Editor's note: Larry Floyd is an Oklahoma City resident and co-author of the guidebook, Oklahoma Hiking Trails (www.bestoklahomatrails.com)
Manitou Springs, Colo. — A regular hiking companion of mine, Howard Lucero, suggested earlier this summer that we climb the 14,110-foot Pikes Peak on the daunting Barr Trail from Manitou Springs, Colo., more than 12 miles in length and 7,800 feet of altitude gain.
With both of us starting to feel our years (I turned 60 on the day of our hike) and miles of hiking, I suggested a saner more scenic route to the summit, from the Crags Campground on the west side of Pikes Peak.
The more moderate 4,100 feet of elevation gain on this less crowded ascent provided an adventurous 13.6-mile, out-and-back day hike and gorgeous views of peaks along the Continental Divide
Our early morning start on this mid-July hike was well advised, as frequent afternoon thunderstorms on the peak can be a frightening and dangerous experience for exposed hikers.
From the Crags trailhead at 10,000 feet, we followed the meandering trail past the Crags Campground and generally eastward through heavy aspen-pine forest and across several log stream crossings. This route approaches the peak from the west-northwest.
As flatlanders, we immediately felt a familiar shortness of breath as the trail began to ascend. Early in the hike, the well-marked trail forked to the right following a sign denoting the route to the Devil's Playground.
About two miles from the trailhead the forest opened and we paused for photos of the stunning view of mountain ranges along the Continental Divide to the west.
About three miles into the route, we reached tree line near 12,000 feet. Several steep stretches zigzagged along switchbacks generally to the east and southeast.
The largely dirt trail was well marked and fairly smooth, but we were still glad to have worn our sturdy hiking boots on this strenuous climb.
We followed the trail amid high-pitched squeals of fat furry marmots and up a steep slop to a treeless, desolate ridgeline about three miles from the peak. Here the Pikes Peak summit first came into view.
The dark outline of the Summit House visitors center could be faintly seen as a small square on the peak. The paved road to the top could also be seen in the distance, and groups of descending cyclists crowded this roadway after their shuttle rides to the top.
From here the trail led into the Devil's Playground area and hugged the roadway for a short distance.
The Devil's Playground is strewn with striking rock formations and draws its name from the manner in which lightning jumps from rock to rock during storms. Although the area provided eye-candy in the morning, we knew it could be terrifying if we were caught in a thunderstorm that afternoon.
The final assault to the summit was up a difficult, rock scramble. This turned into the slowest, most taxing leg of the hike and required a sharp eye for cairns, which marked the way along this steep stairway of rocks.
Sucking air on this steep scramble, we looked enviously at a few pairs of hikers who had already reached the top and were now on their way down.
We finally reached the top of this immense rock pile and a short hike led us to food and refreshments at Summit House near the highest point on Pikes Peak.
The summit was crowded with tourists who either had driven up or taken the cog railway from Manitou Springs. We spent about an hour luxuriating in the snack bar, tossing back food and hydration.
Our hiking gear and disheveled appearance made us stand out in the crowd of mostly families and fresh-faced youngsters milling around. We headed back down around 1:30 p.m., an hour or so later than we had planned to start our descent.
The huge rock pile that had tortured us as we approached the summit was easily navigated with gravity now working for us.
Heading into the Devil's Playground, the dark clouds rolling in from the north began to worry us. We kept up our pace and agreed not to take any water breaks until we were clear of the exposed area.
A distant flash of lightning was disconcerting, but we made it past the Devil's Playground without further excitement. Several steep descents on the return route were hard on my battered knees, and I desperately leaned on my trekking poles to absorb the shock.
My companion had less trouble with these descents but slowed down to accommodate my dawdling pace in the steeper areas.
We returned to our car at the trailhead about 6 p.m. and felt a little disheartened that it had taken us nearly 11 hours to complete this hike.
Still, the day had turned out to be quite an adventure. And a “fourteener” climbed is a “fourteener” climbed — no matter how slow the pace.
IF YOU GO
To get to the Crags trailhead to climb Pikes Peak, take U.S. Hwy. 24 west from Manitou Springs about 22 miles to the town of Divide.
Turn south on Colorado 67 for about four miles. Just past the entrance to Mueller State Park look for a sign on the left for the Mennonite Camp/Crags Campground.
Take this left turn and follow the dirt road about three miles to the Mennonite Camp. Continue past the camp another mile or so until you come to the trailhead parking lot for hikers just before the Crags Campground.