| Pikes Peak—Barr Trail Roundtrip
A few days ago, on a trail Barr, Barr away . . .
Fred Barr constructed the eponymous Barr Trail from Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak between 1914 and 1918. While most of the rest of the world was concerned with slaughtering each other on the Western Front, Fred Barr was making the beauty of the Front Range's most famous 14er accessible to casual hikers. Nearly a century later, with the European trenches long filled in, the Barr Trail remains well-maintained and oft-traveled—an example, perhaps, that the creative capacity of man will always outlast its destructive ability. It is truly a model of trail engineering, a smooth Class 1 path that winds through diverse landscapes and habitats to the top of a mountain that Zebulon Pike judged to be unclimbable. It's also a bit sadistic. The roundtrip distance is roughly 26 miles with an elevation gain of 7,500 ft. To put that into perspective, the Empire State Building is only 1,250 ft. high. Imagine if the route of the New York City Marathon included going up and down a stairwell in the Empire State Building six times—that's pretty much the Barr Trail.
Making a single-day roundtrip on the Barr Trail had been a goal that I had been working up to all summer, conditioning myself with other 14ers and frequent 10-15 mile hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. A decade ago, suffering from a horrendous hangover after my friend Jeremy's wedding reception (about all I remember from which is dancing to "YMCA" in Native American headdress!), I had taken the cog railway to the summit of Pikes Peak with my parents and my friends Dan and Becky. Being 14,000 ft. above sea level with a massive hangover wasn't the best way to appreciate Pikes Peak. Furthermore, the usual afternoon thunderclouds had rolled in by the time we made it to the top, making "from sea to shining sea" views impossible. I could have never envisioned back then that I would someday be climbing 14,000+ ft. mountains as a hobby, nor that I would ever live in "the great, dry West," as Kerouac called it. I suppose life advances on its own route, despite all of our attempts to chart its course.
I had been carefully following the weather reports for Manitou Springs since mid-July, hoping to find one of those rare Colorado days with no predicted afternoon thundershowers. I knew that I would need one of those anomalous days if I wanted to try for a Barr Trail roundtrip without getting drenched or struck by lightning. On the afternoon of August 12th, a look on weather.com showed clear skies for Manitou Springs all day for the 13th (Friday the 13th, no less). Despite my mild triskaidekaphobia, I knew this would be one of my few chances for the rest of this summer.
I left my place at 4:30 a.m. and made it to Manitou Springs a few minutes before 6:00. This being a weekday, I was a bit surprised that the trailhead parking lot was already full. Nevertheless, I was able to parallel park along Ruxton Avenue less than a quarter of a mile from the trailhead. On my walk back to the trailhead I passed the Iron Spring, one of the area's several natural mineral water springs. I took a few long drafts of the slightly carbonated water for fortitude and good luck.
I started on the trail at exactly 6:10 a.m. To be honest, I was already sweaty and slightly out of breath. The walk from my car to the trailhead (elevation approximately 6,700 ft.) had been fairly steep, and I had also speed-walked out of excitement. For the next 6.5 hours, I would be walking uphill. The first crescent of the sun slipped above the horizon almost immediately after I hit the trail, so saying I started at sunrise is entirely accurate. It was probably close to 45 minutes before I could catch a glimpse of Pikes Peak from the trail. It looked ridiculously far away, almost to the point that I doubted that I could make it up to the summit in a single day, let alone down.
Dawn alpenglow at the beginning of the trail.
One of the first glimpses of Pikes Peak from the trail. Sure seems far away . . .
I had plenty of company for the first three miles. There were a surprising number of runners on the trail, and I later learned that the Pikes Peak Marathon was the next weekend. This likely augmented the number of runners as they did their final conditioning in preparation for the marathon. The runners didn't bother my enjoyment of the hike, but they did hurt my pride a little. After all, I was having a hard enough time slowly shuffling up the mountain, while they were running up the damned thing with ease! In addition to the large number of people on the trail during the first three miles, I was also keenly aware of the predominance of scrub oak and yucca plants, flora I don't see often during mountain hikes. The lower starting elevation of the trail, as well as the warmer, drier climate of the Colorado Springs area, was presumably responsible for this. It wasn't until I reached about 8,000 ft. above sea level that I started to see the large numbers of Douglas firs that I'm used to seeing, and then there was another 1,000 ft. of elevation gain in which the Douglas firs and scrub oak battled for dominance, the scrub oak eventually being replaced by aspen. Being born in the Midwest, I always find it interesting that one can judge elevation fairly well on a mountain hike by what types of trees are nearby.
The trail passes under an archway formed by a group of boulders leaning against each other about three miles from the trailhead. Just beyond this, the trail crosses a creek where there are a couple of benches hewn from fallen trees. A grove of aspens explodes alongside the trail here, and the atmosphere seems shadier, breezier, and more hospitable. There is a noticeable difference between the hot, arid climate below the rock arch and the cooler, moister climate above it. There are several wild raspberry bushes along this section of the trail, and I was able to indulge in a refreshing morning snack thanks to their generosity. From here I was generally alone until I neared the summit, the marathon runners having presumably all passed me by this point.
The rock arch, about three miles into the trail. After this, the character of the trail completely changes.
Getting closer . . .
A representative photo of the Barr Trail. Many urban sidewalks aren't this smooth.
By the time I made it to the Barr Camp at 8:45 a.m., I was starting to feel my legs a bit. I finally took a break there, resting for 15 minutes while I had a hard-boiled egg, some granola, and a bit of a sandwich. The Barr Camp consists of a couple of cabins and a few campsites, and it seemed like a really nice place to stay. Many climbers split the ascent of Pikes Peak into two days by spending the night there. I was glad I stopped for a short rest, as the 6 miles from Barr Camp to the summit were much more challenging than the 6.5 miles that preceded them. The trail seemed steeper, and the air was getting noticeably thinner.
About a mile past Barr Camp at around 10,800 ft., the Bottomless Pit Trail veers northwest from the Barr Trail and the latter begins a half-mile switchback to the southwest. For some reason, this long switchback really took a lot out of me. When I got to the A-frame safety refuge just below timberline at 10:30 a.m., I had to stop for a five-minute break. Receding krummholz at timberline ushered in the final three miles of the ascent. The constant upward slope of the trail and the high elevation really started to make themselves noticed at this point. From here on, if my legs weren't screaming, my lungs were gasping for air or my heart was pounding. I took probably twelve to fifteen standing or sitting rest breaks during the final three miles, more than I took on the rest of the ascent and descent combined.
The trail above timberline.
Looking back across one of the long switchbacks from Pike's southern cirque.
Peering down at the cirque.
At around 12,600 ft. there is another long switchback (about 0.75 miles long) that takes you from a point just below the northeast ridge of Pikes Peak southwest to its southern cirque. I was at the cirque at 12:30 p.m., and from there could look upward at the series of switchbacks that lead up to the summit. At 1:05 p.m. I had made it to the beginning of the "Sixteen Golden Stairs." A "golden stair" is apparently a switchback pair, so sixteen of them would equal 32 switchbacks. I tried to count the switchbacks on my way up to see if this was correct, but I was so fatigued at this point that I lost count. Going up those final switchbacks was a real struggle, and I was spending most of my mental energy just telling my body to keep putting one foot in front of the other. In fact, my focus on the few feet of trail directly in front of me caused me to be completely surprised when I finally looked up and realized that I was just yards from the summit. I may not have looked up at all if an Air Force cargo jet hadn't buzzed the mountain right before I made it to the top. The plane was probably less than 50 ft. above the summit house when it flew over it like a bat out of hell! I don't know if this is a regular occurrence, but it was pretty neat to see (and feel!).
A few of the "golden stairs"—short but steep.
I had just made it to the top and hadn't even crossed the cog railway tracks yet when I was accosted by a couple from Texas who asked, "Did you climb up?" By the time I could even answer, there was already a small crowd of people surrounding me and bombarding me with questions: "How long did it take you?", "What time did you start?", "How many miles is it?", etc. For a moment, I felt a little bit like a celebrity. As I walked away from the crowd toward the summit house, I could hear a girl walk up to the crowd and ask "Did that guy climb up?" When the crowd muttered affirmatively, I heard her exclaim, "Wow, that's awesome!" That comment certainly made my pride swell! I had gained the summit at 1:40 p.m., exactly 6.5 hours after I left the trailhead.
As I walked toward the summit house, and especially once I got inside, I was hit by a wave of what I can only describe as a type of culture shock. It was exactly the same feeling that I had felt over a decade ago upon returning from a year in Poland and going into an American burger joint with my brother after he picked me up from the airport. When I entered that restaurant, everything seemed so incredibly different from what I had grown used to in Poland. It was a surreal and bizarre sensation, and the same was true on Pikes Peak. I had spent all morning hiking in relative solitude with nature, but now found myself in a crowded gift shop filled with tourists buying t-shirts and postcards.
I had brought ample food with me for the climb, but, as this is the only 14er that has a cafeteria on its summit, I decided to have a hot lunch rather than my usual peanut butter and marmalade sandwich. I got a burger and a doughnut (yeah, real health food!), and went outside to find as quiet of a place as I could to eat and relax. I had hauled a 24 oz. can of Pabst Blue Ribbon up the mountain to have as a tribute to my grandfather at the summit. A PBR was the last beer that I had drank with the quiet, old man, and he had always enjoyed listening to my adventures over a brew. I don't know if the altitude had affected my emotions or what, but I got teary-eyed as I cracked open the can and took a swig thinking about him. I hope that he enjoyed looking down on my feeble, mortal endeavor from the summit of that greater mountain beyond.
This one's for you, Grandpa!
I spent much longer than usual on the summit. Normally twenty minutes is a long time for me to be on top of a mountain, but I stayed on top of Pikes Peak for over an hour. The weather, as predicted, was beautiful. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and I could easily discern four other 14ers: Grays, Torreys, Bierstadt, and Evans. As I looked eastward to Manitou Springs and the start of the Barr Trail, it was hard for me to believe that I had hiked the entire way up in one morning.
I started my descent at 2:45 p.m. As I had climbed up the last of the Sixteen Golden Stairs on my way up, I began to seriously doubt that I had enough energy for the roundtrip. After eating some food, drinking a beer, and walking around on the flat summit for an hour, however, I felt excellent. I was a bit worried that after a mile or two I would hit a wall, but thankfully this never happened. I felt very little weariness or fatigue throughout the hike down. I usually abhor descents because they are so rough on the knees, but the Barr Trail was smooth enough that I felt virtually no strain on my lower body (my trekking poles helped too). Other than a brief break at the A-frame refuge to put some duct tape on a blister that was forming on my big toe, I went down the mountain non-stop. I passed the Barr Camp at 5:30 p.m. and kept on trucking.
Just a handful of the switchbacks above timberline.
And, just for big_red_pride, I present butt rock!
One of my last glimpses back at Pikes Peak.
This section of the trail was one of my personal favorites.
Now, there always seems to be at least one thing that goes wrong on any hike or climb, and that one thing on this trip was my detour on the Manitou Spring's "Incline" (an ersatz "staircase" created from the remnants of a derelict railway line with ancient wooden railway ties acting as steps). When I was less than three miles from the trailhead (just before passing back through the rock arch), there was a sign that read "Top of Incline—0.5 Miles." I still felt good, so I decided I'd take the Incline down the rest of the way to change things up a bit. Huge mistake. The Incline was much steeper than I'd thought, the railway ties were far too narrow to make good steps, and a dangerous layer of loose gravel covered most of the path. It didn't even look like it would be enjoyable going up, but it damn-sure wasn't what I wanted to face with all of my momentum going down. The Incline was probably just over a mile long, but that single mile caused more stress on my knees and ankles than the entire rest of the day had.
Near the top of the Incline, looking down on Manitou Springs.
I finally made it to the bottom of the Incline and was back at my car at 8:00 p.m. This was indeed a sunrise to sunset hike. My descent time had been about 5 hours and 15 minutes, and the total trip time was close to 14 hours. I filled up a bottle with spring water from the Iron Spring to enjoy on the car ride and drove away from Manitou Springs with a big smile on my face and a gigantic sense of accomplishment in my heart.
Back at my car, the end of a sunrise to sunset Barr Trail roundtrip.
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