. Her grave was later moved.
Wild Blue Yonder
Many visitors come to Colorado Springs each year just to visit the U.S. Air Force Academy, the youngest of the nation’s elite military academies. Founded 55 years ago, the academy sits at the foot of the Rampart Range, and its contemporary multi-spired cadet chapel probably is one of the most photographed sights in the area, after Pikes Peak.
Although military activity is light here in summer, you’ll see cadets on campus all year round. The visitors’ center will orient you to the grounds and the academy’s mission – as will the occasional jets that fly over.
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Beneath It All
At the foot of Pikes Peak, visitors can go underground in Cave of the Winds, which opened in the late 1800s, and is the oldest developed attraction in the area. Once again, nature was at work here millions of years ago, creating cracks, fissures and caverns in the unique limestone formation of Williams Canyon. Two boys discovered the cave in 1881 while on a church picnic. It wasn’t long before it became a tourist attraction.
Today, visitors can walk its lighted passageways and see stalactites, stalagmites and flowstone curtains. And, for a moment, you’ll get to experience total darkness.
It’s a Real Zoo
Though the occasional hiker may encounter a mountain lion or bear, there are more exotic creatures to be found at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, said to be America’s only mountain zoo.
African lions, Asian tigers, Mexican wolves, all sorts of primates and even flamingoes are counted among the 146 species to be found on Cheyenne Mountain’s 150-acre park, perched at 7,000 feet above the southwest corner of Colorado Springs. Here, you can see more than 50 endangered species, including the lowland gorilla, the African elephant and the Siberian tiger.
One of the most popular attractions is the African Rift Valley exhibit, which showcases the zoo’s bumper crop of giraffes – they love to gently lap crackers out of your hand with their prehensile tongues.
The zoo’s latest addition, Rocky Mountain Wild, allows you to see coyotes, bears and mountain lions up close and personal, through one-way glass, if you weren’t lucky enough to encounter one on your hikes. Also check out the zoo’s new sky ride, which allows visitors to get a bird’s-eye-view of the landscape and critters.
Christmas All Year
On the petticoats of Pikes Peak sits an amusement park families with children won’t want to miss. The North Pole and Santa’s Workshop does its heaviest business in the summer. But warm weather doesn’t mean kids can’t sit on Santa’s lap or talk to a reindeer.
After a visit with the man in red, kids will be ready to ride the carousel, Ferris wheel, or ponies. A sky ride or space shuttle ride may appeal more to older kids and adults. But watching the kids have a blast at this Alpine park is entertainment in itself – almost as good as Christmas morning.
And Much, Much More
Colorado Springs also is home to a U.S. Olympic Training Center, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame & Museum of the American Cowboy, a terrific Pioneers Museum, a mining museum, newly expanded fine arts center, a jewel of a performing arts center, a castle built near Garden of the Gods by the city’s founder and another built by a French priest in Manitou Springs. There’s an old-fashioned arcade in Manitou Springs, too, where you can still play pinball for a dime.
Throw in a quirky natural history museum where thousands of bugs, butterflies and bats have found eternal rest, a ranch where you can eat barbecue and listen to cowboys sing trail songs, and a national money museum.
They’re all cool, in their own way.
If You Go
Lodging: Just about every major chain motel and hotel can be found here. Bed-and-breakfast inns abound in the area, especially on the historic west side of Colorado Springs and in Manitou Springs (log on to colorado-bnb.com). For truly upscale digs, check out The Broadmoor, a world-class resort with world-class prices and every amenity you could want; or try the Cliff House, a top-rated historic hotel in Manitou Springs, where each room is unique and the food is excellent. Check out the information numbers and Web sites below for a full listing.
Information: To plan a visit to the Pikes Peak region, contact: Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, 515 S. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, CO 80901, 800-DO-VISIT (800-368-4748), visitcos.com; or Pikes Peak Country Attractions Association, 354 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, CO 80829, 800-525-2250, pikes-peak.com.
Pikes Peak Area Attractions All local area codes are (719).
Cheyenne Mountain Zoological Park (including the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun), 4250 Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Road, Colorado Springs, CO 80906; 633-9925; cmzoo.org. More than 500 animals and a vintage carousel. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
Garden of the Gods, 1805 N. 30th St., Colorado Springs, CO 80904; 634-6666; gardenofgods.com. Park hours 5 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, May-October, 5 a.m.-9 p.m. the remainder of the year. Free. Visitors’ Center hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. June-August, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. September-May, daily except major holidays.
Pikes Peak Cog Railway, 515 Ruxton Ave., Manitou Springs, CO 80829; 685-5401, cograilway.com. Trains depart eight times daily from 8 a.m.-5:20 p.m. in summer, once the snow has been cleared from the tracks. Call for reservations.
Pikes Peak Highway, 684-9383, pikespeakcolorado.com. Open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily in summer, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. daily the rest of the year, weather and road conditions permitting.
Santa’s Workshop/North Pole, 5050 Pikes Peak Hwy, Cascade, CO 80809; 684-9432, santas-colo.com. Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily in summer, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. fall and spring (call for open and close dates).
Seven Falls, 2850 S. Cheyenne Canyon Road, Colorado Springs, Colorado 80906; 632-0765, sevenfalls.com. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.
U.S. Air Force Academy, 2346 Academy Drive, Colorado Springs, CO 80840; 333-2025, www.usafa.af.mil. Enter by the North Gate (Exit 156B) off Interstate 25 and stop at the guard station. Visitors admitted free 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Only the visitors’ center, cadet chapel and a few buildings are open to the public. Chapel tours are available Mondays-Saturdays.
Linda DuVal is a freelance writer who lives in Colorado Springs.