When it comes to mountainside activities, Colorado has always been spoiled for choice. But in addition to skiing, biking, and hiking the various peaks that dot the state, one iconic way to experience these mountains actually requires little by way of physical exertion: riding the The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway in Manitou Springs.
First installed in 1891 by Simmons Beautyrest mattress inventor Zalmon Simmons, who found the experience of getting up the mountain on mule-back entirely uncivilized, this historic attraction that climbs to 14,115 feet (the highest railway in the country) was shuttered in 2017 following an infrastructure evaluation. At first, it wasn’t clear whether its current owners would bring it back to life or permanently close the train. But with its unique legacy—the highest cog railway in the world, and views that inspired the song “America The Beautiful”—the decision to invest in its renovation and modernization was a no-brainer. So in May 2021, after $100 million and three years, The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway is back, and it’s truly better than ever.
A hundred million dollars can get you a lot of things—including jokes from the conductor that he’s now the oldest part of the train—because every inch of the experience, including the depot and the upcoming visitor center in the summit, was rebuilt, upgraded, or changed. The main depot retains its original 19th-century mining town aesthetic with a fresh coat of bright blue paint, but a second train platform, an overhead walkway, and remodeled bathrooms and gift shop are now part of the depot, too.
In 2019, tracks were ripped out of the earth and relaid. Previously, the trains ran on two cog rails; this brand-new system features a single steel cog rail that’s thicker than the older ones combined, which elevates overall performance and safety. The ride was always safe, but based on the way the trains looked in their run-down glory, most locals who took the nine-mile ride before 2018 will likely tell you that they weren’t exactly convinced they would make it up the mountain. Not to mention, passengers were still sitting on wood benches.
Today, the four refurbished trains and three new, 214-feet-long aluminum trains purchased from Stadler (the world’s only manufacturer of cog railway equipment) are not only outfitted with upholstered, cushioned seating, they are also speeding up to Pikes Peak like never before. Toward the end of its upward journey, when the incline is at its sharpest, these vibrant red trains are charging at nearly 10 miles an hour.
Ten miles an hour may not sound very fast, but this isn’t a roller coaster. The ride is meant to provide a scenic way up a Fourteener. Even in Colorado, where conquering a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet is a personality trait, not everyone can or wants to make the hike up. The 70-minute-ish journey into Pike National Forest and up to the summit is full of unbelievable sights, from giant eons-old quartz boulders called Pikes Peak granite to canopies of Colorado blue spruce, Ponderosa pine, and Aspen trees; even meandering waterfalls shuttling ice-cold glacier water. There are historic points, too, like the site of a lodge that used to house adventurous hikers. If you’re lucky, you may see wildlife like big-horn sheep, elk, and the occasional eagle. When you get over the tree line, however, things get really dramatic—it looks like the train is riding over the clouds.
A round-trip ticket costs $58, but consider forking over the $10 upcharge so that you can pick your seat. Whenever possible, you’ll want seat A. It’s the window seat on the side of the train that looks over the mountain and offers superior views. (The views on the other side are mostly of rocks.)
At the top of Pikes Peak, 360-degree views reveal the rust-hued Garden of the Gods in the north, the mining town of Cripple Creek and the continental divide to the west, and the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the south. Depending on visibility, you might be able to spot the Denver skyline.
Right now, all you can really do at the summit is take in the views and snap some spectacular photos. But the brand-new visitor center, which will have interactive displays and films detailing the history of Pikes Peak, as well as a restaurant, retail, and a terrace, should open June 2021. Soon, too, you will be able to take guided hikes up or down the mountain; there will also be a biking option for more intrepid thrillseekers. A final tip: Watch out for the altitude, which often leaves passengers napping its side effects off on the ride down.
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