Barr Trail is one of the Pikes Peak region’s most iconic hiking paths and whether one trains for the annual Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon, or simply desires to hike it for its own merit, it packs a punch. Beginning at an elevation of approximately 6,800 feet in Manitou Springs, it climbs steadily to 14,115 feet, over a distance of about 12.5 miles. Even though various trails up our local 14er had existed since the early 1870s, Fred Barr surveyed the mountain in 1918, and supervised the construction of the route we still use today. In my mind, it is divided into four parts, each measuring roughly 3 miles, and each endowed with its own character.
The seemingly endless back and forth of the switchbacks right from the start presents the least welcoming aspect. Their repetitive nature is compounded by Incline return traffic which, depending on time of day and week, can result in the need to sidestep the narrow path nearly incessantly, to allow runners to pass. The nearby Incline, an old cable car track, spans 2000 vertical feet in just under a mile, and has become one of the premiere fitness challenges for athletes from near and far.
Beyond the various Incline connections, the crowd lessens, and one’s view widens, including a first glimpse of the summit. At No Name Creek begins one of my favorite segments, by virtue of its profusion of wildflowers and avian activity. Who can fail to be cheered by the chirping of chickadees? Gradually, more expansive scenes of the mountaintop appear, even though, depending on one’s physical form of the day, this can be inspiring, or demoralizing.
After 6. 5 miles, Barr Camp, 10,200 feet high, offers a welcome resting spot, if desired or needed. Also built by Fred Barr, it was used by the tourists he guided up from the top of the Incline, to catch a few hours’ sleep, before leaving for the peak at 1 AM, where they hoped to witness the sunrise on this purple mountain majesty. Now as then, one can gather strength there, before transitioning to the following section leading to the A-Frame, a wooden shelter. This stretch is steep, and somewhat tedious, but what sustains me here is the proximity of timberline and with it, the promise of the beguiling beauty of the tundra.
Once above the trees, boulders of varying size dot the slanting meadows, brilliant yellow cinquefoil and other colorful blossoms nestle in their shelter, and butterflies feast upon this delicate, yet tenacious alpine flora. Photogenic chubby yellow-bellied marmots, and furry picas fast on foot keep guard, or hope for a morsel of nourishment. In the east, the velveteen foothills roll into the wide expanse of the Plains, with its amber waves of grain. The stony face of Pikes Peak looms large in the west. The last three miles zigzag across the façade of the mountain and terminate with the Sixteen Golden Stairs. My heavy breathing, and jelly-like legs convince me that this is a misnomer. Sixteen hundred must be closer to the truth…
Knowing firsthand how extraordinary the trip to Pikes Peak by automobile or cog wheel can be, reaching this pinnacle under one’s own power is even more gratifying. But all visitors seem united in a similar sense of elation, and I have yet to encounter anyone who is not enthralled by the panoramic view, under spacious Colorado skies. Surely, Katharine Lee Bates would agree.
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