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“Keep Manitou weird” is a bumper sticker you’re likely to see when traveling through this small town, which has some of the oddest festivals—like the annual Emma Crawford Coffin Race and Parade and the Fruitcake Toss—in all of Colorado. (Fun fact: It’s also the only spot to buy recreational marijuana in all of El Paso County.) In addition to its quirky, hippie vibe, Manitou Springs offers incredible access to some of Colorado’s most iconic landscapes, adorable bed-and-breakfast hotels, and plenty of family-friendly activities.
The Odometer: 75 miles (about 90 minutes) from Denver, one-way
Eat & Drink: The town of Manitou Springs is tiny; you can walk up and down the whole downtown area in just a few minutes. Still, there’s no shortage of delicious places to eat and drink. Visiting the local brewery of any Colorado town is basically required, but instead of just stopping by Manitou Brewing Company for one pint, stay for dinner. MBC has some of the town’s best food—especially if you’re into heaps of bacon. Definitely splurge on the truffle oil and parmesan fries. For a quick bite late at night or to save your budget, eat at the local-friendly Ruffrano’s Hell’s Kitchen Pizza, where you can get a combo meal for just $6.66.
In the morning, get your coffee from Good Karma Cafe, where you’ll also find creative breakfast dishes like the Apple Chai Quinoa Bowl. To satisfy your sweet tooth, stroll down the street to Radiantly Raw Chocolate for a rich, drinkable cup of chocolate. It shares a home with Anna’s Apothecary, where you’ll find a vast bulk spice wall ideal for making your own loose-leaf tea concoction, or handmade soaps and potions. For tasty small plates and wine, head to Swirl, the local wine bar.
Stay: Manitou Springs is full of small bed and breakfasts, as well as budget-friendly motels just out of town. But if you’ve got money to burn, stay at the Cliff House, which has been hosting guests since the 1870s. The Cliff House is luxuriously decorated, and you’ll feel as if you’ve taken a step back in time as you roam its halls. It’s situated perfectly—steps from the tourist attractions on Manitou Avenue, but set back just enough to feel quiet and exclusive. If you’re up for an adventure, book a night at Barr Camp, a 6.5-mile hike to the halfway point up the trail to the top of Pikes Peak. There are tent spots, lean-tos, and cabins outside, and bunks in the main house where you’ll eat breakfast with other backpackers. Breakfast is included, but you’ll want to reserve dinner ahead of time.
Tour: The views you’ve likely seen on postcards from Colorado Springs are found in Garden of the Gods Park, which is free and a 12-minute drive from Manitou Springs. It gets extremely busy on warm, sunny days, so avoid the main parking lot and take a scenic drive around the whole park till you find a better spot to stop and walk. You can spy Pikes Peak through a peephole in a rock formation called the Siamese Twins, which you’ll find from a trail of the same name. In town, look out for the sculptures gushing the mineral springs that gave the city its name. They’re all drinkable, so bring a cup with you if you want a taste.
For kids (of all ages): Bring your spare change to the Penny Arcade, where pennies are actually good for something. The arcade features antique games you can play for pennies, nickels, and dimes, from pinball machines to ancient peepshow-type gimmicks. You’ll find more modern games there too, but the ones that take pennies and nickels are the best. Just outside the arcade, Patsy’s serves up fair-style snacks like popcorn and cotton candy, as well as gourmet, locally made chocolates.
Parking tip: In the summer months, Manitou is crowded. Skip the headaches—and the fees—by parking at the outskirts of the city and taking a free shuttle downtown. You’ll find a free public parking lot at 10 Old Man’s Trail.
If you do one thing: Make the grueling trek up the Manitou Incline, which gains roughly 2,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile. You’ll wonder why you subjected yourself to this, as you stomp down on the old cog railroad ties that form what is likely the steepest staircase you’ve ever seen—but the grueling climb is worth the views and euphoria you’ll find at the top. Not far past the halfway mark is the “bailout,” where you can ditch the steps and hike down Barr Trail if you find it more torturous than rewarding. If you make it to the top, be sure to snap a selfie—local establishments will occasionally offer discounts and freebies to anyone who can prove they conquered the Incline that day.