The Pikes Peak Cog Railway: The Complete Guide

This steam engine takes you to the top of a fourteener

Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Getty Images/Jim West

This little engine could — and still does.

The year 2016 marked the 125th anniversary of one of Colorado’s most popular, historic railways. In Late June 1891, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway first took off, and it hasn't started chugging since. It's a huge tourist draw for families, history buffs and people looking for a scenic, only-in-Colorado experience. 

This railway is located near Colorado Springs in the smaller, mountain town of Manitou Springs. It climbs the mountain all the way to the summit of Pike Peak, one of Colorado’s most famous “fourteeners,” or mountains that exceed 14,000 feet above sea level.

Some call Pikes Peak “America’s Mountain.”  

What this means for travelers is you can get to the top of a fourtneener without having to break a sweat. Hiking them can be extremely challenging, especially with the altitude gain. 

Travelers journey past the Ruxton Creek, Englemann Canyon, giant boulders, Mount Almagre and even the Minnehaha Falls. You will see some of the oldest living things on the planet, 2,000-plus-year-old bristlecone pine trees.

Experience the Railway

In the summer, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway takes passengers on a 3 ½-hour trip to the mountaintop for jaw-dropping views of the green aspens and pine trees and those brilliant blue skies that Colorado is known for. Lucky passengers might catch a glimpse of a marmot, mule deer or bighorn sheep along the way. In fact, this area is home to one of the biggest herd of bighorns in the state. If the sky is clear, passengers can see the Denver skyline in the far distance.

In the fall, the ride is a favorite way to see the changing colors of the leaves. As you ascend higher in elevation, the leaves change at different times of the season, meaning a single ride could be like passing through a rainbow.

And in the wintertime, the train transforms into the Santa Train, for a cheerful and quirky way to celebrate the season — with the jolly man himself aboard. The views of the mountain range covered in a soft blanket of snow ​epitomize Christmas. 

History of the Train

Back in the 1800s, this steam engine gained attention for its groundbreaking ability to climb to these heights and at this steep of an incline, using a special “cog” system.

Conventional trains use the friction of the wheels on the rails to push the cars forward, only mastering grades up to 6 percent (or a quick burst up to 9 percent). But a cog wheel, or rack, style of train can handle impressive grades up to 48 percent — a necessity when you’re talking about scaling the side of a fourteener.

The trade-off: Cog trains have to drive much slower ​— just 9 miles per hour for the Pikes Peak train. It makes the ride feel more like a steady climb, but also gives passengers extra time to set up that perfect shot.

Today, only one steam engine still operates to pull a restored, historic car nearly nine miles up the mountain.

Expert Tips

  • Because of the high altitude, some travelers may feel altitude sickness. Here are some tips on how to prepare for and manage altitude sickness in Colorado.
  • Pack a lunch and drinks to eat at the summit because the line to get food in the Summit House can be lengthy, and you are only allowed about a half hour on top, due to the effects of the altitude.
  • Don’t miss the north side of the summit. It’s where you will get the best photos, and where the height hits home. Beware of the Bottomless Pit, an amazing but also dangerous cliff drop-off.

    Fun Fact

    Another way to experience the mountain — and work up a great sweat — is on the Manitou Incline. A railway to the top of Mount Manitou that used to provide access to water tanks closed in 1990 and has since become a popular hiking and running trail for hard-core athletes. We’re talking a 2,000-foot elevation gain in less than a mile. Newbies may not be able to make it, but if you're looking for a challenge (and you are well prepared, hydrated and fit), give this pursuit a shot. 

    There are a handful of different paths to take, depending on your ability and exhaustion levels. Pick up a map trail at the depot or Incline Base Camp to plan your strategy. Ask the rangers for tips, too. They can let you know about trail safety, with regards to wildlife, mud or other kinds of potential trail closures. 

    You can also take the train to the top and rent a bike to ride back down on the highway. Challenge Unlimited and Pikes Peak Mountain Bike Tours can both hook you up.

    Colorado Springs is a popular destination for biking and was actually named one of the top 10 biking cities in the nation.

    Whether you experience Pikes Peak via bike, feet or train, it's a must-do in Colorado.