I read the news of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway shutdown with mixed feelings. This is the train that transports people from Manitou Springs, Colorado, to the summit of America’s Mountain, 14,115-foot Pikes Peak. The annual temporary winter closure for routine maintenance has become an extended decommissioning of two to three years while the railway’s owner, the Broadmoor, evaluates options for rebuilding or replacing the train, tracks, and depot. The result may be that it never runs again.
My initial reaction was: this is probably a good thing. Like many Coloradans, I enjoy the outdoors, support the Leave No Trace principles, and believe the best 14ers are those that get the least traffic. That part of me would like to see the railway, the summit house – and the Pikes Peak Highway, for that matter – close for good.
But another part of me was struck with sadness and a bit of sentimentality. Why did the news bother me? Why did I care about the closing of a silly red train that hauls tens of thousands of “outsiders” (you know – sniff! – tourists) to the top of our mountain every year? I had to clear a lot of cobwebs – and “jog the cogs” – from my memory to sort out this strange emotional attachment I felt for the train.
Twenty years ago, I took my two boys for a ride on the cog railway. The nearly nine-mile ride from Manitou Springs through subalpine forest and finally, above tree line, seemed to take forever but the conductor kept us amused with the history of the train and Pikes Peak. He even threw in an occasional quip that caused my kids to roll their eyes. As a mom, it’s always a pleasure to see your kids roll their eyes at something other than you.
Wandering the summit was a thrill. It was our first time over 14,000 feet and my kids (who at that age seemed to relish offsetting my enthusiasm for everything by never being impressed by anything) actually seemed to get a kick out of the views. We drank hot chocolate, gobbled up doughnuts, and purchased a couple of gleaming pressed pennies as souvenirs. It was a good day out.
I never rode that fancy red and white train again, but I did revisit the tracks. In November 2006, during the Zebulon Pike Bicentennial Reenactment hike, my group of eight emerged from the forest to pick up the tracks south of Sachett Mountain at 12,000 feet and follow them to the summit. It was 9 degrees and a light snow was beginning to fall. As eager as I was to finish the three-day trek, I slowed down toward the end to savor those last feet of train tracks, knowing I would probably never walk them again.
A couple of years later, after a January hike to the top of Pikes Peak via the “Crags Route” from Divide, I saw the train again. The summit house was closed that day and the entryway was packed with snow, offering little protection from the biting wind. I pressed my back against a drift and sipped hot cocoa from a thermos, trying to warm my chilled bones, but it was no use. It was just too darned cold up there to enjoy the summit, so I told my hiking partner I needed to head down. Suddenly, a whistle shrieked. My buddy and I looked at each other. Maintenance workers? Today? We continued packing up our backpacks for the long hike down, but then the train appeared – pulled up right in front of us! Hundreds of tourists peered out the windows at the two of us. We must have looked like frozen guards, covered in frost and sitting in the snow at the entry to the summit house. Some workers jumped from the train, cleared a path to the doors, and opened the place up. We filled up on coffee and doughnuts and thanked the tourists who offered to help us “find a way down.” They thought we were lost and had ended up on the top of Pikes Peak by accident! Then we headed down – on foot.
Later that year, in December, I found myself crossing the tracks during a descent of another peak in the nearby Manitou Springs quad. It was December, there was a lot of snow, and my hiking buddy and I assumed the train wasn’t running (how soon we forget!) so we weren’t worried about being run over – or being “caught” as we suspected that walking the tracks probably wasn’t legal.
I guess I never realized how quiet the cog train is. It came around the corner like a wall of red. The train engineer looked as shocked to see us and we were to see him! We leapt from the tracks and into the snow. That was the last time I hiked across the cog tracks.
My last encounter with the cog railway wasn’t on the red and white train, but on Carriage 104, one of the original train cars. In 2016, the cog celebrated its 125th anniversary and visitors were treated to a quarter-mile “push” up the tracks by Steam Engine Number 4, an older version of the train that had been retired in 1958. While I appreciated the history lesson, being pushed – rather than pulled – by an engine is a very different experience. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed a 1950s 9-mile trip that way, being jostled up those tracks!
I’m sure many Coloradans have their own Pikes Peak Cog Railway stories. Trains, peaks, and outdoor adventures are all part of our state history and what made this place what it is today.
Reconciling my railway nostalgia with a desire to protect the peaks is difficult. The balance between sustainability and accessibility is delicate and not always convenient. A few years’ rest from all those visitors would surely do old Pikes Peak some good, but I hope someday the owners of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway find a way to get the train moving again.
This blog first appeared as a column in the March 28, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.