Pikes Peak: The Complete Guide

Pikes peak rises above garden of the Gods on a summer day in Colorado
  RondaKimbrow/Getty Images 

Pikes Peak is one of Colorado’s 58 “fourteeners,” or mountains that are taller than 14,000 above sea level. It's also one of the most popular to conquer, attracting more than a half a million visitors per year—in fact, Pikes Peak claims to be the most-visited mountain, not just in Colorado, but in all of North America. This is largely because of its location (just 12 miles west of Colorado Springs) and because you can reach the top in four different ways: hike, bike, drive, or train.

Many fourteeners are only accessible by foot and some, like Longs Peak, can be extremely challenging and only for the fittest climbers.

Pikes Peak, a National Historic Landmark, was named after the explorer Zebulon Pike, even though he didn’t actually make the top of the mountain when he hiked it. He didn't, but you can make it to the top. Here's the complete guide on how to do it. 

How to Climb Pikes Peak

There are several hiking trails up Pikes Peak, but only one will bring you all the way to the top, and that’s Barr Trail (the trailhead is trailhead near the railway in Manitou Springs). This path is popular, but it’s not easy. It’s 13 miles each way; yup, 26 miles round trip. And it climbs 7,400 vertical feet until it reaches the 14,115-foot summit.

Needless to say, due to the length and the altitude, this hike is not for everyone. It’s technically only rated a Class 1, which is the easiest rating for a fourteener, and some of Colorado’s runners do run to the top and back down in races.

Still, you want to make sure you are prepared, acclimated to the altitude and well prepared before setting out. Don't get overconfident because it's rated easy; it's easy for a fourteener, which is still challenging. Plus, you will be on your own. There are no guided hikes up the mountainside by foot.

Barr Trail can take you all day. The average hiking time is six to 10 hours, depending on your speed. If you want to break up the hike between two days, stop at Barr Camp, just about 7 miles past the trailhead, where you can camp overnight. It’s the only spot along the trail where you can stay, but be sure to book your campsite well in advance due to a high demand. It can take four to seven hours to reach Barr Camp.

The trail is free (although you may have to pay a toll to get into the gate), open to the public, and technically open year-round, although it’s wise to ask a ranger about the conditions before you head out in colder weather or even during the muddy spring season, when some parts of the mountain may be closed or dangerous. 

For a less challenging hike that’s shorter, consider the 4-mile Crags Trail. It’s rated easy to moderate and is more appropriate for families. The Catamount Trail is more difficult than the Crags, but it’s much shorter than Barr, at just 6 miles round trip. It’s rated moderately difficult, so it's probably best to leave the kiddos at home, but if you’ve got a trusty dog, he might enjoy the experience. Dogs are welcome on the trail. 

Neither of these paths will bring you all the way up.

But even if you don’t make it all the way to the top, the views are great along the way, no matter the trail.

What to Bring and How to Prepare

The difference between a pleasant hike up a fourteener and a miserable or dangerous one is in the prep. First, make sure you are physically and mentally ready for the challenge. Familiarize yourself with the route before you leave. Wrap your brain around the possibility of hiking for 10 hours straight. 

When you arrive in Colorado Springs (just about an hour south of Denver), plan at least one day but preferably a few days to get used to the altitude, and take it easy before you take on such a tall peak.

Make sure you drink extra water because the altitude can dehydrate you. This means being careful with salty food and alcohol, which can dehydrate you further.

At this elevation, booze will hit you harder. Symptoms of altitude sickness include a headache, nausea, shortness of breath, and exhaustion. Altitude sickness can totally ruin your trip, so don’t underestimate it.  

Before setting off, call 719-385-7325 to confirm the weather conditions and that the trail is open.

The day of your hike, start early-early, like before the sun comes up. You want to be off the mountain by the afternoon. A general rule of thumb for high-altitude climbing in Colorado is to be headed down the mountain before noon, due to afternoon showers and storms, even in the summer. On some high peaks, lightning storms year-round are a serious danger.

Dress in layers and pack for all kinds of temps. It gets chillier the higher you climb. In fact, there is about a 20-degree difference between the starting point and camp, and the summit can be 40 degrees colder or more. Weather can change on a dime. Be prepared for anything.

Wool and wicking material is ideal for layering because it will dry out quicker than cotton. Also pack a hat, umbrella, sunglasses, and gloves, no matter the season. The proper shoes are critical. Wear waterproof hiking boots with good wool socks. A layer of wicking socks beneath the wool socks will keep your feet both dry and warm. Pay extra care to your feet because you will need them to be in their best condition. 

Don’t forget to wear and pack sunscreen and chapstick, and bring extra water. It’s best to be hydrated before you set out (that means drinking up for a few days in advance).

Other things to pack in your backpack: a map, compass, food, a knife, flashlight, first aid kit, and a box of matches.

Other Ways to Get to the Top

Go on a scenic drive up Pikes Peak Highway, or hop on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. These will get you to the top in about an hour and a half. Including the drive back down, plan at least three hours for the drive. Probably more, to account for all of the photo opps along the way and at the top.  

Just because you’re in your car doesn’t mean your heart won’t be pumping. The highway is 19 miles winding through the pass and along some pretty intense switchbacks. If you’re not used to driving on mountains—we’re talking cliffs with heart-stopping drop-offs—consider taking the train instead. Locals who grew up on switchbacks may not understand your fearful slow speeds. Note: This highway is a toll road and will cost you to drive it.  

The railway—the world’s highest cog railway—has been chugging up the mountain since 1891. This is the most relaxing and educational option. It's ideal for families, and it's far from boring. Prepare to be amazed at the train that can climb a 24-percent grade.

Then there is also the option of mountain biking to get you to the top. Naturally, biking is a little quicker than hiking. The Challenge Unlimited- Pikes Peak by Bike will typically take about a half day.

Other Things to See and Do

While in the Pikes Peak area, make sure you plan on checking out these attractions, too:

  • The Crystal Reservoir Visitor Center: Get food here, sign up for classes, get fishing equipment, and more. This is also a great spot to snap some photos.  

  • Glen Cove Inn: About halfway up the mountain, you can refuel with food here.

  • The Pikes Peak Summit House and gift shop: At the top of the mountain, this is a stop to warm up, get more food (like the only donuts in the world made above 14,000 feet), and buy a memento to prove you made it.  

  • Devil’s Playground: Stop here for photo opps and to take a breather.

Fun Facts

  • The peak actually had a ski resort on it until the mid-1980s.

  • The summit is home to a U.S. Army medical research lab that studies the impact of altitude on the body.