MANITOU AND PIKES PEAK COG RAILWAY
To ride the Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway, you first need to get to a small historic town about seven miles from Colorado Springs. Disembarking in Manitou Springs, a place perched on the edge of a mountain and history, you are thrown into an enchanting, albeit more colourful, rendition of the 19th century. The extra flair is for the tourists’ benefit. There are boutiques of all kinds that showcase primarily local designers and artists, pottery shops featuring Native American craftsmanship, and fun places for kids. All of this is glazed with a sugary mixture of hemp, hippies, and mysticism.
A brief journey up a steep hill takes you to the railway station, which owes its existence to the inventor Zalmon Simmons (Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Company) who financed the venture some time after experiencing Pikes Peak (altitude 14 110 feet) on a mule's back. Six deaths occurred during construction of the railway, but it opened in 1891.
A cog or rack railway uses a gear that meshes into a special rail mounted between the regular rails to climb steep grades. The Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway climbs grades of about 25%. The guided round trip lasts 3 hours 10 minutes and takes passengers first through dense stands of blue spruce and Ponderosa pines, past boulder fields, and beside the Minnehaha Falls. The train goes through a natural gateway as it approaches Deer Park and various landings with mountain views. On its final ascent, it climbs from timberline to tundra.
The melange of moss and wildflowers that makes up the alpine tundra is so fragile it takes about 75 years to grow a half an inch. In contrast, some of the most ancient trees in the world survive here. There are Bristle cone pines over two thousand years old.
Manitou Springs has eleven naturally carbonated springs that have been preserved in fountains throughout the town. The treasure hunt draws you in almost immediately. Once you have found one, you can’t wait to see and taste the next. Expectation hangs in the air, as while you wander through the old streets, the mountain is waiting impassively beside you.
The word «Manitou» means «Great Spirit». The land on which the town is built is sacred ground, visited by Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, who wintered there and credited the springs with healing properties. Following the gold rush of the 1850s, European settlers also discovered these qualities and began to promote the area as a health spa.
Much like the experience of riding a cable car for the first time, the trip to Pikes Peak begins with some trepidation as the train lurches up the mountainside.
Soon, however, you are completely absorbed by the scenery and the stories the guides are telling. There are faces to see in gigantic stones and broken down remnants of rest stops from decades, sometimes centuries, before. Higher up, you’ll likely catch a glimpse of a marmot or some Bighorn sheep.
Once you arrive on the summit, you’ll have about 40 minutes to take in the 360° breath-taking views of the Continental Divide’s Rocky Mountains, specifically the Sangre de Christo and Collegiate ranges. Beyond them, the Great Plains stretch south toward New Mexico. Time on the summit is limited due to the likelihood of altitude sickness, which can include nausea and severe headaches. The train leaves promptly, so you’ll want to respect the horn blast that you’ll hear about 10 minutes before your departure.