The first thing you should know about the Manitou Incline is that you can’t just walk up and start climbing it. In its outlaw days, before the former utility-railroad-turned-tourist-attraction was legal to climb, devotees could do that. They arrived by the thousands from near and far.
But those freewheeling times led to trouble: The old railroad ties were deteriorating, the soil was eroding and people were getting injured, even dying.
The base is at 6,500 feet and the summit is at 8,590 feet, a gain of more than 2,000 feet in less than a mile. That takes a tremendous toll on bodies — even ones accustomed to strenuous activity at high altitude — and it can take hours for El Paso County Search and Rescue to reach hikers in distress.
The U.S. Forest Service, the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway Co. (the cog) and Colorado Springs Utilities each own chunks of the property, which made it difficult to forge agreements about management.
The Incline scales a hillside northwest of Manitou Springs, but the city lacks the financial and staffing resources to manage and maintain it. So the cities of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs created the Manitou Incline Site Development and Management Plan, an 88-page document that was finalized in February 2011 and paved the way for legal use.
The plan calls the Incline “a liability, a community asset and source of pride, a neighborhood nuisance, and a regional amenity with tremendous potential.”
Dozens of people, representing stakeholders and professional consultants, participated in the planning process. It encompassed the environmental issues, the trail’s condition and the parking and traffic concerns. Members of the public were invited to give their perspective about what was best for the community and for the hikers.
That’s been a delicate balance. People who bought homes near the Incline’s base years before it became so popular were fed up with slamming car doors and loud conversations before dawn. Heavy traffic on Ruxton Avenue, in the narrow Englemann Canyon, left those residents resentful.
The Incline Friends group does its best to inform hikers. Check its website, inclinefriends.org, for tips about what to bring and do before tackling what’s been called the “Stairway to Heaven.”
“If you are contemplating testing your mettle and physical ability by climbing the Incline, you need to understand that it is an extreme trail. If you have any doubts about your physical ability, it would be a good idea to consult your doctor first,” said Bill Beagle, Incline Friends president.
The group also advises taking plenty of water and avoiding the hottest times of the day. Leave your canine friends at home; they’re not allowed. And don’t go off-trail.
Once the Incline became legal to hike in 2013, restoration work began. A small but hardy landscaping company crew spent the warmer months over three years moving boulders by hand and securing the 2,744 new railroad ties brought in by helicopter.
The Incline is open for hiking 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. April-October and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. November-March. Make reservations at coloradosprings.gov/incline. Park at the Hiawatha Gardens lot (see website for parking fees) at 10 Old Man’s Trail, between Manitou Avenue and El Paso Boulevard, and catch the free shuttle through downtown and up Ruxton Avenue.
An attendant at the Incline’s base will check that you have a reservation, and then you’re ready to go.
The railroad ties have numbered plates every 100th step. If you don’t think you can make it to the top, Beagle recommends exiting at railroad tie No. 395 or 1,300. Both of those “bailouts” go north to the Ute Pass Trail, which leads you back to the Incline’s base. Or exit just before tie No. 1,800, which takes you to Barr Trail and back to Ruxton. Hikers are encouraged to take one of those routes rather than descending via the Incline.
Before you leave Manitou Springs, consider stopping by the downtown restaurants to refuel and hydrate, and shops for Incline-related gear — you’ll want souvenirs of your accomplishment.