2,744 Steps - One Step at a Time
Twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.
1,168 more steps than the Empire State Building.
Six times the height of the Statue of Liberty.
An average incline of 24 degrees, rising to 34 degrees in places.
2,000 feet elevation gain in just under one mile.
You get to the top by taking a step. 2,744 of them. Each one a single step.
That’s what my inner brain kept telling me as I found myself hiking up the Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
Just prior to leaving for Colorado I’d happen to listen to a Thrillist Explorers podcast interview with the great Helen Thayer.
If you’ve never heard of Helen Thayer you owe it to yourself to take a half hour and listen to the podcast. She was the first woman to travel solo to the North Pole, fought off polar bears, kayaked down the Amazon, escaped a rebel firing squad and hiked 200 miles through Death Valley, in her 80s!
That’s not even half of it.
In the podcast she talks about her first adventure climbing Mount Taranaki, an 8,000-foot mountain in New Zealand, at the age of NINE:
“This was in the winter and of course, halfway up that mountain, my legs had turned to lead. I was just so tired and I can remember even now, just putting one foot in front of the other was just an effort but my father said, you know, you don’t climb a mountain in one long step. One step at a time will do it.”
So I just kept telling myself, one step at a time. But hot damn, 2,744 is a lot of one steps at a time.
Oh by the way, before I leave off talking about Thayer, she also mentioned another person along on that trip named Ed who would become her mentor.
“He had a lot of wisdom to pass onto a young girl. Ed kept saying you can be an example to little girls of your age. Let’s see you take those steps.”
“Ed” was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first dude, along with his sherpa, to set foot on the top of Mount Everest.
For what it’s worth, the Manitou Incline is at a slightly higher altitude, 8,590 feet, than Mount Taranaki. Admittedly I didn’t have to climb all 8,500 feet of it, just the last 2,000, and I’m not nine years old. Though, at 65 years old I’m not sure which of us has the advantage in that age category.
The story behind the incline is that it was once the bed of a furnicular railway ferrying supplies up the mountain to workers building pipelines on Pikes Peak.
Anyone living in my area of the country will be familiar with a furnicular railway, though they might not know it. There’s one in Dubuque, Iowa, claiming to be the shortest, steepest, railway in the world. I have yet to ride it but it’s certainly on my list.
In the case of the one in Manitou, the pipeline work had long been completed and the railway was shut down in 1990 when a rock slide damaged a section of the track.
Following its closing the track gradually became a kind of challenge for local fitness enthusiasts. Before long the idea grew into formalizing the trail. That did not come without controversy however, with many wanting it to simply revert back to vegetation.
Following a number of legal battles the issues were settled by the US Congress and the trail of was officially established in 2013.
I don’t want to oversell it, hundreds of people successfully complete the Manitou Incline every year.
At the same time, as a sign on the trail clearly states, this is not a walk in the park. If you’re idea of physical exercise is pulling back on your bark-o-lounger’s lever to pull up the foot rest, you really shouldn’t even take that first step.
The incline begins at 6,600 feet elevation. That’s 6,000 more feet than where I’m sitting in my home writing this post. The change in altitude is no small thing to consider when doing any physical exercise. I’d been in Colorado for a week by the time I did the incline so my body was fairly well acclimated to the elevation change.
The first 50 steps or so are pretty easy. The incline is gradual, the height of the steps short and spaced apart.
The steps are made out of timbers, probably six by six inches in size. At the start they are buried in the ground so your step up might only be two to three inches. That soon increases to steps that are four or five inches high.
Even that doesn’t seem so bad, though it will most assuredly increase your heart rate. Don’t be fooled, the worst is yet to come.
After you’ve already made that one step about 1,500 times the steps get much taller. The timbers become stacked double high so your steps suddenly become 10-inches, maybe even a foot in height.
This really is the killer part, if you make it that far to begin with. You’re already worn down from climbing that many steps and now you have to pick your foot up even higher to continue on the trail.
That goes on for another 500, maybe 600 steps, before the timbers drop back down to single-high in height and you’re home free to the end.
By the way, let me insert here, I had an unexpectedly pleasant surprise along the way. Less than halfway through the climb I saw some movement, literally just a few feet from the trail, a small mule deer was munching on the foliage. I could tell it was a mule deer by those long floppy ears.
As I got closer I realized there were two more in the bushes nearby. He/she, I didn’t attempt to determine the gender, looked up at me as I stopped to admire but didn’t seem too concerned with my being present.
There’s one other, psychological, challenge to factor in when attempting the incline. I had more than one of my fellow climbers comment on the “false summits”. On at least two spots along the way the steps you are on are so steep they hide the steps behind them and the top summit. There is one in particular about two-thirds of the way up.
Many a climber has been fooled into thinking they had just a few more steps to go, only to be disappointed there it was still a long way to the summit.
If you’re worried about starting up the trail and wondering what happens if you can’t finish, there are three locations you can “bail out” and take a traditional hiking path down the mountain. One is near the start at step 395, the second around step 1,300 and the third at about step 1,800.
Speaking of getting back down, there are two ways. One is to go back down the steps, not advised. I saw only five or six people doing that. If you think stepping up a 10 to 12-inch step is hard, try stepping down them. Especially after your legs are tired from just walking a 2,744-step staircase.
The recommended route is the 2.79-mile Barr Trail starting from the top of the incline and leading back down to the beginning.
There’s two great things about the trail. One, duh, it’s all downhill. The second is it provides a great view of the valley below.
However, the trail is primarily comprised of switchbacks, taking the hiker back and forth down the side of the mountain so that great view also becomes a bit of an annoyance. I can’t tell you how many times I got to a clearing, looked down at the buildings below, and felt like they weren’t getting any closer. I was doing all this hiking back and forth and it was like I was just walking in a circle.
But eventually you do finally return to the bottom.
Just take one step.
My biggest advice for anyone doing the incline is simple, pack a couple of bottles of water and maybe even a granola bar or two and take your time. It isn’t a race. There’s no ribbon for coming in first. Take breaks along the way and enjoy the view. Especially the top half, the view is terrific from up there.
There’s no cost for doing the hike however it has become so popular reservations are required. I was there in March and, frankly, was able to make my reservation an hour before I arrived. I don’t think I’d take that same chance during the summer.
Parking is a challenge. Again, I was there in March when it was less crowded so I was able to park near the Iron Springs Chateau Dinner Theater, a short walk from the incline. The fee was $10.
There is also a shuttle you can take from the downtown parking lots in Manitou Springs. There is no on-street parking near the entrance to the incline.
One final note, I did not visit downtown Manitou Springs but did drive through and it looks like a great place to spend some time. However, even in the off season when I was there, it was very crowded which, I guess, attests to its popularity.
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