The first time I hiked the Manitou Incline—a one-mile, 2,000-foot climb up an abandoned railway at the foot of Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs—my trapezius muscles were sore for days afterwards. Not my thighs, knees, or butt, as expected, but the muscles between my shoulders and my neck, as if my upper body had been pulling the rest of me up all along the way. I felt like I had done thousands of pull-ups, not climbed 2,744 stairs.
The incline is a whole-body effort, especially for first-timers. No special gear is required to make it to the top (I’ve done the 1.02-mile trek in hiking boots, running shoes, and sandals; on a recent trip I even saw a woman making her way, very gingerly, in dress shoes), but you do need a special will.
At the trailhead, it appears as though you’re attempting the impossible: The railroad ties rise before you in endless stairs, and the only summit you can see is a false one. On my first few climbs, I stood at the bottom for several extra-long minutes of “stretching.” In all honesty, I was working up the nerve to brutalize my body. But the steady flow of hikers, from triathletes to people who rarely venture to the gym, are huffing, puffing evidence that the ascent is manageable, if exhausting. I’ve conquered the incline with my cancer-surviving mother after she finished chemotherapy, and I’ve done it with my son (see photo), a kindergartner who took his time getting to the top but never once wanted to turn around.
Although tough—the steep grade averages more than 40 percent and increases to 68 percent in a couple of places, with no flat stretches from bottom to top—the incline is perhaps the most democratic extreme hike in Colorado. The super-athletic can do it in 20-odd minutes. The out-of-shape may take longer (around an hour-plus) but virtually everyone eventually reaches the summit. And it’s well worth the effort. You’ll be catching your breath while taking in panoramic views of Manitou Springs, Garden of the Gods, and Colorado Springs.
But I don’t do it for the views. I do it for the steps themselves—the stubborn challenge of putting one foot in front of the other. There are no switchbacks, no real places to pause, just a straight line on a trail only slightly wider than my wingspan. The incline is at its steepest just before the false summit, which occurs about two-thirds of the way up. After a slight leveling off, the trail becomes very steep again, and the last 100-or-so yards are—unsurprisingly—always the hardest. On my very best days, I have pounced on those final steps, but mostly those steps pounce on me, taking me to the very edge of what I’m able to do.
The incline gets easier the more you do it, but it’s never easy. As the locals say, “The incline always wins.”
Getting There: Take I-25 south to Highway 24 (exit 141). Drive west for four miles to the Manitou Avenue exit. Continue driving west 1.5 miles, through the town of Manitou Springs, until you reach a roundabout. Take the second exit onto Ruxton Avenue. Drive three-quarters of a mile and then park along the street for free or in the small pay-lot below the cog railway station.
Bonus: Read "Stairway to Heaven" in our May issue to learn more about the Manitou Incline.