If it’s there, people will hike up it. There is no greater proof of this concept than the Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Each year thousands of people brave the vertiginous slope and crumbling wood ties and slowly, steadily, make their way to the top. Rain or shine, snow, sleet or clouds, day or night, these intrepid souls climb the steps. And you can too. Here’s how.
But first, a warning...
From 1908 to 1990, the Manitou Incline was the site of a cable-car tram that took passengers and tourists up to enjoy the mountain views. The tram was scrapped in 1990 after a rock slide destroyed parts of the track, but a significant portion of the ascent remains the property of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.
There have been ongoing talks and negotiations to officially open the trail and make it a legal hike, but as of mid-2011 the trail is still private property and closed to the public. So if you choose to climb the Incline you will be trespassing. (yup, that’s the disclaimer)
How to Get There
On Highway 24 westbound from Colorado Springs, take the exit to the right towards Manitou Avenue. (on Google Maps, Highway 24 is labeled as Midland Expressway, but I’ve never heard anyone use this name) After the exit curves around, take Manitou Avenue under the bridge to the west. Follow Manitou all the way through town until you come to a traffic circle. Look for Ruxton Avenue to the left, and take Ruxton up until it forks.
From here you’ll probably want to start looking for parking. The best place to park is up past the Cog Railway buildings, at the Barr Trail parking lot. But this lot is very small (holding maybe 30 cars) and usually fills up early in the day. To find the Barr Trail parking lot, head up past the Cog Railway buildings and parking lots until you see a “dead end” marker and a brown sign pointing to the right to Barr Trail. There is a very narrow and steep paved street that goes up to the lot.
If you park on the street, make sure you choose a public parking spot that is not designated for one of the businesses. Otherwise, the local authorities are fairly gung-ho about enforcing parking rules, and you will get ticketed and/or towed.
How to Get Up
Here’s where that whole “trespassing” thing comes into play again. Let’s just say that from the Barr Trail parking lot, you can head straight up the hill to reach the Manitou Incline. There are some very steep, windy trails that leave from the north end of the lot. Or you can start from Ruxton Avenue, near the Cog Railway parking lots. The choice is up to you.
Either way, once you reach the railroad ties and the base of the Incline, you’ll have a little under a mile and around 2000 feet of vertical elevation gain to look forward to. Yes, this is a very strenuous hike! The first section is a gradual climb, but within a few minutes of walking, the angle of the slope will go beyond 50 degrees. If you’re not by this point questioning why you are hiking straight up a mountainside and decide to continue, then congratulations! But beware the false summit.
A little more than halfway up is what looks to be the top of the Incline. But don’t let this fool you. This is a false summit, and you still have a ways to go.
(hikers and sweat rings on the Incline)
Once you pass the steepest section and push through the false summit, the trail will almost seem to level out for a little while. But before long, the railroad ties will get steeper and start testing your endurance again. You’ll know you’re at the top when you reach the end of the ties and come across a few eroded, concrete foundations. (these make great spots for resting and stretching, by the way)
How to Get Back Down
Some people turn around and walk back down the Incline, but I definitely don’t recommend this. Many of the railroad ties are slick and polished from thousands of shoes, and the gravel can give way and slide at any moment. Unless you are very careful and surefooted, going back down the Incline is a very quick way to end up on your face or on your butt.
So there are two better ways to get down, the long way and the short way. To take the short way down, head downhill to the left (south) from the summit of the Incline. You’ll pass a couple boulders before finding the trail. This is an unofficial, bushwhacked trail that passes down through rocks and trees, until eventually meeting up with the Barr Trail. Once on Barr Trail, just head down to the parking lots where you started. Plan for 45 minutes to an hour to get down this way.
According to the city development plans, this shortcut will most likely be closed once the Incline becomes an official, sanctioned hike. But for now, it’s open and usable.
For the longer way down, hike up the hill from the end of the railroad ties, passing the concrete foundations, until you find a wide trail heading to the west. After about a half mile, this trail will join the Barr Trail. From here just follow the Barr Trail back down the mountain to the trailhead. This way takes approximately an hour and half.
According to my phone's GPS application, the total elevation gain is 2,000 feet. Total distance to the top is just under a mile. (the GPS signal is a bit weak there because of the high mountains around, but this gives you a rough estimate of the climb)
For any hike, you want to make sure to bring enough water. And this is especially true on the Manitou Incline. The steep angle, slippery gravel and wide spacing of the railroad ties can push your muscles to their limits, so you want to stay hydrated and not burn out mid-hike. At the very least bring a liter of water. On hot days, bring at least two liters.
So just how long should you plan on spending to get to the top of the Incline? Your overall fitness level, cardiovascular health and leg strength will affect your time to the top. Also important is your acclimation to high altitudes. If you are in decent shape and used to the thin mountain air, then plan on walking to the top in 40 to 45 minutes. Adjust time up or down depending on your fitness and/or how much pain you are willing to endure.
It can be easy to make mistakes when you’re tired and your muscles are burning, but pay attention and choose your footing carefully. The railroad ties on the Incline are old and worn, and some tilt away from the mountain side. There is also no shortage of rocks to slam your toes on, and there are several metal drainage pipes crossing the trail that are bent and worn through. Falling through a hole in these pipes and getting your shin caught on the metal would be bad.
One last thing to consider is the so-called Incline “bailout”. If you find yourself up on the rickety railroad ties, tired and spent, and don’t want to continue up, you can take a shortcut to the Barr Trail and back down to the parking lots. The shortcut, or “bailout”, is found conveniently midway up the Incline, right near the steepest portion. Look for a flat, gravel area and a railing to the left of the ties. A step, hop and a jump will take you to Barr Trail, which happens to make its way right up next to the Incline at this point.
For more information and updates on the official opening of the trail, check this link -