Here’s the thing. The Pikes Peak train isn’t a bad idea. In fact, if you’re traveling with small children, or are uncomfortable with mountain roads, it might actually be your best option (right up there with taking a pre-organized tour). But if you’re looking to experience this Colorado Springs fixture in all its glory, do yourself a favor and drive up to the Pikes Peak summit.
Driving Pikes Peak Highway
We drove from our flat near Garden of the Gods, and picked up the Pikes Peak Highway, which took about half an hour, even accounting for the morning rush. The gates to drive up the mountain open at 7:30am most mornings, but in deep winter months, times may change. Likewise, the gates to drive up close anytime between 3pm and 6pm, depending on the season and when dusk comes on. As we discovered, even driving in daylight can be a little hairy – we would NOT recommend doing it anywhere near nightfall. For more information, you can check all up to date hours on the Pikes Peak website.
BoyfriendHusband Perspective: Let me plan your day. Go to Garden of the Gods Gourmet in the morning, eat a hearty breakfast (I recommend the Mountain Man Hash, sausage gravy and green chili is a must), grab some snacks from their market on your way out, and head up Pikes Peak. As you’ll see, the food at Pikes Peak summit leaves a bit to be desired.
Once we got to the toll gates at the base of the mountain, a park ranger took our admission fee (between $10-$15 per adult, depending on the time of year), and helped us find the low gears on our rental truck. He even advised at what mile markers we should start switching between them, which is HUGELY helpful for non-mountain dwellers!
Finally, we were off!
Pro tips and things to be aware of on the drive up and down:
- Bring winter clothing for the summit. It was a at least a -30F difference from the base and windy enough to push you around a bit.
- DO NOT RIDE YOUR BRAKES ON THE DESCENT. We were a little nervous seeing news stories about people crashing on their way down the mountain. Don’t Google it – the photos are terrifying. The reason these accidents often happen is because the mountain is on a pretty steep pitch and has VERY sharp turns, so naturally you want to slow way down. If you use your brakes to do this, you’ll overheat them and they’ll fail, this is called glazing your brakes. Instead, use your low gears – as educated by Google, a park ranger, or your own experience – to literally slow your roll, this uses the low RPM of the engine to control your speed. You can also avoid this whole thing by just taking a tour 😂😅
- Some shortness of breath and dizziness aren’t uncommon. Don’t let it scare you, but if you’re not used to that kind of elevation and thinness of air, you may notice that you start to feel a little short of breath as you get closer to the summit. Luke didn’t feel it as much as I did, on the drive, but we were both struggling a bit once we got to the summit.
Crystal Creek Reservoir
Before you even get to all the really impressively high-up things, you can stop at Crystal Creek. Here you can grab a snack, pan for gold and gems at their outdoor sluice (we saw these in a couple of places!), go fishing in the right season, or just get in some quality time with a folksy representation of Bigfoot.
Perhaps the best part of Crystal Creek, for us, was the view. It was a chilly, breezy day (wear your packable down, guys!) and there was no one brave enough to go out on the water. So we got to enjoy a peaceful, quiet view of the reservoir with a lovely, mountainous backdrop.
They also have a selection of outhouses – complete with toilet paper and hand sanitizer (and some even have real walls) – for those of us who love venti coffees but have tiny bladders.
Once we got our fill of rest (and fun), we hopped back in the truck and kept on rolling.
BoyfriendHusband Perspective: While I got out of the truck for pictures, I realized I should have just stayed in the truck. Someone needs to keep it running and warm for Meagan, I’m willing to make the sacrifice.
Pikes Peak Highway overlooks
There are several scenic overlooks you can catch on the way up and down the mountain, and they’re well-worth pausing for. The fact that many parts of the road have noticeably wide shoulders is very helpful here, so you don’t have to worry about impeding traffic or getting into a bad situation.
We loved the overlooks that peeked down over the reservoir below, but they all provide gorgeous and increasingly-sprawling views of the surrounding area. Definitely worth pausing on your leisurely drive to the summit!
BoyfriendHusband Perspective: I sacrificed myself this time to keep things toasty for Meagan. A warm Meagan is a happy Meagan.
Driving to the Pikes Peak Summit
We need to talk about temperature change, guys. At over 14,000 feet above sea level (which is over 8,000 higher than Colorado Springs, down below), the weather at the summit is completely and totally different than what you find at the base.
Now, this seems obvious, right? That’s because it is. But… knowing something logically is a little different than getting into your car when it’s a balmy 60F with a mild breeze, and stepping out an hour later into 36F with 25mph sustained winds and much bigger gusts O_o
So, we made our way QUICKLY around the perimeter of the summit to get some pictures and enjoy the view. (Confession, there are a lot more pictures on my camera than what you see here. but what I discovered after we got in the car to come back down is that an embarrassing number of them are unusable because that insane, every-changing wind blew my hair into almost every frame! Which reminds me: bring a hair tie.)
Going back to the air thinness mentioned in the first section, keep in mind that you shouldn’t run around on the summit, even if you think your face is about to freeze and crack. We both power walked to the lodge at the top and regretted it pretty quickly. Think about it: your body is doing the work of holding itself upright against at least 25mph wind, and then it’s propelling you at faster-than-normal speed through that wind, all while trying so suck in air that’s significantly less oxygen-rich than it’s used to. By the time we got inside, Luke was super winded, and I was experiencing light heart palpitations and a bit of lightheadedness, too. Bleh.
BoyfriendHusband Perspective: DO NOT RUN, do not walk briskly, and do not lock your knees. If you do not heed my warning you may pass out, which mean not passing go for $200.
There’s a buffet-style cafeteria inside (which admittedly didn’t appeal to us while we were gasping), with a decent seating area. Just be aware that whenever the train arrives, the place floods with people and there are no seats to be had.
The rest of the building is filled to bursting with Pikes Peak souvenirs. We got a little stuffed bighorn sheep, since we saw a few of them on the drive, and made our way back to the truck. Slower, this time!
Things to do after you’ve driven Pikes Peak
Once we finished the drive down, which was as leisurely as the ascent, we decided to keep the sightseeing going. There’s so much to do in Colorado Springs that it’s almost hard to choose, honestly…
- Manitou Springs – this little town is ADORABLE and worth perusing. From its historic hotel, to its store filled with work by local artists, to its handmade ice cream shop, it’s well-worth the stop. On-street parking is available, though not always easy to come by. Bonus: seek out and even try some of the springs that have lines running through the town! Many of the “faucets” are highly-decorative and hard to miss.
- Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings – if you haven’t had the chance to go any further west than Colorado Springs, you may not have had a chance to see Native American cliff dwellings live and in person. While these dwellings were moved to the location they currently occupy and don’t necessarily feel highly-connected to the people who once inhabited them, they still make for a really cool learning opportunity.
- Old Colorado Springs – Manitou Springs might be our favorite, but walking around Old CO Springs was fun, too. Lots of great local shops and out-of-the-way places make this a sweet place to peruse.
- Red Rock Open Space – no, this isn’t THAT Red Rocks from another state. But if you want to head back to Colorado Springs, this is a great spot to meander and enjoy the scenery… closer to ground level. Read more about our visit!
- Go eat at Garden of the Gods Cafe – y’all, this is some GOOD FOOD, especially if it’s still early in the day. You can’t beat it! Running it a close second? Mountain Shadows Restaurant, and a few others we discovered in the area.