Just 12-miles west of Colorado Springs in Pike National Forest sits Pikes Peak, the tallest peak of the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and one of the best climbs in the state, which is sure saying a lot with all the great hiking in Colorado. Known as “Tava,” or Sun, Mountain by the Ute people, “Heey-otoyoo,” or Long Mountain, by the Arapaho people, and “El Capitan” by the Spanish, what we call Pike’s Peak today has been renowned for its impressive stature and wonderful natural surroundings for centuries.
Nowadays, there are many ways to hike to the Pikes Peak summit, including by car on the Pikes Peak Highway or by rail on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Regardless, the way most favored to reach the top of Pikes Peak is a hike up Barr Trail or Crags Trail.
These hikes can take a long time to tackle. Pikes Peak is what is known as a fourteener, which means its height is over 14,000 feet tall. Hiking a fourteener is fraught with more difficulty and requires more training than hikes to lower peaks, and you can bet a trail that reaches as high as Pikes Peak’s 14,115-foot summit is going to have some serious elevation gain. The height of the mountain also exposes it to some serious weather conditions. The change in weather conditions from the trailhead to the summit of Pikes Peak can also catch unprepared hikers off guard.
Overview of Pikes Peak
On Pikes Peak, you’re likely to encounter snow before you even hit the timberline, even in August. Mountaineering enthusiasts and snow skiers often think of Pikes Peak as a great destination, but the truth of the matter is that hiking Pikes Peak in winter is just about impossible for all but the most seasoned climbers and should not be attempted by inexpert hikers.
Most rescues from near the top of Pikes Peak are for hikers who have underestimated the difficulty of the Barr Trail in winter. Even for hikers who are from Colorado and used to trekking and mountaineering at high altitudes, the length and the steep elevation gain of Pikes Peak make it really difficult and not something to undertake on a whim.
That being said, it is a great hike if you’re well-trained to prevent altitude sickness and over-exhaustion. During the warmers months when the whole round trip can be tackled without having to worry about the sun going down or heaps of snow on the ground, the views of Colorado Springs and the surrounding wilderness of Pike National Forest make this hike an unmissable one if you’re in the Colorado Springs area and a worthwhile reason to go there if you aren’t. Read on for a full rundown of the difficulties and particularities of reaching the summit of Pikes Peak to get a better idea just how long it might take you to accomplish.
Hiking the Barr Trail to Pikes Peak
The Barr Trail is the most popular hiking trail up to the summit of Pikes Peak. It begins in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and continues for 13 miles until it reaches the top of Pikes Peak. While most of the hike is doable for hikers with some kind of experience when there is no snow or ice, the last section, in particular, is extraordinarily difficult. Truly dedicated hikers train to accomplish this entire climb in a variety of weather conditions.
There are tons of switchbacks that might drive climbers crazy if they begin to run out of time or get over-anxious to reach the top. Having the requisite experience to complete the climb to the summit of Pikes Peak will allow you to take your time and admire the views along the way, which is better for your safety as well as your overall enjoyment of the trail.
The approach from Manitou Springs is probably longer than many hikers expect and may give the impression that the top of Pikes Peak is unattainable, but it’s fairly easy-going during that section of the Barr Trail despite the rocky terrain and high elevation gain. In the last section of the trail, hikers will encounter the 16 Golden Stairs, a set of switchbacks that will drive you crazy if you try to count them on the way up.
Each “set” is a switchback to the right and another to the left, so it’s quite a distance spent zig-zagging toward the top. Luckily, if the last section is too much or if you’re planning a few rest stops to acclimate yourself to the altitude (which is very prescient), there are a few places you can duck into around the 6 and 12 miles markers.
Barr Camp and the A-frame shelter
Hikers frequently check-in at Barr Camp or what’s referred to as the a-frame shelter for a cup of coffee or some brief rest during their hike to the top of Pikes Peak. You’ll find it around the 6-mile marker. The A-frame shelter is just below the timberline about halfway between Barr Camp and the summit. Both are great for a breather and sudden weather conditions such as sudden afternoon thunderstorms, which are common there in the summertime.
Operating on a lease from the U.S. Forest Service since 1979, Barr Camp is perhaps the signature man-made feature of Barr Trail. It marks the halfway point to the summit of Pikes Peak and you can stop here for some rest and pancakes or a hot plate of spaghetti and garlic bread. Make sure you follow the cardinal rule of the Barr Camp kitchen: always eat what you take! That shouldn’t be too difficult since you’ll be working up an appetite on the first half of the trail. Make sure you have plenty of water with you and a method for treating water as well so that you can stay hydrated enough. Otherwise, you may reach Barr Camp too dried out to stomach any of their food.
If you get an early start you can beat the high heat that usually hits the bottom part of the trail in the summer months. It’s only around 6.5 miles to Barr Camp, so if you leave early enough you can not only beat the heat but also leave yourself time for a rest or head over to a scenic overlook that’s quite close to the camp. Barr Camp offers hostel-style lodging for hikers who want to tackle Pikes Peak in more than one day and take in all the additional sights along the way, but make sure to call in your reservation early if you want to stay there.
This simple construction was built by an old caretaker of Barr Camp in 1967 and was kept up by the Forest Service until 1999. Now, its survival depends on irregular groups of volunteers who transport materials up via the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in their attempts to undo some of the damage caused by visitors to the trail and normal wear and tear that has happened over time.
Generally speaking, this shelter is meant to provide some protection from sudden afternoon thunderstorms and high winds. Some people elect to try and sleep here, but if you’re going to try that in the summer months when the trail attracts more visitors, be prepared to strike up your tent or tarp and sleep outside.
To stay close to some great views of the surrounding wilderness or when you need a place to rest or choose between continuing your journey to the summit of Pikes Peak or head back to level ground, the A-Frame Shelter is perfect. It’s just below the timberline, so you can shield yourself from the elements and the exposure of the section closest to the summit. It’s a great place to put on sunscreen and look out for thunderclouds forming.
Staying on the trail to Pikes Peak
Even though the trail is pretty easy to discern, there are not many signs to indicate what is the Barr Trail and what is a dead-end or a turnoff to an overlook or the railroad. In addition to the physical toll, that’s one reason why it isn’t recommended to attempt this hike in a single day.
Not because hikers will get so lost that it’s not possible, but rather because these various turnoffs and physical features are all enjoyable in their own right and exploring the mountainside is just as invigorating as attaining the summit of Pikes Peak. That being said, here are some important markers to look for:
Select the right trail from the parking lot: At the very start of your hike to Pikes Peak you’ll need to make sure you begin on the right trail. Look for the bathroom building on the south side of the parking lot. It will have a large Barr Trail sign indicating it’s the one you want to take, but some hikers do manage to start uphill in the wrong direction so it’s best to mention it for those planning to go. There’s an unmarked trail on the other side of the parking lot that should not be attempted under any circumstances unless you are a pro and know exactly what you’re heading into.
Top of the Manitou Incline: Keep straight at the sign that indicates the top of the Manitou Incline and the way to the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Again, either of those is also a great avenue to explore if you have the time, but not necessary for the climb to the summit.
No-name Creek and the halfway point to Barr Camp: A sign indicating No-Name Creek is a point to look out for because you’ll usually find a small pool of water to refill. Hikers can refill at Barr Camp as well and usually do, s don’t worry if you don’t have the right water treatment equipment in your rucksack or can’t find the water pool here. It is handy to make sure you always have plenty of water with you, but not completely necessary. You’ll eventually come to a sign that lets you know Barr Camp is about 3.5 miles away and the summit is 9.5 miles.
The sign will also mention the Fremont Experimental Forest, an old tree science experiment site that was one of the earliest locations of replanting research in the country before it was demolished by the Forest Service in 1935 after falling into disuse due to its remote location. Turn left at the Fremont Experimental Forest Sign unless it piques your curiosity.
The wide path: A short way past the Fremont sign, the trail crosses a wide path right after it narrows. Continue straight ahead at this point. Many hikers turn left to continue, since the path in that direction is more uphill, but it’s not the right way to go.
Lightning Point: For great views of Pikes Peak and the surrounding wilderness, try Lightning Point. Of course, if you’re trying to reach the top as quickly as possible, avoid this overlook. Either way, it’s a short distance after a sign that indicates the summit is 7.8 miles away. At the top of a short incline, hikers can go to the right to reach Lightning Point or continue straight to keep on their way to the top. Barr Camp is only about one mile from this point on the trail.
The trail after Barr Camp
There aren’t nearly as many turnoffs in the second half of the trail, but hikers will be exerting themselves at least twice as much just to complete their trek to the summit of Pikes Peak so looking out for the correct trail is really important. Here’s what you should look out for:
The Bottomless Pit Trail: If you have enough time on Pikes Peak, consider trying to stay around Barr Camp and hike this trail as well. It’s long enough to merit its own visit and offers stunning views all along the way. About a mile up the Barr Trail from Barr Camp, hikers will come to a turnoff where this trailhead is located. Continue on past it if you’re just trying to make the summit.
Three Miles to Summit: One or two switchbacks after the A-Frame Shelter, hikers will come to a sign indicating that the summit is 3 miles away. Take a very sharp right past the sign and look for a narrow trail. Don’t go straight at the sign, you have to turn right to continue on your way up to the summit.
The rest of the trail is very difficult but nonetheless straightforward. You probably won’t have to worry about getting lost, but make sure to enjoy a few of the sights before the Golden Stairs such as the Inestine Roberts Memorial and The Cirque, a 15,000-foot drop with great views. Don’t get too close to the edge at The Cirque if you have a fear of heights!
Packing the right gear for Pikes Peak
The best way to make it to the summit of Pikes Peak in the best time possible is to bring the right hiking gear along with you. As we mentioned earlier, it’s not wise to attempt to make the summit of this mountain if you’ve never done it before or aren’t an expert climber with lots of winter weather hiking experience under your belt already.
That being said, some amount of winter hiking gear will help you out once you get to the higher reaches of the Barr Trail. Expect winter conditions near the top at all times during the year. Fourteeners usually have this unique feature since they rise up so high.
One of the most important and useful things you can pack is a water treatment system and a quality reusable water bottle. Not only will this prevent you from having to collect lots of trash and carry it with you for the duration of the hike, but you’ll also be able to keep plenty of drinking water with you all the way to the top. Most hikers bring water with them and refill at Barr Camp, but being able to refill at one of the small pools or streams will enable you to drink your fill or use some water to cover your head and cool down during a rest stop.
Pack some energy-boosting snacks as well. While you can enjoy pancakes and spaghetti at Barr Camp and a whole host of plates at the Summit House, it will be nice to munch on some granola while you take in the views. It can also distract you long enough to prevent altitude sickness if you aren’t used to hiking so high above sea level.
Reaching the Summit House on Pikes Peak
Whether they take the toll road, shuttles, or the cog railway, more than 750,000 annual visitors to Pikes Peak always enjoy the Summit House, a building at the top of the mountain where you can grab a bite to eat and take in some great landscapes.
The peak of the mountain is a National Historic Landmark and hikers who reach it will not be left wondering why that’s the case, or why Pikes Peak is known as America’s Mountain. From the summit of Pikes Peak, you can see some of the natural beauty that so commonly brings out national pride for people who were born in the United States.
Congratulations on reaching the top of Pikes Peak! Remember, though, that this is only the halfway point. The way back down to Manitou Springs will go much faster than the way up did, and you can always take a rest at Barr Camp for more spaghetti, but hikers planning a trip to Pikes Peak should plan enough time to make it back to the base before the sun goes down. At a minimum, you should plan to be below the timberline by 1 PM since there are so often sudden thunderstorms and other weather conditions that can lead to a serious situation if you are caught completely unaware.
America’s Mountain has a lot to offer visitors whether they hike or take a shuttle or the cog railway. It’s a true feat to reach the top of this fourteener, so much so that beginners to hiking are advised not to try it without lots of training first. There are some detours and other attractions that combine with the rough terrain and steep elevation gain to make this a hiking trail that will take some time to tackle.
In the end, it will depend on your physical condition, experience level, and the weather conditions to know exactly how long it will take to hike Pikes Peak. Hikers have completed it in 5 hours or less, but many take 9 hours or more. We don’t advise heading to this beautiful place to try and sprint to the top. You’ll miss tons of great landscapes and a thoroughly enjoyable hiking experience that is best undertaken over at least two days.
Pikes Peak isn’t the easiest fourteener to tackle and may not make the best trail to attempt if you just want to to get that first fourteener under your belt, but visitors to the mountain typically return many times over the course of their lives for the unique attributes and wonderful natural beauty of the place.
It’s best not to rush your way to the top of Pikes Peak. There are many great people from Colorado Springs and other parts of the world who have come to Colorado to experience the thrill of hiking across the unbeatable backcountry there. You’ll find one of the most memorable hiking trips of your life on Pikes Peak and if you don’t manage to make the summit you’re much more likely to succeed on the second visit you’re bound to take once you see it yourself for the first time.
Bonus tip: Want to see a 14er? Watch these hikers tackle Pikes Peak via the all-uphill 12.5-mile Barr Trail!