The Manitou Incline is a trail that climbs a bit over 2,000′ in less than a mile. The sign at the base of the trail tells us there are 2,744 steps to the top, but a marker on the top step tells us it is the 2,768th. Evidently, the count varies somewhat over time due to trail maintenance. It is, by far, the steepest trail I’m aware of. By contrast, in RMNP, the steepest sections of any trail that pack animals are allowed on climbs about 400′ in six-tenths of a mile (a kilometer). To climb two thousand feet at that slope would take three miles.
So many people want to subject themselves to this torture that reservations are required.
I had the mental image of somebody standing at the bottom of this hill a hundred years ago and saying to themselves, “I know: let’s make a hiking trail that starts here and goes straight up to the top. That would be fun!” This imaginative scenario is not correct. The somewhat more reasonable story is that the trail is the remains of a narrow-gauge funicular railway whose tracks washed out during a rock slide in 1990.
(A funicular is essentially a cable car. Two cars, actually, attached to the cable and used to counterweight each other. Cog railways also are used to climb steep slopes, but they don’t use cables. The Pikes Peak Cog railway starts just a few yards from the base of the Incline.)
They say one should allow two hours to get to the summit. The record is in the seventeen-minute range. Some folks seem to think doing it once isn’t enough, so they came up with the “Inclinathon”: 13 consecutive trips up and down the Incline in one day and has been completed in less than 12 hours.
I’ve been thinking of tackling this challenge for a number of years. Somehow it never really bubbled to the top of my to-do list. A couple of weeks ago, Chad reached out to me and asked if I wanted to join him.
Friday, April 8
Our reservations were in the 9:30-10:00 am slot, and we arrived in the area right on time. We found a parking lot with lots of open spaces, but it’s parking for the Barr Trail, and Incline hikers aren’t allowed to park here. Next, we found the lot for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. No Incline parking here, either. We finally found the right place, which, naturally, adds a quarter of a mile and maybe 200′ of elevation we’d need to gain.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The forecast high was for the mid-60s and calm. At the start, it was still cool enough to wear a hoodie but with the bright sunshine and cloudless cerulean sky, we were soon down to shirtsleeves and getting out the sunscreen.
We hit the first step of the incline at 9:36, at the same time as a woman and her son who looked to be about six years old. An indication of my performance on this hike is that I only managed to beat this six-year-old to the top by a few minutes. Judging by the dirt on the seat of his pants, he spent a lot of time waiting for his mother (and us other slow hikers) to catch up to him.
It wasn’t my lung capacity that was the limiting factor here. It was my legs. Most of the steps are single railroad ties, but in the steeper parts, each step is two railroad ties. And in some places, the ties are so close together that the tread width of the step is shorter than my boot is long. (The Incline is famous for its steepness, with an average grade of 45% (24°) and as steep as 68% (34°) in places.)
Not far from the bottom, a small herd of deer browsed their way across the trail. They’re quite acclimated to people; several of them came within 8 or 10 feet of me. I think I might have been able to pet them, had I been so inclined.
Sorry for the pun.
I didn’t see anybody running up, but quite a few ran down. I thought I saw somewhere that the Incline is one-way: climb up the Incline and take the Barr Trail back down. The hardcore group didn’t get enough agony on the trip up, they had to compound it by going back down the steps. No way I could have done it. We saw one guy who made two trips, and one gal we encountered was going down the steps backward. She said it was easier on the legs and falls wouldn’t be so bad. She said she would make a second ascent as soon as she got back to the base. At this point, I have no plans to do it a second time in my life, let alone a second time in a day.
There’s a marker on every hundredth step so you have a good idea of just how much torture still lies ahead of you. Or maybe I should say “above you”. I never bothered to count, so I don’t know how accurate these markers are. When we reached step 2000, I was a few steps above our intrepid 6-year-old. Naturally, he was unable to fight the need to start counting: “2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, …”.
At one point, I looked up and decided that I’d only need to take two more breaks before reaching the top. Seems I did this when looking at a bit of a “false summit”. I could see the top, but it didn’t look as far as it actually was, and a particularly steep section was obscured. I think I actually stopped five or six more times. Chad was a good sport about it and slowed his pace to stay with me. I have no doubt he’d have finished on the order of half an hour quicker than me.
Because I kept stopping to rest, I had plenty of opportunity to look at how the trail was made. For the most part, the timbers are flat, level, and square. They’re all attached with fittings to stout cables on each end, and the cables are anchored in concrete periodically up the slope. But, hikers and the weather have conspired to shift some of the ties so that they’re rotated a bit, or the soil behind them is starting to wash away. I imagine they need to constantly do a fair amount of work to keep the trail in good enough condition to support the traffic it gets.
We gained the summit at noon precisely. I had the forethought to pack a couple of beers. They were (amazingly) still cold. I didn’t set any records in climbing the Incline, but I did suck that beer down my gullet in pretty quick time.
The hike down the Barr Trail is quite pleasant in comparison to the Incline and doesn’t merit much description, other than that it’s fairly highly engineered (many retaining walls and fences) to handle the traffic.
I’m writing this the next day. My calves are quite sore. I’ll try to minimize my trips up and down the stairs today.