Colorado Springs – Part Two – The Pikes Peak Cog Railway

As mentioned in Colorado Springs – Part One, we decided to drive 18 hours round trip to spend 48 hours among mountains. Our first day was spent hiking in Garden of the Gods and exploring Colorado Springs. The following day began in Manitou Springs, Colorado, then involved a ride up to the summit of Pikes Peak, and ended with dinner in Colorado Springs before getting back on the road to spend the night in Colby, Kansas. So without further ado – the rest of the recap of our whirlwind trip to Colorado.

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Manitou Springs is the epitome of a mountain town with unique shops, historic homes, and incredible views. There is also a penny arcade, various mineral springs, and annual events that fall on the eccentric side – such as the Fruitcake Toss. It is a popular destination because of it’s location at the foot of Pikes Peak. We grabbed a cup of coffee at Red Dog Coffee and walked around the town until it was time to head to the train station.

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We originally planned on driving up Pike’s Peak but since we recently purchased a vehicle, we decided not to risk burning out brand new brakes on the decent. We knew hiking to the summit was out because our children are young so when we learned about the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, we knew we found our source of transportation up the mountain. I purchased our tickets online (we had the option for Violet to sit on our lap but opted to buy her a seat to give us flexibility – well worth the $20 in our opinion) the week prior because trains can sell out before the day of departure.

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Sunglasses are a must on the train.

We arrived about 30 minutes before departure time in order to collect our tickets at the window. While there were a lot of people waiting in that area, it was an efficient process and we had our tickets in hand shortly after arriving. In the waiting area, there is a gift shop and small convince shop where you can purchase {overpriced} food items – yes, food is allowed on the train. Since the ascent takes over an hour, it’s good to have food on hand to keep little ones (and hungry big ones) happy. There is not a bathroom on board the train so the waiting area also has a handful of bathrooms, which we definitely hit up before boarding. We lined up to board our train about 10 minutes before departure but didn’t actually step foot on the train until 10:40am (our estimated departure time).

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The seats are designed to face toward each other in groups of six (three on each side). We sat next to an older couple from Denver – our assigned seats were the closest four to the window but there really isn’t a bad seat on the train because the windows are so large. Before long, we were on our way up!

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Colorado has 54 mountains over 14,000 ft. Pikes Peak ranks #31 at 14,115 ft. and is the highest summit of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The mountain raises 8,000 ft. above downtown Colorado Springs (the city is already 6,000 ft. above sea level). So while we were over 14,000 ft. at the summit, the train itself only ascended less than 8,000 ft. The Pikes Peak Cog Railway has almost 9 miles of track and the railway itself is the highest in North America, which means that the views on the way up (and down) were outstanding.

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When we went to Alaska, I was disappointed to find out that the majority of the pictures I took failed to capture the majesty of the mountains. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about the pictures taken this trip so please understand that the following pictures to do justice to the majesty of Pikes Peak. The majority of Colorado Springs falls in the Eastern Plains Zone, which extends up to 6,000ft. Pikes Peak encompasses four distinct life zones – the Depot (6,000 – 8,000ft), Montane Zone (8,000 to 10,000 ft), Subalpine Zone (10,000 to 11,500 ft), and Alpine Zone (11,500 ft. and above). It was really cool to see changes that accompany each distinct life zone on our ride up the mountain.

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Pikes Peak has a clear tree-line at 11,5000 ft because the Alpine Zone (tundra) does not contain trees because of it’s high altitude. The lack of the greenhouse effect at such high altitude causes the cold climate in the alpine tundra. As soon as we reached the Alpine Zone, there was a noticeable temperature drop. While the weather was 80 degrees in Manitou Springs that day, the temperatures hovered around 30 degrees at the summit. Pikes Peak is home to one of Colorado’s largest bighorn sheep herds and we were able to see a few on the ride! Unfortunately, there were too far away to show up in a picture taken with my iPhone.

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When we reached the top, we had about 30 minutes to walk around and explore before needing to board the train for the decent. We bought round trip tickets but hikers have the option to purchase one-way tickets – either for the decent or ascent. Some people were grumbling at the lack of time at the summit but for us with two young kids, it was the perfect amount of time. At the peak, the partial pressure of oxygen is only about 60% of that at sea level. Seeing as how we spent the past three years (and all of V’s life) in Washington DC at about 200 ft elevation and currently live in Fort Leavenworth, KS at about 800 ft elevation, our little family is not acclimated to higher elevation.

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But the views were totally worth the effects of the altitude.

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From the top, you can see up to five states on a clear day (Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and New Mexico). Views are to be seen from every direction – Garden of the Gods, the Continental Divide, various reservoirs, and summits of other peaks.

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We walked all around up top. There is a gift shop/restaurant at the summit but we didn’t waste our limited time visiting there other than to use the restrooms. We came for the views – not subpar food and cheap souvenirs.

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The Army is everywhere.

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Violet was no match for the high altitude. She fell asleep after about 20 minutes at 14,000 ft.

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And then continued to sleep the entire descent. Weston joined her shortly after boarding.

We’ve discovered our children’s kryptonite – altitude!

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If you’re wanting to go to the top of Pikes Peak and unable to hike/unwilling to drive, I highly recommend the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The experience did eat up a large chunk of our day but the opportunity to soak in views at 14,000+ ft. made it worthwhile. While we did enjoy the train, Clay and I do hope that the next time we’re on top of Pikes Peak, we’re there because we hiked the 13 miles trail ourselves.

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