West outdoors 

That big mountain shouldn't be the only thing to pique your interest

Believe it or not, it's not all about Pikes Peak (visitpikespeak.com) over here.

In fact, the best place to start in the western part of town may be the Indy readers' perennial pick for Best Tourist Destination: Garden of the Gods (1805 N. 30th St., gardenofgods.com). Pick up a map at the Visitor and Nature Center, and set out to find your trail. The biggest complaint at this gorgeous red-rock playground tends to be the crowds — 2 million people visit annually — but the three-mile Chamber/Bretag/Palmer trail loop takes you by many of the formations while keeping you out of traffic.

If you're short on time or just want to find your inner cowboy or cowgirl, you can set out on horseback with Academy Stables (4 El Paso Blvd., Manitou Springs, arsriding.com) just like in the Old West. Or you can find the New West with a Segway tour by Adventures Out West (adventuresoutwest.com).

See white chalk and black shoe marks around? You're probably seeing a favorite spot for bouldering. Clips secured in the rocks reveal the climbing routes, but those wanting to test their grips should register at the Visitor and Nature Center to avoid the $500 fine and/or 90 days in jail. Both climbers and boulderers should also look at the park's website for details on what's not allowed.

Also, multiple places offer guided climbs for beginners. It's a good idea to get a little practice in at a local climbing gym, such as CityRock (21 N. Nevada Ave., climbcityrock.com) or Sport Climbing Center (4650 Northpark Drive, sportclimbcs.com), where you can also hook up with group trips off-site.

On the south side of Highway 24 is another wonderland of red rocks with plenty of foot traffic but no tour buses. Red Rock Canyon Open Space (Ridge Road, springsgov.com) considered the Garden of the Goddesses, isn't fully natural like its neighbor up the road, because it was quarried to build much of Old Colorado City. But it's still a true escape: Mountain bikers, boulderers and hikers dance around each other when the trails get busy.

Hikers can avoid bikers by taking the Contemplative Trail that winds through towering rocks. Bikers, meanwhile, can test their skills on teeter-totters, berms and beams in the freeride area near the parking lot, or catch the Hogback Trail around the edges for a long ride. The easy terrain and well-worn paths make for safe exploring and a good option for families. The leash-free section also gives dogs a little play after dragging their owners up rocky trails and around the pond.

That said, maybe the best place around for pups is Bear Creek Dog Park (21st and West Rio Grande streets, elpasoco.com). Along with meandering hills and low grasses, new construction in the 25-acre area promises a dog wash, drinking fountains and restrooms, says Jason Meyer, park planner with El Paso County's community services department. When it's all finished, dogs will be able to paddle in special sections of the creek, and boulders will secure the sides.

The rest of Bear Creek Regional Park (21st Street and Argus Boulevard, elpasoco.com), with its sweeping vistas of the city and several miles of trails, is also getting a cleanup, Meyer says. The portion below 21st Street is easier for hiking and biking and is a popular horse trail; the upper half is more likely to have late-season ice in shady parts and offers a more technical ride for bikers.

One suggested route: from the main parking lot on Argus Boulevard up to Gold Camp Road and back down. Over that four-mile round trip, the terrain morphs from open grasslands to forest. It's known for wildflowers and sightings of, well, bears. Stop in at Bear Creek Nature Center to find out what's been spotted lately.

Work your way up

If you'd prefer to experience the wild from more of a distance, consider some city parks: In Old Colorado City, there's Bancroft Park (24th Street and Colorado Avenue), site of an excellent summertime farmers market and outdoor entertainment, and Thorndale Park (2310 W. Uintah St., springsgov.com), with kids' stuff, tennis and basketball courts. In Manitou, you get Soda Springs Park (1016 Manitou Ave.) and its amphitheater; Memorial Park (500 block of Manitou Avenue) and its "Manizoo" sandbox; and The Fields Park, creekside at Beckers Lane and El Paso Boulevard, with its popular skate park.

Ah, yes: tennis, basketball, skateboarding ... the adrenaline is starting to pick up. Time to get back into the wild. (By the way, remember that smartphone applications such as AllTrails and websites from trailsandopenspaces.org to cospringstrails.com will hook you up with more details on the places mentioned below.)

Views of Pikes Peak from the Waldo Canyon Loop Trail (U.S. Highway 24, two miles west of Cave of the Winds) remind you that the mountain is lurking. At seven miles, this trail is considered moderately difficult, but gets more challenging if you veer off the loop.

Keep heading west on Highway 24, and you'll find more trails in the North Slope Recreation Area (springsgov.com). Off the Pikes Peak Toll Road, three reservoirs and a visitors center sit within the 2,200-acre North Slope Recreation Area. Swimming is prohibited, but you can hike and bike and even fish from shore, from non-gasoline-powered boats, or by belly boating (fishing in a protected, inner-tube-like contraption).

Farther west still, Green Mountain Falls does, in fact, lead to falls. Park on Hondo Avenue and hike the steep ascent to Catamount Falls. Continuing on, you can hook up to a web of other trails. One heads to Crystal Falls for a larger loop hike, while more routes snake around into a meadow called the Garden of Eden and on to South Catamount Reservoir. For a longer hike, connect to the 57-mile Ring the Peak trail system (fotp.com/ringthepeak) and head to Pancake Rocks; just know it won't loop you back.

Finally, looking way west beyond Woodland Park, you'll find Rampart Reservoir (via Rampart Range Road), just outside of town. The reservoir allows boating and fishing, while an 11.6-mile single track loop trail along the reservoir's shores offers small hills and some tricky obstacles. Less advanced riders can walk the difficult sections, but all are asked to ride the trail clockwise.

Head for the summit

Now, about that mountain.

One way to get your legs ready for Pikes Peak is to climb the Manitou Incline. A 2,000-foot elevation gain in 1.5 miles, it's more a heap of stairs (or old railroad ties) on Mount Manitou than a hike. Park on Ruxton Avenue near the Pikes Peak Cog Railway — just not in that parking lot — and go. As of this writing, the climb was technically illegal, but local governments were nearing an agreement to open it up officially.

Of course, you could do the Incline daily (and some people seem to), but cresting at 9,000 feet is still going to be a lot different than 14,000-plus. So if you're bent on summiting the Peak, you're going to need multiple layers of clothing, emergency supplies, etc. And you should do whatever you can to acclimate to the altitude: Stories of trailside cookie-tossing on Pikes Peak are not rare, and that flu-like feeling causes many hikers to turn around.

You can traverse the backside by trekking from the Crags Campground in Pike National Forest, four miles south of Divide on U.S. 67, then east on Teller 62. It starts at nearly 10,000 feet, so the climb to the top is around half the distance of traditional options, and you'll see intriguing rock formations and relatively few people. In the same neighborhood, and for the somewhat less driven, is Mueller State Park (parks.state.co.us/parks/Mueller) with 55 miles of woodland and meadow trail, camping, picnicking and nature ogling, with hot showers and flush toilets in the warm months. Parks pass required.

But you may have your heart set on Barr Trail. At nearly 13 miles, climbing more than 7,800 vertical feet, it's a signature Colorado mountain challenge. Start where Ruxton Avenue ends in Manitou Springs with a special parking lot just for this trail on Hydro Street.

Some people get out there early (4 a.m. is not out of the question), and go up and down in a day. But you do have the option to stay overnight, thanks to 88-year-old Barr Camp (barrcamp.com). On-site, you can find beds, meals, outhouses and tent space.

Current caretaker Neal Taylor says visitors should check the website for what to bring. (For instance, the area has a stream but not purified water, so you'll have to pack your own purification system.) Weekend reservations for summer can fill up before spring, and requests must be made 48 hours in advance — by e-mail, because they do not have a phone.

"Local hikers are famous for thinking they will get to camp faster than they are able," Taylor says in an e-mail. "People who routinely hike up with a small daypack quickly find out how difficult it is to hike with an overnight pack."

He advises planning to hike slower and to make camp by 6 p.m., in time for the dinner deadline.

In the six miles after the camp, the trail becomes more steep and above the treeline morphs into gravel. The last mile, as it always seems, is the hardest. But then you can hop on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway (515 Ruxton Ave., Manitou Springs, cograilway.com) for an easy trip down, or head back the same way you came, maybe even with another night at Barr Camp.

Oh, about the railway: Yes, that'll also take you up the mountain, for a fee, without you setting foot on a trail. If you're into that. Which, if you've read this far, you probably aren't.


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