The Manitou Incline has become a legendary workout destination.
Notched into the tracks of a former funicular railway, the Manitou Incline is a set of stairs that rises nearly 2,000 vertical feet in less than a mile.
At 6,500 feet above sea level, where the Manitou Incline begins, even walking up one flight of stairs can make you wheeze.
So, you can imagine what an incredible workout the equivalent of 200 flights of stairs offers.
Here’s everything you need to know about how the Manitou Incline came to be, how to help support and preserve the Incline and how to visit and climb the Incline.
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How the Manitou Incline became one of the most popular tourist destinations in Colorado
For much of the 20th century, the Mount Manitou Scenic Incline hauled visitors above the tourist town of Manitou Springs. Folks could gaze upon the doll-sized Victorian buildings of Manitou, Old Colorado City and Colorado Springs or admire the pink granite face of Pikes Peak. In 1990, the Incline Railway fell apart. A rockslide crashed down the hill and wiped out the track. The railway’s owner sold the property leaving only the wooden railway ties.
To some people, like Frank Landis, a local U.S. Forest Service ranger, the Manitou Incline’s scar, which was visible from miles away, should have been erased. Landis wanted to remove the railway ties and revegetate the area.
However, to a group of local runners, the steep-scar on the side of the mountain provided an irresistible challenge. Despite a no-trespassing sign, a local running club — dubbed the Incline Club — began running up the set of wooden steps.
Steve Bremner was one of those runners.
“It was like a stair stepper on steroids,” he said.
Manitou Incline attracts Olympians and supporters who fixed it
The Manitou Incline quickly became the best way to get a super intense workout. Olympians training at the nearby U.S. Olympic Training Center used the Incline steps for cardio. The U.S. wrestling coach admitted that the Incline was his go-to form of torture for wresters he caught drinking the night before.
Bill Beagle, the President of the Incline Friends nonprofit, described the trail before it was repaired: “Ties were cockeyed every which way, there were rusting pipes that had jagged edges.”
Over the years, the same group of runners who began using the Manitou Incline for covert training missions led the way to securing the trail’s future. Runners saw the Incline’s potential and knew that if they could work through concerns about ownership, maintenance and liability, the trail could be a great asset for the town.
From renegade climb to legit trail
Although no one was ever cited for trespassing, leaders had to work out a series of property disputes. In fact, the one-mile path of the incline is owned by three separate entities: a local company that had bought the Incline Railway to use its parking lot, Colorado Springs Utilities and the U.S. Forest Service.
Bremner joined Incline Friends, the nonprofit which helped organize community members and led public discussions about transforming the Incline into an official, legal trail. With support from Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation, Manitou Springs and a team of volunteers, Incline Friends raised over $1 million to repair the trail. In order to become an official trail, Members of Congress had to vote to officially decommission the railway.
Finally in 2014, after contractors helped stabilize the steps and repaired the most critical issues, the Incline reopened as a legal hiking trail.
Popularity of Manitou Incline skyrockets – How to make the climb
Since 2014, the Manitou Incline’s popularity has skyrocketed. Visitors see the trail as a challenge, a way to test their physical stamina. If you get to the top, you might as well challenge your friends. The new word-of-mouth dares come via selfies shot from the top of the Incline and quickly shared on Facebook or Instagram, encouraging friends to repeat the accomplishment.
Gazing up from the bottom of the trail you might feel anxious. It’s the same shape that terrifies math students when they see their first exponential equation.
If you visit the Manitou Incline today, you’ll see a sea of joggers clad in spandex, bare-chested U.S. Air Force Cadets and tourists bent at the knees. Since the Incline doesn’t zig zag up the mountain like most trails, it can be intimidating to look straight up it. Gazing up from the bottom of the trail you might feel anxious. It’s the same shape that terrifies math students when they see their first exponential equation.
They visit all year round.
Know before you Go
- Where to park? The best parking is at the free Hiawatha Gardens lot. Park here and take the free shuttle to the base of the Incline. The shuttle runs every 10-20 minutes depending on the season
- Cost: Free
- Reservations: Reserve your spot to hike the Incline here.
- No pets allowed
How the popularity of the Manitou Incline is threatening the workout destination
Unfortunately, the swarms of new hikers enjoying the Manitou Incline are threatening the trail itself. When I asked a long-time local resident about how he’s seen it change, he mentioned the growing number of people.
“It’s grown ten-fold,” he said.
Steve Bremner, the former President of Incline Friends, lives near the base of the trail and also worries about issues like congestion and trash. He frequently picks up water bottles hikers have left along the trail.
Another problem is damage to the trail itself. Some runners and hikers shortcut switchbacks on the way down, defeating the hard work volunteers put into building sustainable trails. Shortcutting can put additional stress on the landscape and worsen erosion.
“We used to call them social trails, but that was too nice. Now we call them renegade trails” Beagle said.
Responding to Crowds
Volunteers, like Beagle, are devising creative solutions to managing crowds. Incline Friends has supported building a secondary path down from the top of the Incline. Beagle hopes it will minimize trail conflicts between hikers descending from the top of the Incline and those hiking Pikes Peak on the Barr Trail. Spreading hikers out could also help reduce crowds.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Manitou Springs implemented a free-reservation system in order to hike the Incline. The system has helped keep crowds at bay, but not everyone wants it to remain in place.
Responses to a long-term reservation system ranged from “hell-no” to a general acceptance that planning ahead and nabbing a spot in advance is the way that things are moving for popular trails throughout Colorado.
“Is a reservation system going to happen? Probably. But, don’t get me wrong locals are pissed,” one hiker told me.
I spoke with one volunteer who hikes the Manitou Incline four to six times every week of the year. In the winter, he shovels snow off the steps to make the trail safer. The volunteer wanted to remain anonymous.
“I just love the Incline. I like giving back and it makes me feel a part of the community,” he said.
If there was one thing he could change, he’d encourage visitors to plan better in advance.
“I wish hikers were more prepared.”
The Incline’s future
With more folks hiking the Incline, search and rescue costs have also increased. Since the path is so steep, it’s difficult to haul people down if they get hurt. In the winter, hikers should plan to bring traction devices, like Yaktraks to avoid slipping. Water and layers are also important.
Despite the challenges, most people involved with the trail remain optimistic about the Manitou Incline’s future. Few people want to prevent others from enjoying what they love. But securing the trail’s future will require hard work from many people.
What to bring on the Incline?
- Comfortable shoes (hiking boots or running shoes)
- Layers (you won’t be cold hiking up, but the trail down is in the shade and can be chilly)
- Traction device for Fall, Winter and Spring (Snow and ice linger on the Incline) Yak Tracks can work well, but more aggressive micro-spikes are often better.
- Rain Jacket if rain is in the forecast
In addition to building new routes down from the top and maintaining the Incline’s steps, the most promising solution I’ve heard is education. Many of the hikers who are coming to try the Manitou Incline are new to Colorado or new to the outdoors. By educating hikers about what to bring, the risks involved and why cutting trails or littering is so bad, Beagle and Bremner think that they can help to change some people’s actions.
“People need to understand that this isn’t the gym. They can’t leave behind water bottles.” Beagle said.
Bremner envisions setting up a table at the base of the trail to tell people about Leave No Trace principles. With volunteers already stationed at the base to check people’s reservations, adding a short segment about how to preserve the trail’s quality wouldn’t be hard.
Although education isn’t a perfect solution, it’s one of the few options that doesn’t infringe on people’s access to public lands. Closing trails or jacking up fees might solve a lot of environmental problems, but it doesn’t take people into account. These are public lands and everyone has a say in how we use them.
Lessons for managing public lands
Fortunately, by looking at the Manitou Incline’s past and its slow transformation from railway to a popular workout trail, we can learn several lessons. First, building trails requires time and lots of advocacy. Public meetings, in which residents can hash out concerns, seem like one of the best ways to give people a voice.
Today, as questions about how to manage crowds in the outdoors continue to grow, trail advocates and land managers need to understand the importance of keeping the process democratic. It’s important that people have places to go.
Finally, the Manitou Incline offers lessons about conservation more broadly. Often the narrative in conservation circles is that we must save land now before it is gone forever. How we use public lands is a dynamic process. For years the Incline Railway served the needs of the community. Now, with more people interested in hiking, building trails makes sense.
Conservationists shouldn’t focus so much on preserving the purity of the land or drawing distinctions between people and nature, but on how public lands can serve communities. It may be easier to set aside large tracts of land first, but it’s not impossible to preserve or improve land that’s already been used for other purposes.
If you’re interested in getting involved with the Incline or other trail projects, check out the work organizations like Rails to Trails are doing. You can always donate or volunteer to help with trail work. Until then, get outside and enjoy Colorado.
No changes were made to photos used in article. All photos licensed under the Creative Commons license.