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Page 1: Overview and the First Trail Segment


"Oxygen is over-rated. Just keep running."
~ slogan on high-altitude runner-par-excellence Matt Carpenter's home page
Um, oxygen is "over-rated" only when your max VO2 is off the charts, as Matt's is. It's still a pretty handy thing to have around for mere mortals like Jim and me.

Today, at age 61 and with virtually no cartilage left in my knees, I accomplished a goal I've had for many years: climbing 12+ miles to the summit of Pike's Peak from the Barr Trail trailhead in Manitou Springs.

What's so special about that, you ask?

Besides the history, beautiful forests, and awesome views above tree line, consider the challenge: the trailhead where I began in Manitou Springs is about 6,753 feet and the summit is 14,115 feet.

The math says that is a 7,362-foot gain. Note that that's the net gain. My GPS said the total gain was 8,550 feet, considering all the little ups and downs along the way. My total descent was 1,160 feet, although it didn't seem like that much.

The vertical gain is more like 7,800 feet from downtown Manitou Springs, where the two popular races begin for the Pike's Peak Ascent and Marathon.

According to Gerry Roach's Colorado's Fourteeners book and other sources, Pike's Peak has the largest elevation gain of any mountain in the state.

Rising straight up out of the plain, Pike's Peak dominates the landscape in the whole region. You can see it from all directions, many miles out. The mountain simply mesmerizes me when I'm in the area. It's like a magnet, beckoning me toward it. Even when I was enjoying climbing around the San Juan Mountains near Silverton recently, I couldn't take my mind off summiting Pike's Peak this summer.

That's what is so special about it. And now that I've climbed it once, I want to do it all over again.


During my lifetime I've driven the Pike's Peak Highway to the summit eight or ten times, most recently with Jim in early June when there was still too much snow above tree line for me to want to hike up the Barr Trail. The journal entry I wrote then describes the 19-mile drive and shows lots of photos from the summit and along the way up to it. It was so cold and windy, we didn't stay long.

What a difference from early June, when it was frigid at the summit
and there was still a huge mound of snow in the middle of the parking area.

As far as running or hiking the peak, I've done several variations over the last three decades:

  • up about halfway to Barr Camp and back down to Manitou Springs and some other shorter out-and-backs,
  • up to Barr Camp and over to Elk Park on the PP Highway and vice versa,
  • from Elk Park to Barr Camp and back to Elk Park (all at about 10,000-11,000 feet but not a lot of elevation gain and loss),
  • down from the summit several times for one to six miles and back up

 . . . but never all 12-13 miles up or down the entire Barr Trail in one run/hike, or the 24-26-mile round trip.

Why? The timing was just never right when I was visiting the area. I didn't have the time to do it, I was tapering for a race, the weather wasn't good, there was too much snow near the top, I didn't have someone to pick me up at one end or the other, I wasn't interested in doing the official race ascent or marathon, etc., etc.

There was always a good reason and it just wasn't as high a priority as some of my other running goals.

Alpine flowers and bright green foliage contrast with red rocks in the tundra.

Everything finally fell into place today and I had a great hike! I even ran a little (but don't tell my knee doc).

I started around sunrise at Manitou Springs and reached the summit a little more than seven hours later. That included time to socialize with the proprietors at Barr Camp (a 25-minute stop) and other trail users along the way, time to just stand still a bunch of times to marvel at the views, time to take well over 200 photos, and time to laboriously climb over the rocks in the last tough mile at the top:

That's when I was wishing I had Matt Carpenter's max VO2!  I climbed steadily and comfortably until the last mile, when the lack of oxygen began taking its toll. I was acclimated to 13,000+ feet . . . but not quite 14,115 feet.


If I'd had this opportunity prior to two years ago, when I found out just how bad my knees are, I would have considered running back down to Manitou Springs. The weather was good and there were enough hours of daylight left.

Unfortunately, that's just not practical now that I shouldn't be running, not so much because of the time it would take me to walk all of it (12-13 hours, assuming less time going down than up), but because of the potential pain and damage that much pounding would do to my knees.

Still about seven miles to go from here; summit in the distance

With Orthovisc injections I can hike (and even run some) uphill comfortably all day but such a massive elevation loss is not a good idea for me any more. I've been very pleased with how many high-altitude mountain trails I've been able to negotiate so far this summer and I'm hoping to do a bunch more before I have to get more knee injections.

Why jeopardize that by doing a lengthy descent on Pike's Peak?

That's why I was quite happy to just do the ascent today. There aren't many 14ers in this country that I can enjoy climbing up . . . and then ride back down in order to protect my Granny Knees.


You may be reading this and thinking, Now how hard can it be to run or walk down Pike's Peak??

Believe it or not, many runners and hikers who aren't cartilage-challenged think the descent is harder than the climb because of how badly it trashes even young, strong legs. Unless you've done considerable downhill running or walking first, the trek UP this mountain -- whether it's for fun, in training to race, or during the race -- will probably be easier on your body than the descent. It'll be slower, but it won't stress your quads and joints like so many miles of downhill will.

Think about it: over 9,000 feet total elevation loss in 13 miles of descent during the marathon, or 8,550 feet in the 12 miles I did today. As you'll see, some of the miles are fairly flat, which makes the hillier ones that much steeper.

I talked to a couple runners today (photo above) who are training for the Pike's Peak Ascent race in a few weeks. They have done the marathon previously. Both said the marathon is significantly less fun for them than the ascent because of the pain going back down -- since it's a race, many runners try to go as fast as they can -- and the time it takes for their knees and quads to recover afterwards.

One went so far as to describe the descent during the race as "brutal."

So they now concentrate their training on being able to run uphill as much as possible and just ride back down after the race. They choose other less punishing marathons when they want to race that distance.

Yeah, it sounds like a piece of cake to run or hike 12 or 13 miles (predominately) downhill, especially since most of the Barr Trail is quite runnable. But do it without adequate downhill training and you'll be in a world of hurt afterwards.


The rest of this entry will be a perspective of my hike up Pike's Peak today, illustrated with a bunch of photos along the way. I won't bore you with all of them, but there will be enough that I'll have three pages you can click through that will be faster to load.

Consider it a virtual tour of the Barr Trail on a sunny summer day.


Because of the difficulty of this trail for most people, it's a good idea to get started from Manitou Springs at or before sunrise. Not only will that reduce the likelihood of encountering a thunderstorm above tree line, it will also give you a fighting chance to find a parking spot at the trailhead on Hydro Street above the cog railway depot.

At 5:30 this morning, that rather small lot was already full.

O-dark-thirty at the trailhead this morning

That wasn't a problem for us today since Jim was just dropping me off there and driving to the summit on the Pike's Peak Highway to retrieve me later. He parked behind other vehicles for five minutes while I prepared to hike. If we'd both been running/hiking up the mountain, we would have needed to park somewhere on Ruxton Street below the cog railway depot and walked up to the trailhead.

There are good reasons why this sign is prominently posted at the trailhead:

Over the years many folks have been stranded (or worse) on Pike's Peak when unexpected storms have rolled in. They may have gotten to or near the top and been unable to descend by foot as planned, or snow may have caused a road closure and their ride couldn't make it up.

The same thing happens frequently on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Mountain weather is exceedingly unpredictable, even in the summer.

So it's really important when doing this run/hike to have contingency plans -- not just Plan A but a Plan B and maybe even Plan C.

Cell phones aren't always reliable on Pike's Peak. I carried mine and was able to call Jim from Barr Camp (deep in the woods) to give him a progress report but we didn't have a very good connection then or later when Jim called me; he was about a mile from the summit and I was two miles out. You'd think the reception above tree line on the east side of the mountain (facing Colorado Springs) would be great, but it wasn't. It was even worse driving down the highway on the west and north sides of the mountain. We have Verizon service; other carriers may be better in this area.

When I arrived at the summit, there was a storm just to the south of Pike's Peak.

The weather was absolutely perfect for an ascent today, although I was a little nervous the last couple of miles about the storm clouds I could see to the south of Pike's Peak. In every other direction the sky was blue and the clouds were a puffy white.

The temperature at the trailhead (6,700+ feet) was in the upper 50s; during the seven hours I was climbing to the summit I enjoyed temps in the 50s and 60s, even as I gained almost 7,400 vertical feet in elevation. At 1 PM on the summit the temperature was a comfortable 51F. and there wasn't much of a breeze:

Sunny skies thataway:  summit house and cog railway line in the early afternoon today

At the same time, the mercury had risen to the upper 80s below us in the campground at the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs. It was almost 40 cooler on the summit than down in the valley. It could have been worse if a storm had blown in. Pike's Peak, like most 14ers, has its own weather system. Although a storm was brewing to the southwest of the peak when I got to the summit, I lucked out and had beautiful sunny weather.

I never needed to put on my jacket, gloves, or the lower legs on my zip-off pants. I had those and a fleece cap in my Camelbak HAWG pack in case I got cold.

Quite the contrary. I started out in shorts and a long-sleeved technical shirt over a short-sleeved shirt. When I stopped at the Barr Camp halfway up I removed the long-sleeved shirt. I could have taken it off earlier but just didn't want to take the time. I was plenty warm in the direct sun above tree line the last three miles in short sleeves. Runners were wearing even less than that since they were moving faster.

Six other folks on the trail half a mile from the summit


Hiking up Barr Trail was almost like hiking up a new trail because it had been so long since I'd been there. That was good in a way because I love to explore new trails.

It also caused me a little concern before getting on the trail, however, because I wondered if I'd get lost somewhere on the way up. I knew I'd never had that problem before but the thought nagged at me a bit because there are several trail intersections along the way. I had hoped to find more detailed maps online or in the Roach 14er book.

Oh, well. I figured there would be enough people on the trail, even on a Tuesday, that I'd find my way OK.

Ha! Not only are there enough signs at the various trail intersections to avoid getting off-track, there was such a crowd on the Barr Trail today that I couldn't have gotten lost if I'd tried!

Typical metal cut-out sign along the Barr Trail; this one is about five miles up.

The signs were erected long ago and the distances and elevations aren't accurate, but they're close enough to give you an idea of where you are if you're not using a GPS.

I_could_not_believe how many people were on the trail so early this morning. It was barely daylight when I started. Most of them were running up or down, not walking. I actually got tired of having to get out of their way so often.

Don't these people have jobs??

It didn't take me long to realize that most were probably running before work and many were probably in training for the Ascent or Marathon in August.

After the intersection to a wide trail that goes over to the top of the infamous old Mount Manitou incline cog railway bed, I realized something else: many of the runners coming down had run/hiked up the insanely steep incline "steps," turned left on the connecting trail, and were running back to their vehicles in Manitou Springs on the Barr Trail.

Later Neal at the Barr Camp confirmed that this is a very popular loop for local runners. If this was what a typical weekday was like, I'm glad I wasn't there on a weekend!

Lots of folks climbing up the infamous incline, which is rickety and very steep in some places

Even beyond that intersection there were more hikers and runners on the Barr Trail today than I expected. I was torn between wanting solitude and wanting assurance I was going the right way.

I ended up with just the right amount of both.

The uphill runners passed me but I managed to stay ahead of all but a couple of young male hikers on the ascent. They got around me when I was resting with Jim where he met me about a mile below the summit. I was pleased with how strong I was able to hike today, at least until the big rock steps and minimal oxygen slowed me down the last mile.

The Barr Trail has four fairly distinct sections, each about three miles long. Let's work our way up the mountain . . .


The first two or three miles of switchbacks up Rocky Mountain, a subpeak of Mount Manitou on the east side of Pike's Peak, are moderately steep and can wear you out early on if you don't pace yourself. This is probably the steepest part of the entire Barr Trail. My GPS said 8,500 feet elevation at the 2-mile mark, an average climb of 900 feet per mile.

The trail is somewhat rutted and narrow in this section, so getting off to the side to let runners go by was sometimes a bit of a challenge for me.

I remembered this scenic, forested section only vaguely. Despite the climb, I thoroughly enjoyed the terrain and the views. There are a lot of aspens, blue spruce, and ponderosa pines in this section, as well as cool rock formations:

The photos I took early in the morning, especially those facing east, didn't come out very well so I deleted almost all of the ones I shot of the sunrise and views toward Colorado Springs as the sun came up. The ones I took in this first section a little later, when I had views to the south and west,  came out better.

Early morning sun brightens the foothills

Looking back to the Colorado Springs valley

Me and my shadow . . .

As the trail winds up Rocky Mountain and Mount Manitou there are numerous views of Pike's Peak and the surrounding mountains:

An early glimpse of Pike's Peak, the brownish hump barely visible in the distance

Knowing about where I would come out on top made it especially interesting, because I could easily see my progress as the peak got closer and closer.

There's an interesting natural rock arch about two miles up the trail:


The trail goes right under the arch, then continues switch-backing past the opening to an old mine (below)

and up to the intersection where the old cog railway bed was turned into a nice trail that leads to the top of the incline. If I get up here again before we leave, I'd like to explore that trail. It's been many years since I've stood at the top of the incline and looked down. No, I've never climbed it and I doubt I ever will!

The intersection with the trail to the top of the incline is about 2 miles up the Barr Trail and marks the end of the first distinct section. Now the trail surface is going to significantly improve for 3+ miles!

Next page: to Barr Camp and beyond

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil