Featured writer: Anthony Greco
Common Man’s Guide to Hiking Pikes Peak
The following post will be a guide to hiking Pikes Peak. It will also be a forum for suggestions, comments, and accolades for hikes completed. The NAEE team will be hiking Pikes Peak on May 27th, 2012 and creating a photo guide to summit Pikes Peak from Crags Campground to the Barr Trailhead in Manitou Springs.
A brief introduction.
Pikes Peak is a national landmark. It is the most visited mountain in North America and is ranked second behind Japan’s Mt. Fuji in world rankings. It has an altitude of 14,110 making it the 31st highest peak out of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners. It location east of the big peaks in the Rocky Mountain chain made it historically significant in early fame among explorers, pioneers and immigrants who used it as a symbol of the 1859 Gold Rush to Colorado with the slogan, “Pikes Peak or Bust”.
Non hikers have access to to summit the peak as over a half million people reach the summit house every year by the Pikes Peak Highway, or the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The 19-mile Pikes Peak highway is not the hiking trail, two main trails provide access to hiking the “Peak”; the Barr Trail and trail 641A 1/10th of a mile from the Crags parking area. Our hike will include those two trails. Elevation gains will range from 4,000 to 7,400 feet on this hike extending over 20 miles. About 15,000 people a year attempt to climb Pikes Peak on foot- of those 15,000 only 75% complete it.
If this will be your first time to summit the Peak, then it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. This is a high elevation hike (see map/chart above). Elevation training is essential. If you are a visitor to the Pike Peak region and this is a bucket list endeavor, please take it seriously-too many injuries and deaths have resulted from being unprepared. If you are in low, to moderate shape you may consider an exercise plan to create a foundation before embarking on this hike. It is not the most difficult hike when prepared, but it has challenging aspects. Recently, nine soldiers were rescued off of Pikes Peak this year due to weather and lack of preparation. Storms on the mountain can create havoc on hikers, so be on the mountain early to be down in enough time to prevent life threatening situations.
It is an essential that you bring layers of clothing. This is a skill that enables the hiker to adapt to the environment that changes very quickly in the mountains. By adding and decreasing clothing during the hike you will be able to provide a comfort zone to your day. Layering involves three basic stages: an inner wicking layer, an insulating middle layer, and a weatherproof outer layer.
Here is my cheat sheet:
1. Wicking- I wear specific gear that pulls sweat away from my body. Without being too graphic, chaffing will make your day miserable, many hikers never finish a hike due to the chaffing process.
2. Insulation- After checking the forecast I either wear my fleece vest, or jacket. Fleece will retain body heat and also has a wicking process. If I wear my fleece I carry my jacket in the pack (just in case).
3. Weatherproofing- This is to protect you from the elements. If you have inadequate outer layers or it traps perspiration it will cool you off. Winds on the summit are extreme at times, if you have wet clothes your core temperature will drop drastically and put you in danger. A Gore-Tex® jacket provides the protection from the elements as it has shell that can be added or removed based on overall temperature.
4. Hats, Gloves, and socks should not be cotton! Invest in some polyester, or propylene, materials. Pack an extra pair of socks as your feet are crucial to completion of the hike.
Use your body as a guide, while walking removing layers is common. However, when stopping for a break it is important to remember to add layers to maintain core temperature. If you are feeling too hot, or too cold, this can be a sign of improper layering methods.
What to Pack
This will be a day hike, but you should always prepare for the worst. Again this hike is not extreme, but it is challenging. Also, mountains can be unpredictable and if you are not prepared you may find yourself in a bad situation. For a day hike the following items are commonplace in my pack.
- Water/Camel Back- The rule of thumb is for every hour of hiking your should bring .5 liters of water to drink (minimum). This hike is estimated to take up to 8 hours, therefore 4 liters is recommended. I will carry more than the minimum, even though it adds weight in the beginning you have to remember it gets lighter by the end. I do have a filter system in my pack as well.
- Headlamp- self explanatory if it gets dark this is imperative.
- Food- I bring high carb foods that will sustain me throughout the hike. Trail mix, jerky, power bars, apples and always a little bit of sugar (candy bars). Hiking at altitude increases the appetite from the high calorie burn so food is essential.
- Shelter- I have an emergency poncho that converts into an insulating mat. In overnight stays you want to limit exposure to the cold ground. I have found leaves and this poncho are a good mix.
- If you can pack a small shelter then do so. Tents, bivy sack etc… will suffice.
- Batteries are important, just an extra pack for a day hike.
- Paper map of the region with the trail highlighted. Do not rely on your phone, GPS, as the final solution in case you get lost.
- My compact first aid kit. Not excessive, but enough to help with burns, cuts, blisters, pain, bites, and small injuries.
- Hiking poles- I do not use these but I know of many that do. They decrease the chance of injury from fall, and distribute weight more proportionally on your body. I like my hands free for photos etc… but many love the use of poles in hiking.
- Camera for photos. The views on this hike are amazing, documenting your hike through photography is a wonderful way to make memories.
- Sunscreen, lip balm, and I always bring a small bottle of baby powder for chaffed areas.
Breaking this hike down into mile by mile segments can become more confusing as much of the terrain is similar. Therefore, I will break it down into six challenges to complete during the ascent and descent.
Honestly, Pikes Peak during this hike felt like two different mountains. The Crags hike is steep, tough, cold and relatively lightly traveled. The Barr Trail is well groomed, warm, long and highly traveled. They have similar characteristics as they both provide spectacular scenery and captivating vistas.
The Crags Campground is about a 35 five minute drive out of Colorado Springs. If you are going to do this hike park at the Crags Campground and have a ride back ready in Manitou Springs. The times I have visited this parking lot has always had room, so finding a space should not be difficult. It also has a bathroom facility if you need to do any last minute relief before the hike!
Challenge One- The first challenge out of the parking lot is invigorating. You walk up a decent incline to get your heart pumping and then a flat area that overlooks the campground to the west. After a short walk you come to a fork in the path, stay right. There is a laminated sign posted to a tree pointing to the Devils Playground/Pikes Peak as the path to the right. Cross the small bridge (a second about 800 yards away) and begin a slight incline through a beautiful pine forest. This is a great start to a hike as it is not hard, smell of pine in the air, and little wind as it is blocked from the trees. This continues for approximately 1.5 miles and then you experience a few steep inclines as you gain elevation and cross the same small stream for a third time. Looking north you will begin to see rock formations that are wonderful landmarks. The first looks like two hands in prayer, the second looks like a small keyhole (see pics above). They will be on the left hand side of the trail about two miles in. Another steep incline leads you into a meadow and the trees start to become sparse as you are at timberline. Ahead you can see Pikes peak in front of it the saddle that will become your second challenge. The vistas from this vantage point are wonderful and it also may be time to add a layer as winds tend to pick up in this area. Challenge one complete.
Challenge Two- OK-this is where things start to change. After leaving tree line you definitely notice a chill in the thin air. Breathing is tougher and the wind kicks up, to top it off you look up at a barren landscape that leads to the saddle- it is a steep, long incline. You cross a very small rock ravine that leads to a tough to find path. This path will take a small skill level to find consistently. I used a landmark to keep on course. You will notice a small rock formation to your right and a frozen (unfrozen in summer) creek. Stay to your left of the rock formation and basically follow the small creek bed up. If you do this you will consistently manage to find the path to the top. Take your time, remember slow and steady wins the race. This section is pretty grueling as you are going from around 11,000 ft to 12,000 feet in 1/2 of a mile without switch backs to tame the incline. Once at the top you are welcomed to a unique landscape; rocks, tundra, wind and snow dominate the view. You will see a trail that goes off to the left and circles around a saddle ridge, if you look closely to the south east you will see vehicles traveling to the top via the Pikes Peak Highway. At this point you will feel the wind (on most days) and it will be time to layer up. I recommend traveling the ridge to rock formations that will be approximate 500 yards away. Depending on the season you will cross a few snow fields, no yak tracks were needed, but watch your step as it was slippery. I found a spot that is protected from the south, north, and east winds it is a rock inlet about 300 yards before two rock arches you pass through. Take a break, eat something, drink some water and reorganize your equipment. I took off my gloves at this spot and in 10-15 seconds my fingers were numb, the gloves went right back on. It is amazing the temperature change, it felt like winter. After a good break I headed up a medium incline to the aforementioned rock arches. Again depending on the time of year, listen for high pitched warning chirps. This was my first sighting during the day of a yellow-bellied marmot. These creatures live at high altitude, and remind me of a mix between a beaver and a prairie dog. After passing through the rock arches you will head left towards the highway which you will actually cross. After crossing the highway you will walk on the left hand side of the road following a clear trail. Motorists will gawk at you and probably wonder what you are thinking- pay them no mind-remind yourself you are doing this the old fashioned way! A sign at this point will tells you that you are in the Devil’s Playground, named as such for the lightning that jumps from rock to rock. This is a very dangerous spot to be if storms are threatening, if you are at this spot and it looks like weather is taking a turn for the worse get back to tree line as fast as possible. Do not risk riding out the storm! The walk from this point flattens out and leads to one of the best vistas on the hike. As the highway and path virtually meet at an overlook, take the time to look over the edge down onto Colorado Springs, the Catamount reservoirs, and the eastern plains. This is when the hike becomes spiritual for me, all my problems seem so insignificant as I gaze for miles on end. This point motivates me to want to finish the ascent.
Challenge Three- As you leave the view the landscape becomes a scene as if you were walking on Mars. The red tint to the rock, lack of vegetation and barren landscape create a virtual alien world. This section becomes a lesson of skill. The path is very difficult to find as you begin another steep incline, this is where the cairns (rock pillars) will guide your way. Continuously scan the horizon as you walk forward and guide yourself from cairn to cairn. After this steep incline the summit will look close, you actually have about 1.5 miles left. However, it will be the toughest part of the hike. You will walk in a relatively flat stretch prior to your final summit scramble. This part becomes technical to a degree. The cairns mark the way up the rock/boulder slope. Loose rocks, ice, and snow make this section at times treacherous. Watch every step you take, test rocks, and if in groups try and hike parallel on the hill in case rocks fall down the mountain. The cairns are hard to find and to determine which one is the next in succession. USE THEM to the best of your ability! Do not try to go straight up, you will find this more technical than you want and at altitude- very strenuous. Take breaks as fatigue will set in which can cause silly mistakes as this is the section were more people become injured and unable to finish the hike. Through perseverance and patience you will see the summit house which at this point the section levels off and as you maneuver between boulders you eventually come across a dirt road leading to the top. Be prepared to see many tourists jumping out of their cars taking pics of the landscape, some might even ask you to take a picture for them. I try and not stay long as this spot seems to minimize your accomplishment, the multitude of people does not make you feel alone in your quest. Take your own pic of the summit sign, try and see if you can find Denver ( 80 miles north) and head to the east side of the summit house where the Cog Railway delivers/picks up passengers. A sign for the Barr Trail is there and you will begin your descent challenges.
Fred Barr is the builder of this trail which took place in the years of 1914-1918. The goals was to build a trail so individuals could take burro rides to the summit. Also during that time a funicular, or cliff railway, was built to transport people to the summit and burro barn. The bottom three miles of Barr Trail were built in the 1920’s by the US Forest Service to connect the trail with Manitou Springs. The Barr Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the Pikes Peak Region and it is host to the Pikes Peak Ascent, the Pikes Peak Marathon, and the Barr Trail Mountain Race.
Challenge Four- As I began the descent the first thing I noticed is how much more defined the trail is during this segment compared to the Crag’s side. You are not straddling boulders, walking tentatively on loose rocks, and trying to find your way with cairns. It is an easy trail to see, it is steep but not thigh burning steep. The only thing I had to watch for was several icy sections on the bends of the 16 golden stair section (as it is famously known) of Barr Trail. The second item of note was the tremendous amount of foot traffic this side of the mountain had. On the Crag’s side I came across a total of nine people, in the first hour of my descent on the Barr I estimated fifty hikers were on their way to the top. The third thing I noticed was the temperature. It had to be 20 degrees warmer on this side of the mountain. Immediately the gloves and jacket were shed to keep my body temperature down. The hike had magnificent displays of boulders, spring run off, and rock formations jutting from the ground. I did come across an aggressive marmot that seemed to be growling at Stitch and I, which gave us a good photo opportunity. Many signs and dedications are found in this section that included; a recognition of Fred Barr (creator of Barr Trail) and a tribute for an 88 year old- G. Inestine Roberts, who died at tree line during her 14th ascent of Pikes Peak. The first phase down was not as painful as I expected, we eventually made it to timberline feeling good.
Challenge Five- As I reached timberline I realized I had two casualties from the hike thus far. My iPhone was dead. I fully charged it and turned it off prior to the hike so I could use it on the back side to inform my wife of when I might need a ride back to the Crags. I came to the conclusion the extreme cold on the backside caused it to run out quickly. I was fortunate enough to get a small power surge to text her and get a response. My second casualty was I cracked the screen on my old digital back up camera I used for videos-hopefully I could still shoot them blind. The first landmark I came across was a forest of very old dwarf trees. These begin right below tree-line and near the A-frame, a shelter for weary hikers to escape the elements. The aspen, fir, spruce mixed aroma that comes with the forest was a wonderful use of the sense of smell, and the scenery they provided was tranquil to the eye. Again in this section, the Barr Trail is designed to follow a series of switchbacks which gives the sense that you are not accomplishing much distance, while saving your legs the pain of a steep decline. It was beginning to become warm and in the forested areas the breeze was non-existent which led to a quick reduction of my water supply. This peaceful, long section eventually guides you to Barr Camp. The camp is a first come/first serve camping area that many use as a staging point for an overnight summit and it is marked by a cabin and split rail fences. Year round tenants provide safety and refuge for hikers that need basic supplies, help, or advice. A helicopter pad is located here and only a few years back one of them crashed sending debris onto the trail itself (everyone was OK). The trek down has seemed long, but the Barr Camp was a halfway point putting me right on schedule to finish the hike in the early afternoon.
Challenge Six- The final leg is probably the most traveled portion of the Barr Trail. It is relatively an easy hike with two small incline sections that actually feel good from the constant down hill stride you have been doing since the summit. This section is also straight with minimal switchbacks. The six remaining miles will go rather quickly; after the brief incline sections you walk on a ridge overlooking the forest valley until you make it to No Name creek. At this point there is another relatively calm walk with rock formations on your left and the creek on your right. This is the time you start getting glimpses of Manitou below and Colorado Springs beyond. Although it still looks far, it is only approximately an hour to the end of your hike. You will pass through a rock arch that is the gateway to more traffic. The Barr Trail links up with the infamous, hard-core, physical challenge “The Incline”, where many runners are going to pass you on a narrow stretch of switch backs as you descend on Manitou. Listen closely and when you here the river you have 15 minutes to the conclusion of your hike. Hike the final few switch backs with some swagger, you just crossed over a fourteener from one side to the other, a very difficult task. At the bottom is the Barr Trailhead and your ride back to your vehicle!
Pikes Peak is a bi-polar mountain. One side is kind, sweet, memorable, and calm. The other is brutal, cold, strenuous, and unforgiving. I realize that I walked up one side and down the other which could taint my opinion of each. However, the Crags side is for the more advanced hiker, and the Barr side is for those that want to do a 14er for the first time. In my personal opinion, I love both. The Crags pushes you to a limit, makes you use a higher level of hiking skill, and has mountain vistas that stretch beyond the imagination. The Barr Trail is an endurance challenge, yet through a gradual process. It takes strength and determination to complete, but you are always encouraged by others that frequent the trail to push on. The vistas of the city, and the eastern plains take your breath away. Altogether this is a great hike, challenging and rewarding. Approximately 20 miles over America’s mountain provides perspective of the importance of this mountain in the context of American history, but also provides a sense of inner peace as the words of the legendary song America beckons (written on top of Pikes Peak), “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesty, above the fruited plain!”
Video Footage of the Hike
For complete hike details please visit the NAEE link: