Ascending Pikes Peak
Via Barr Trail
On a beautiful day in September of 2009 my husband, Greg, headed for Manitou Springs hoping to ascend and descend the eastern face of Pikes Peak via Barr Trail. About 60,000 ambitious hikers join in this pursuit each year. He reached the trailhead parking lot at 5:10 am only to find it already full, so he parked just down the hill from the Cog Railway Depot. At 5:20 he started his hike as more hikers quickly filled in the parking spaces around him. Once on the trail, he soon passed three guys who were stumbling around in the dark. They stuck close behind him because his head lamp helped them see the trail.
Length: 6.5 miles to Barr Camp. 12.5 miles to summit.
Elevation Gain: Trailhead is about 6700'. Summit is 14,110'. Gain is 7400'.
Difficulty: The hike is strenuous because of the long ascent up to high elevations. The trail itself is fairly smooth and non-technical. You have to be in good condition just to ascend the mountain, not to mention going down, which can be hard on the knees and feet.
Time: Allow at least 8 hours to reach the top and 16 hours roundtrip.
Weather: Be prepared for dramatic changes in weather and strong winds. Lightning is a big threat, especially in the summer, often starting sometime after 11 am. I talked with hikers who encountered hail just below the summit in July. Have sunscreen, a brimmed hat, sunglasses/ski goggles, layers of clothing, rain poncho and sturdy hiking boots.
Directions: From Ruxton Ave., just past Pikes Peak Cog Railroad Depot, turn right up a steep hill to the pay parking lot (credit card only). Or park along Ruxton Ave. before the Depot. For more detailed directions go to my
Because it was pitch dark when Greg started, I've included summer photos of the beginning portion of the trail, which is comprised of a number of switchbacks. During the summer we love to hike Barr Trail (or occasionally The Incline, which shoots straight up the mountain nearby) about once per week on a weeknight to keep in good condition. It's rare to see so many parking spots in the lot (below), but a storm was threatening this day, keeping the crowds away. We were desperate for a good workout and brought rain ponchos, hoping for the best.
The trail is steep at the start, but several series of wood steps make the going easier.
When a brief downpour hit, it became a challenge to maneuver as a stream quickly filled up the middle of the path. We managed to backtrack to take shelter next to a large boulder with a slight overhang to avoid possible lightning strikes. After about 10 minutes the rain subsided and we continued on. The steam rising from the hillside after the storm was a beautiful sight and the stream soon disappeared.
Just to the south sometimes you can see the cog railway train climbing through the pines to the summit of Pikes Peak. We rode it once and enjoyed the views of the mountain and foothills you can't see from anywhere else. However, I didn't like having to take slightly fuzzy photos through the windows. We also saw a few marmots scrambling around the broken rocks as we approached the summit where we got out to soak up the spectacular views for about 40 minutes. Make sure you bring water and a jacket and walk around slowly to avoid dizziness or a headache.
If you want a little detour, look for a break in the fence at the end of a switchback where a trail leads down to a river and the train tracks.
Whimsical nodding onion blooms dotted the trail along with asters and a variety of other flowers.
The view of Colorado Springs and the eastern plains starts to open up after about a half hour of hiking. The distinct red rocks in Garden of the Gods can be seen in the distance.
The previous photos show the ground Greg covered before he took the shot below of the sunrise over Colorado Springs around 6 am. He had just passed the first connector path to The Incline. Though a great help in the dark, he was glad to remove the headlamp because it was a bit disorienting as the light beam bounced on the path with each step.
The photo below shows the tip of Pikes Peak at sunrise as seen from a little farther up the trail.
About 10 minutes later, you come to these boulders which let you know you are getting close to a connector trail that heads right, taking you to the top of The Incline.
Many people who ascend the Incline cut over on this trail so they can run back down Barr Trail.
The 2000 ft. climb to the connector trail is the farthest I've ever made it up Barr Trail so far. I did it in preparation for my
Mt. Sherman hike.
I felt like I could go higher, but I knew I had to save some strength for the descent which was a little hard on my knees.
Pikes Peak was in full view by this point. Following the second photo below, the path switchbacks through the trees up the right side of the mountain. Once above treeline it climbs along a ridge for awhile then heads sharply south to the left side of the mountain, then up to just right of the summit where you ascend to the top.
The uphill climbing isn't constant, fortunately. There is a plateau section for about 2 miles shortly before reaching Barr Camp.
Barr Camp at 10,200 ft. is a welcome sight where hikers might find free pancakes. At 8:15 am, After 3 hours of hiking up 3,800 ft. over the course of 6.5 miles, Greg refuled and took a 20 minute break. They had candy bars and water for sale (but not always). Only a few people were hanging around.
You can stay overnight at Barr Camp, but there is a fee and I assume it's good to make reservations. Bring a sleeping bag, cooking gear, toiletries and layers of clothing.
Greg didn't check it out, but we assume these are restrooms in the background.
Not long after leaving Barr Camp, Greg heard a loud rustling in the bushes and feared it was a bear. He stared down a narrow clearing, then spotted a magnificent male bighorn sheep posed on top of a boulder. But before Greg could reach the camera, it was gone.
After 9 miles of hiking, it was 10:45 when Greg reached the A-frame or Timberline Shelter. Hikers can take shelter here if a storm hits. He was starting to get fatigued. He had brought about 100 oz. of water and some fruit and nuts, but they weren't enough. As he rested, he debated if he should turn around. Some passing hikers gave him a couple of energy bars, which revived him and he decided to proceed to the summit. He knew he couldn't make it back down the mountain, so he called me to pick him up at the summit in a few hours.
This sign, a mile from the summit, says there is a 1500' drop down The Cirque (French for "circus" or a circular valley at the head of a glacier).
The photo on the right was taken 1 mile from the summit looking southeast. For the past three miles Greg had been slowing down, so many hikers were passing him. He felt okay, just tired. But after he left this spot, nausea started to hit and remained with him until the summit, causing him to take an hour and 20 minutes to cover that last grueling mile.
From the same spot Greg is looking directly south toward the Wet Mountains and the Sangre de Christo Mountains just beyond.
Greg and I happened to reach the summit at the same time. I was surprised at how exhausted and miserable he looked - the worst I had ever seen him. He later told me he almost cried at the sight of me because he was so happy to finally get relief. He recovered quickly after just a few minutes of sitting in the car and drinking.
In spite of the suffering at the end, he plans on returning to Barr Trail to attempt the round trip this summer. But I will be around just in case he needs a ride from the summit. Hikers can't count on fitting on the cog rail for a return trip down. The best thing to do is plan for someone to pick you up if you can't hike back down. On the way home we drove a hiker from Denver a short way down the mountain to his car (he'd been on the western slope Crags Trail) because clouds and lightning were rolling in as snow flakes appeared and temperatures plummeted about 15 degrees into the 30's.
The next two shots I took from the summit after I found Greg. The views are better to the west, but clouds had already covered that side. Part of the cog rails can be seen in the lower photo with Colorado Springs in the distance.