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"What features should the [new] Academy's location possess? For the Air Force,
the site needed to have sufficient acreage, topography suitable for the Academy's needs
combined with the scenic beauty appropriate to a national monument . . . "
~ from a sign overlooking the Cadet Area on Lehman Mesa at the USAFA
The youngest of the three major U.S. military service academies, the Air Force Academy in northwestern Colorado Springs was first opened to cadets in 1955. The site was chosen by a committee that reviewed a whopping 582 sites proposed by 45 states.

I think they made a fine choice! This is a perfectly gorgeous setting, truly a gem.

There were more criteria for the site than the ones I quoted above, of course. The Air Force had many factors to consider, from very functional things like availability of water and utilities, suitability for flight training, proximity to transportation, and the cost of the land, to more esoteric qualities like cultural resources and a climate with four seasons.

Since it was built, the Air Force Academy has been popular with visitors, who are admitted with less scrutiny than most military installations we've been to. Football games and tours of the unique chapel, shown below, are two of the features that draw locals and tourists alike.

Here's an interesting story we heard regarding the public's interest in the academy: when it held its first open house in the 1950s, a whopping 85,000 people showed up, reportedly causing the worst traffic jam in Colorado history! The security force soon learned how to better control large football and graduation crowds.

Driving, running, cycling, and hiking around the huge 19,000-acre academy -- which is part university, part military base -- gives one a true sense of the size of the place.

There are more acres of forested land and meadows than acres that have been developed. In fact, it's like being in a nature preserve. There are numerous deer, grey fox, coyotes, and those devilish-looking black Albert squirrels (with long, pointed ears) running around the place. Very cool.

Distant view of the Cadet Area from a ridge on the Falcon Loop Trail

Jim and I have toured both West Point and Annapolis, our country's Army and Navy military academies, but we spent only a few hours at each of them, a much shorter time than the eleven days we'll be at the Air Force Academy. Even though this institution doesn't have the lengthy history or the traditional architecture of those "other" academies, I feel more at home at this one. I've already joked to Jim that I'd like to live here -- not just the Colorado Springs area, but on base! Hanging out for several days in the FamCamp on this beautiful campus and watching the ebb and flow of the activities here makes a difference.

So does the location at the edge of the mountains. You know how I love mountains. The USAFA rocks!

We've both really enjoyed exploring the academy grounds and learning more about the history of the place, the architecture, details about the cadet program, the high expectations for these future leaders, how and why the falcon mascot was chosen, and other interesting facts we learned from various sources -- folks who live and work on base, the visitor center, other informative exhibits all over the place, publications we picked up, the USAFA website, and a PBS special about the academy entitled "Jewel of the Rockies."

View of Pike's Peak from the southern part of the Academy

In this entry I'll give an overview of the academy from a visitor's perspective, including the impressive visitor center, distinctive chapel, Cadet Area, A-10 Warthog display, and campground.

In subsequent entries I'll show photos from the 2010 cadet graduation ceremony in the Falcon Stadium, the Thunderbird air show and practice, and the multi-use trail system.


Public access to the academy is more generous than most military bases or posts. Visitors may enter the north or south gates with only a valid driver's license but they may be subject to other random security measures like a vehicle inspection. Jim and I just show the guards our retired military IDs.

Visitors may access some but not all of the base:  several overlooks along the roads on base, the Visitor Center, Cadet Chapel, Falcon Stadium, Falcon Athletic Center, Cadet Field House, Arnold Hall Student Center, Honor Court, A-10 Warthog display, and Associates of Graduates Building. Jim and I are also able to access the BX, Commissary, gas station, gym, campground, and other facilities open to military retirees.

Most visitors may not access the housing areas (Cadet Area and Douglass Drive), the Terrazzo, and the airfield. Since the public is not allowed to see the dormitories, a typical room is displayed in the visitor center (above).

You can read more about visiting the academy here. If you're in the Colorado Springs area, we highly recommend dropping in for a few hours to learn more about this fascinating institution.


The best place for first-time visitors to go first is the well-designed visitor center, which is nestled among the foothills on the far western side of the base near the Cadet Area.

The bright, spacious building is full of historical data about the academy and a good place to learn about life as a cadet.

We watched a series of short videos in a small auditorium within the visitors' center. The films answered many of our questions about the history of the Academy and the cadets' training.

Until touring the Academy I didn't realize that women were not allowed in any of our military academies until President Gerald Ford signed legislation in 1975 allowing them to attend cadet training to become officers. Although it doesn't seem all that controversial today (to me, at least!), it was controversial at the time. Women first entered the USAFA in 1976; they are an integral part of the institution today.

You can read more about the Academy's history at this link.

Admission to any of the service academies is tough. The Air Force is no different. Per the admissions web page, the approximate 1,000+ cadets who are chosen each year are the ones who will most likely successfully complete the Academy's broad program of intellectual, professional, physical, and character development in order to "become tomorrow's air and space leaders."


Cadets graduate with a four-year degree in one of twenty-five areas of study that will be useful in their careers as Air Force officers. The majority major in science and engineering but they are exposed to a broad curriculum that includes the humanities and social sciences also. In addition to a Bachelor's Degree, cadets graduate with a commission as Second Lieutenant -- and a commitment to a minimum number of years of military service.

In a non-military college or university, the students' main focus is usually on academics -- unless they are on an athletic scholarship or are party animals! At the Air Force Academy, academics are only one part of their experience. They must also participate in extensive military training and sports.

Some of the athletic fields in the Cadet Area


Yep! There is a very strong emphasis on physical fitness here. Jim and I think that's great. Not only must cadets get and stay in excellent physical shape, they also gain teamwork and leadership skills through their athletic pursuits while at the Academy. Extensive physical education, intramural sports, and intercollegiate programs are offered.

Cadets also receive aerospace-oriented military education and training throughout their four year stint at the Academy. They are placed in as many leadership positions as possible in each succeeding year they are at the Academy in order to prepare them to be effective Air force officers.

Cadets are kept so busy with their military, academic, and athletic training during the four years they spend at the academy that there is essentially no time for pilot training -- qualified students who want to become pilots pursue further training after graduation. Cadets all take basic classes in aviation, navigation, parachuting, and soaring in gliders. Students in the flight screening program may fly light aircraft with the Cadet Flying Team.

In their spare time (?!) cadets are also encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities like forensics, falconry, the drum and bugle corps, cadet honor guard,/rifle team, parachute team, ski club, and the cadet chorale.


You can learn more about cadet training here


Admitting women to the academy was one of two major controversies that I've read about in the Air Force Academy's 55-year history.

The other was the design chosen for the cadet chapel! It shocked some people, yet it has been one of the main draws on the academy grounds since it (the chapel) was finished in 1962. Now it's considered a classic of modern architecture and people come to see it from all over the world. The principal designer was renowned architect Walter Netsch.

One of the signs at a parking area overlooking the Cadet Area (dorms, classrooms, and chapel) explains the rationale for the architecture that was chosen for this large complex to house and train over 4,000 cadets:

The U.S. Air Force Academy was established in an era of atom bombs, baby booms, and the Cold War. Public interest in it ran high. Like West Point and Annapolis, the public thought of it as a national memorial and its design needed to reflect that expectation as well as the ultra-modern character of the Air Force.

The Academy's design reflects the "modern movement" in architecture, which featured clean, straight lines with minimal decorative details, and favored structural steel and glass over traditional building materials such as brick. The Academy's modern architectural style, monumental scale, and inspiring setting continue to work together to create our next generation of Air Force leaders.

The Air Force chose designers that understood the desire for sharp-lined, soaring structures to represent the newest, swiftest military science.

The photo above and the next three below show several views of the Cadet Area from the centrally-located cadet chapel:



"We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."
The cadet honor code is chiseled in concrete in the Cadet Area.

Although visitors may not wander around the cadet areas shown above, they may enter the chapel from a nearby parking area or by walking 1/3 of a mile along a hilly, paved trail from the visitor center. The chapel is open to the public for self-guided tours from 9 AM to 5 PM Monday to Saturday and 1-5 PM on Sunday. Guided tours are also available at certain times.

Worship services are also open to the public. Five diverse faiths (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and earth-centered) provide services in separate spaces within the chapel. Each sanctuary has its own entry, so services can be held simultaneously.

Even though I'd seen the chapel from a distance along the Falcon Loop Trail and some of the overlooks, the chapel is pretty stunning as you approach it closely on foot. Jim and I entered the upper (Protestant) chapel via the broad stairs at the front of the building, then walked to the lower level to see the other chapels; disabled visitors may use an accessible entrance on the ground floor to reach both levels..

The materials used in the interior of the chapel are very beautiful and my pictures don't do them justice: stained glass, glass mosaic, marble, mahogany, walnut, cedar, cherry, ash, cypress, and other hardwoods, stones, and metals.

The entire upper floor of the chapel houses the large Protestant sanctuary. Here are a few pictures of this colorful space:





Huge organ with 4,334 pipes in the choir balcony of the Protestant sanctuary

The next two photos are from the Catholic chapel on the ground floor:


The Jewish synagogue, also on the lower level, is circular:



The small Buddhist sanctuary was added in 2007:

There are two more rooms below ground that are all-faiths rooms used by other, smaller religious groups. We didn't see the entrances for them.

You can read more about the architecture and interesting furnishings in the chapel here or here .


I mentioned at the beginning of this entry that the USAF Academy is not just a university, it's also a military base that is set up in a similar manner to other Air Force bases.

The 10th Air Base Wing employs more than 3,000 military, civilian, and contract personnel who provide support activities like law enforcement, force protection, civil engineering, communications, logistics, financial management, a hospital and clinic, the commissary and BX, and other services for a military community of about 25,000 people.


I've already got so many photos in this entry, I'll talk about this in the Thunderbird entry coming soon.


We totally lucked out getting a reservation in this beautiful campground when we called a couple weeks ago. The sites weren't all full when we arrived on Sunday but most of them are now -- graduation is tomorrow!

Set in one of many forested areas on the academy grounds, the FamCamp is more like a spacious  state park or national forest campground more than any other military campground we've been in. We love it!

Can we just live here??

The joke about living here is pure fantasy, of course. Sure, the weather is ideal this time of year and we've got everything we could possibly want either on base, in Colorado Springs, or in the nearby Pike's Peak region. But we'd have to deal with snow during the winter (the campground elevation is 6,670 feet) and we're, um, about forty-three years too old to be cadets!

In addition, military retirees and families can stay in the campground for a maximum of only thirty days in the summer, more from October to March. That's good for folks who aren't as snow-phobic as us. We'll be leaving after eleven days this time because Jim's signed up for another race on June 5 and we have other race and travel plans after that. We might come back later this summer, though.

This loop is more full than ours is.

The campground has 106 sites, many of them pull-thrus for large RVs. Most of the back-in sites are pretty big, too. There are a lot of Class As here and we were very surprised to see three other Cameo 5th wheel coaches! We've already talked to two of the owners about their rigs. They are retired, sold their houses, and travel in their Cameos full time.

All the RV sites have full hookups (water, 30- or 50-amp electrical service, and sewers). When we made reservations the only sites left that were long enough for our Cameo were 30-amp back-ins. That works for us.

Sites close to the office have WiFi. We are fairly close, but the connection is sporadic. There is no extra charge for WiFi.  We have good cell phone, internet broadband, and TV reception, even without satellite or a cable hookup.

There are additional primitive tent sites in two locations, four restrooms (at least two with showers), a dump station, two laundry rooms (public washers and dryers are cleaner and cheaper in military campgrounds than anywhere else on earth!), a community room, two playgrounds, three picnic pavilions, and lots of open space surrounding the campground.

Field next to the campground that we walk through to reach the Falcon Loop Trail

The campground is in such a natural area at the foot of the Rockies, in fact, that visitors are warned about bears and mountain lions! Every dumpster has special bear-proof latches to prevent unwanted four-legged guests.

Campground costs are reasonable: $20/night in the spring and summer months for active duty and retired military personnel in either the 30-amp or 50-amp sites and $25 for sponsored guests. There are no weekly or monthly rates.

We highly recommend this campground for military families. Just make reservations early, especially around graduation time. For more information about Peregrine Pines, click on this logo:

All the services that we need are either on base or nearby. We have checked out the commissary and BX and gotten a mail drop at the Post Office at the base mini mall.  I-25 is right out the north and south gates. WalMart, Sam's Club, Home Depot, and every other conceivable Big Box store and specialty stores are within two or three miles of the south gate. 

Both the base and Colorado Springs are easy to navigate, although easier done in some neighborhoods in your tow vehicle or "toad" than in an RV. You wouldn't want to take a large RV through Manitou Springs or Old Colorado City.


Not everything is perfect here, however.

First, there are noisy trains close by.

Seems like there are trains that we can hear at 85% of the camping spots we choose! A major train route runs north to south between the base and I-25. It is very close to the eastern loop in the campground. Thank goodness we ended up in the western loop, about as far away from the trains as possible. We don't notice them during the day, only in bed. My earplugs don't completely block out the noise if I'm awake but the trains haven't awakened me yet.

Second, there are noisy planes. No, not the ones that fly in and out of the nearby base airfield. We rarely notice those. It's those doggone Thunderbird air show planes!

Five of the six Thunderbird planes during today's air show practice

Just kidding. We are fascinated by them. They are here this week, practicing for their much-anticipated flyover at the end of cadet graduation tomorrow. Because their practice flight path goes right over the campground, everyone in the campground had to evacuate for several hours yesterday and today.

Yesterday's practice was finally cancelled (after we'd vacated the campground for three or four hours) because of high winds. Today's practice went off as planned, and boy, did we enjoy the show from another part of the base that wasn't off-limits! I'll show more pictures of today's practice run and tomorrow's grand finale in a subsequent entry.

And automobiles? No problem. Even though busy I-25 is close, the trees in the campground have muffled any road noise so far except the sirens responding to a large pile-up. Traffic moves relatively slowly on base because of the 45 MPH speed limit (and under).

There are scads of bicycles on base; the major roads have wide bike lanes and I feel safer riding here than most roads. Many of the cyclists come in from town to ride the streets and trails on base for free. They just need ID to get through the security gates.

Next entry: lucking out again -- tickets to graduation!

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