Famous among Olympians, ultra runners, and other hardcore athletes, the Colorado Springs/Manitou Springs based Incline Trail is among the hardest miles one can hike anywhere. The Incline trail follows an old cog railway route up Pikes Peak, gaining 2000 vertical feet in one mile. I’m always up for a challenge, so went out to the Incline this past weekend with my friend Pi, an accomplished long distance hiker and ultra runner and his friend Frederick from Sweden.
When we got there at 11 AM, the parking lot was full. From the base of the Incline, you can see the steep cut in the mountainside where the trail goes straight up covered in brightly colored outdoor attire-wearing people. Although some people on the trail are clearly in shape, few people are running or even jogging up the Incline. I’m most impressed by the diversity of people: far from my impression of the Incline as being a extremists’ training ground only, the path also is visited by families, couples, people in jeans and t-shirts, and dogs.
The Incline features more than 2,000 “steps” made of old wooden railway lines and the occasional rusted pipe. The steps are far from even—some are only a few inches higher than the last and some beg for me to use my hands on the way up (at least when my legs are too tired to do it all themselves).
For almost the entire hike, the top—and all the uphill to it—is visible. The hardest part about the Incline is mental; by seeing how much more is left, it can feel a bit like the end will never come. I love hiking the Appalachian Trail because the trees and twistiness of the path keep the future a mystery. With the Incline, the future is uphill and everyone there knows it. A false summit was a bit disheartening—nothing like pushing hard to come up over the bend only to realize there is more to come. But the reason it looked like a summit was because the trail flattened out at this point, a reprieve to keep pace while lowering my heart rate.
When I finally reached the top, I was exhilarated. I loved watching all the people come over the top with big smiles. The thirty people on top made it feel like a party of people overwhelmed by their accomplishment. Far better than a gym, we all shared the camaraderie of taking on the same challenge. The stunning view of Pikes Peak in the background and the Garden of the Gods below us made the finish feel all the more festive.
Although the Incline is about 2 hours from where I live, I’m already planning a second trip. It was inspiring to watch old timers and Incline regulars go up and down the path. I can’t wait to have the Incline down pat—to study and know every step and where to place my feet and relish pushing myself just as hard, but watching my time go down. The incredible toughness of the terrain, the community, and the support of strangers I felt going up the wooden railbeds was not unlike the feeling I get while thru-hiking. Yet the easy access, diversity of people, and promise of BBQ when the day is over made it unlike any other place I’ve been before.