So last year we had conquered San Jacinto Mountain via the Palm Springs Aerial Tram rising to an elevation of 8,516′. Then there was our Rocky Mountain High at the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet in the sky after a white knuckle kind of drive on the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Why not a trip to the summit of at least one of the 54 Colorado “fourteeners”, Pike’s Peak, America’s most visited mountain in North America and the second most visited in the world after Japan’s Mt. Fuji? At an altitude of 14,115 feet above sea level, Pikes Peak is the 30th highest peak out of 54 Colorado “fourteener” peaks (peaks over 14,000 ft.). Driving the scenic 19-mile drive was one option ($15 per person 5/1 to 11/30; $10 12/1 to 4/30) but we wanted to sit back and let someone else do all the work.
Instead we would enjoy a narrated, educational trip aboard the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the highest cog railway in North America! Having ascended to the summit of Mt. Washington, the highest peak east of the Mississippi at a mere 6,289 feet in elevation in New Hampshire via their cog railway (back when the engines were still coal fired), we were eagerly anticipating this trip! Built in 1869, the NH railway was the first cog ever built. BTW, Mt. Washington (aka “the rock pile”) may not be all that “high” by Colorado standards but consider the tree line is at just 4400 feet and it is known as the home of the world’s worst weather – Mount Washington’s winter conditions rival those of Mount Everest and the Polar regions! Astronauts have trained there.
But I digress…time to get back on track (ha ha). Knowing that making reservations might be tough due to the high volume of visitors in the area, as soon as we arrived in Colorado Springs and had checked the weather forecast, we made reservations on-line for Monday, October 16th on the 10:40 a.m. train. The cost for adults is $40 plus you have to purchase a parking pass ($5) to park in one of their limited lots. We also bought a souvenir map for $2.
Hard to imagine but the Pikes Peak Cog Railway has been taking thousands of people to the 14,115 ft summit since 1891! Thanks to Zalman G. Simmons (of Simmons Mattress fame and fortune) who after a two day journey to the summit on the back of a mule decided to make the mountain accessible by rail.
It must have been a very difficult task performing heavy labor in the thin atmosphere, on the imposing terrain and in the very harsh weather conditions but somehow they did – the railway was completed on October 20, 1890. Delayed due to spring snows, the first passengers, a Denver church choir, reached the summit on June 30, 1891. From that time until the 1950’s, steam locomotives were used to transport riders until they were gradually replaced by diesel between 1939 and 1957. In 1965, Swiss-made rail cars, made exclusively for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, were implemented. These use a unique cog and gear system to power itself up the steep slopes.
According to the Pike’s Peak website, “the Cog Train uses a toothed double rail in the center of the track, which enables the train to “grab” onto something on the way up the mountain. This cog and gear system also keeps the train from running away on the way down. The two outer rails on the Cog Rail are used only to keep the train stable and pointed correctly.” To read more about the history and the details about the operation of the cog, check out the Cog Railway website.
Once we were herded into our assigned rail car and sitting in our assigned seats, we were issued several warnings by our conductor: make sure to drink lots of water, a necessity to prevent altitude sickness and dehydration and be sure to visit the restrooms prior to departure as there were no bathrooms on board the train. So there was a mad scurry to take care of both issues.
Once all of the necessities were taken care of and everyone was back on board, our 3 hour and 10 minute journey (including the 40 minute stop at the peak) over 8.9 miles of track began. Traveling at an average 8 mph, our tour guide/conductor provided commentary as we passed through canyons with views of giant boulders, cascading streams, and dense stands of Englemann spruce, Colorado blue spruce, Ponderosa pine and Bristlecone pine (some estimated to be over 2000 years old).
Along the way not only did our conductor tell us about the history of the cog but he also discussed the construction of a nearby funicular railway which was built in 1907. This railway was built to provide access to not only the water tanks on top of Mt. Manitou (9,445′) but to also allow access to the hydroelectric plant and service pipes on the mountain. However, it soon was converted into a tourist attraction, running several trips a day from Manitou Springs to the top of Mt. Manitou where passengers could eat lunch and enjoy the fresh mountain air. Plagued by rock slides and wash outs, the Railway finally closed in 1990.
After its closure in 1990, the tracks were removed, creating a wooden staircase with 2,744 steps (who’s counting?), averaging 40-percent degrees of incline. Today it is known as The Incline. Be sure to check out the photos and the 3 minute video taken from a backpack’s perspective on their website. Certainly not for the faint of heart: the Incline starts at a measly 6,600 feet and climbs just over 2,000 feet in ¾ of a mile. This has became a popular trail for anyone looking for an incredibly intense workout. Triathletes, wrestlers and Olympiads including short track skating gold medalist Apolo Anton Ohno are among those athletes who have faced the challenge of The Incline.
Time passed quickly as we gazed out the window staring in awe of the beautiful scenery and listened to the conductor. In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates, a visiting professor from Wellesley College, took a summer teaching position in Colorado Springs where one of the perks of being a visiting professor was a carriage ride up Pikes Peak. At the Halfway House (Glen Cove), the carriage could go no further so they switched to burros for the remaining six miles of the trip. At the peak, according to her diary, she “gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and the sea-like sweep of plain.” She later wrote a poem about her experiences. That poem became our classic anthem “America The Beautiful.” In 1993, 100 years after Bates ascended Pikes Peak, a Colorado Springs’ businessman donated an “America the Beautiful” monument that was placed atop Pikes Peak.
At the five mile mark around 10,000 feet, the train started climbing up the very steep “The Big Hill”. The views became more expansive and absolutely breathtaking! Since it was a very clear day, we were told that to the east we could see the Great Plains out beyond the border of Colorado and Kansas and to the south, the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Range stretching south to New Mexico. On the western horizon, just slightly to the southwest, was the Collegiate Range.
As we passed by Windy Point at 12,130′ and Pump House Ruins, we were in the Bighorn Sheep Area where sure enough everyone on board became pretty excited when a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep could be seen on one of the ridges.
At the summit, after warning us to be back on time or it would be a long walk down, we were told we had 40 minutes to take in the sweeping vistas, visit the rest rooms, peruse the gift shop or perhaps, grab a snack at the Summit House. That sounded great until we disembarked from the train. OMG, it was oh so very, very cold and really windy! We had been warned to dress warmly as the temps at the summit were often 30 degrees colder but this was ridiculous! At 1:05 p.m. MST, the temp was 31 degrees with winds at 28 mph but gusts up to 50 mph making the wind chill 17 degrees. BRRR! BRRR! BRRRR! After snapping a few pictures, I retreated to the warmth inside while Rob stayed outside for a bit longer to take more photos.
Inside, the Summit House is a well-stocked gift shop and a decent selection of food including the world-famous Pikes Peak donuts – the only donuts made at an altitude over 14,000 feet (we didn’t try any). Other food included burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, salads, desserts, Pike’s Peak fudge, coffee, tea, soft drinks and bottled water.
Finally it was time to return to the train for our descent down the mountain. Although the train is not heated, the temperature inside was fairly warm. By the time we arrived back at the depot, it was a lot warmer. Time to remove our top layer heavy jackets.
Despite the fact that we were a little disappointed by how cold and windy it was on the summit, overall it was an awesome day! Out of curiosity, the next day I checked the weather conditions on the Cog Railway website, the temp was warmer and there was barely any wind. Figures…