.:Getting to the trailhead:.
Among other things, Pikes Peak has a very, very easy trailhead to access, being at the west edge of Manitou Springs. From I-25, take the Highway 24 exit (exit 141). Drive west on about 4 miles to th eexit for Manitou Ave. From the off-ramp, veer right and drive into Manitou Springs. Once in town, look for the Cog Railway sign, and turn left onto Ruxton Ave (1.5 miles). Follow Ruxton all the way to where it ends at the Cog Railway (.7 miles). Drive past the Railway building, and turn right at the sign labeled "Barr Trail Parking", up a short little steep road (Hydro St.) to the gravel parking lot. Do NOT park in the Cog Railway Parking lot...if you do, your vehicle will probably be towed.
The Barr Trail is simply one of the finest hiking trails to be found. This historic trail was build between 1914-1918 by Fred Barr, and is a fine hike from trailhead to summit. The route is well-signed and obvious, although the ancient metal signs aren'tall that accurate. Having been set decades before the accuracy of GPS systems, they give you a good idea of where you are in milage and elevation, but don't take it as gospel. Breaking up the trail into halves is the relative Opulence of Barr Camp, 6.8 miles from the trailhead. For an extremely detailed account of the trail, check out this page at skyrunner.com. And for Barr Camp info, try their website.
As part of my training for upcoming Kilimanjaro, I figured the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak would be a great hike. The long distance and a big elevation gain would certainly be a good challenge. And having only previously climbed Pikes Peak via the road and a mountain bike, I figured I probably ought to make an 'offical' ascent on foot. With the nearly 13 mile climb, though, I decided that there was no reason to abuse my knees with a 13-mile descent, and arranged to have a summit pick-up by my wife, and mom (who lives in Colorado Springs).
I opted for an early, early start partly to be done before the usual afternoon bad weather, but also to avoid the crowds...Sept 10th was the annual Pikes Peak Challenge, a benefit race to the summit for victims of brain injuries. I didn't want to get tangled up with the ~500 participants, scheduled for a 5:00am start. Pulling into the trailhead parking lot just after 3:00, there were a few dozen vehicles already there -- hikers either starting ahead of me, or who were overnighting up at the Barr Camp.
I started hiking right at 3:30, moving at a brisk and steady pace up steep switchbacks from the trailhead. The first few miles of the Barr Trail are the steepest terrain of the day (excepting the last few hundred yards), but the trail is wide and smooth, making for an easy power-trek. Looking back after about 30 minutes, I was greeting with a dazzling light show as the night lights of Manitou and Colorado Springs were laid out below me. The quiet of this warm early morning was punctuated only by an occasional siren from somewhere in town and the light breezes drifting though the trees.
The trek by headlamp was thoroughly enjoyable along the wide and mellow trail. After ~3.5 miles of steep switchbacks, the trail splits. To the right the trail climbs to the summit of Rocky Mountain, and Barr Trail continues to the left. From here, the trails become much more gentle - gently climbing, rolling, and even a few gradual descents. As the sky began to slowly lighten, I looked west for the summit of Pikes, but it was obscured by the rolling hills and dense trees around me. Just about 6.5 miles into the hike, I quite abruply came across Barr Camp.. My watch said 6:30...only three hours on the trail so far! I was suprised that I was moving at a 2mph average...much faster than I thought I was moving!
The Barr Camp is one heck of a nice establishment. Several lean-to's and two cabins are available on a reservation basis, while a number of tent sites are first come first serve. The main cabin is rustic yet cozy, and even includes a small library and chess set. As part of your reservation, you can even purchase hot, fresh-cooked meals (usually pasta dinners and pancake breakfasts)! Definitely takes the rough edge off a couple days in the mountains, that's for sure. When I arrived at the camp, a couple of the camp volunteers (it's staffed year-round) were busily setting up tables and water jugs for the Pikes Peak Challenge participants. I took a few minutes to explore the camp, and even poked my head in the main cabin where another volunteer was busy cooking up pancakes for a number of overnight campers.
Topping off my water bladder, I shouldered my pack and started up the trail, now that the early morning sunlight was starting to filter through the trees. One of the camp volunteers told me that the summit was seeing 60~70mph winds this morning that were not expected to die down. Soon after leaving Barr Camp, the wind did indeed start growing from a light breeze to strong, cold gusts. By the time the trail wound to treeline, the temperatures had definitely dropped. Right before treeline is a large sign proclaiming "Timeberline Shelter, Pike National Forest" and a few dozen yards off the trail sits a small, sturdy A-frame shelter for refuge in bad weather conditions. I made my way over to the A-frame just to have a windbreak long enough to put on an extra layer agains the building chill. Just up the trail, another sign proclaims "Barr Trail Elev 11,500', Pikes Peak Summit 3". The altitude is actually about 400 feet short, but the distance to the summit is pretty close. The last few miles of the climb puts you above treeline and switchbacking and traversing among the rocks and boulders on Pikes' east face.
After having already come 9~10 miles, it might seem like another 3 miles would be a piece of cake, but remember, now you're above treeline where the air is thinner and the weather can move fast and unpredictably. Throw onto that some fatigue and I was definitely starting to slow down a little bit. Negotiating a series of switchbacks at 12,200', the wind was gusting violently, and for only the second time that I can remember, I was literally blown off my feet by a gust of wind. I took a blast from the side and tumbled off the trail onto a patch of (fortuantely) soft and sandy loam. Even with trekking poles for extra stability it was a struggle to keep footing. Thankfully the gales only lasted for about 15 more minutes until the trail climbed up past a number of tall rock formations. At the 2-mile to go mark, I rounded a bend to see a number of figures crouched behind some boulders just off the trail, huddled around a small camp stove for warmth. I wanted to make sure they were OK, so I walked over and inadvertently startled them. Turns out it was an "aid station" of sorts for the Challenge racers, and they thought I was one of them!
I told the group that I was just a normal hiker, and they asked if I'd seen any of the Challenge racers on the trail yet, which I hadn't. With impeccable timing though, just then a middle-aged lanky man came into view, power-walking his way up the trail. Sure enough, the first of the racers. I resumed my hike so as not to get in the way, and the gentleman passed me a minute later, huffing up the trail at an impressive pace.
Between one and two miles below the summit is a long traverse across the wide east face of Pikes Peak, and you can look up to see the Pikes Peak summit house, tantalizingly close. Looking the other direction, the entire eastern plains are spread out before you, with most of the view being taken up by Colorado Springs. Quite a view! Another aid station crew was waiting at mile one, whooping and hollering and cheering the racers (and me) on. Even though I wasn't part of the event, it was kind of cool to be getting cheered on like that.
At one mile to go, the long traverse is done, and the trail climbs just below the SE ridge for a few hundred yards, then cuts back into the middle of the east face where second steep part of the climb is waiting...the "16 Golden Stairs". Each "stair" is a set of 2 switchbacks to the top of the peak, but only the first few involve a set of steep rock-stairs. After these initial few "stairs", the route traverses a little more to the north (climber's right), before the final push to the summit. At the end of the traverse, you'll most likely see the marble plaque that has been set into the rocks commemorating the builder of the Barr Trail, Fred Barr.
And finally, the summit appears in all it's commericalized glory! There are a set of restrooms to the left, the Summit House to the right, and the tracks for the Cog Railway right in front of you. On top of the restroom facility is an observation deck to get a really good view of the eastern plains, plus a monument to Kathy Lee Bates inscribed with the words to America the Beautiful. The actual high point marking the very top of Pikes Peak is the pile of rocks just to the west side of the parking area. Not suprisingly, there was no register up here.
I took a few minutes to relax on the actual summit while the gale-force winds whipped all around me. I had arranged to have my ride waiting for me up here, but no sign of them yet -- it was 9:30 in the morning, and very few vehicles were here at this hour. With a stroke of good timing, my mom's car came cresting over the Pikes Peak Highway into the parking area right as I made my way off the top to find some shelter from the wind. After a few minutes of looking around the Summit House and observation deck, I was plenty happy to bundle into a wam car for the somewhat less strenous trip down!