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Opening the Manitou Incline: How we got here
Every time you take a step on the mega-popular Manitou Incline, you are breaking the law.
Of course, with up to 500,000 people a year walking or jogging up the former railroad line above Manitou Springs, part of which is on private property, trespassing here could be the most commonly-commited crime in Colorado Springs.
More than 20 years after the scenic tourist train stopped running, 2012 could see a resolution to the legal quagmire that has kept the most popular hiking trail in the region officially closed to the public. In January or February, the city councils of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs are expected to vote on an agreement for managing the trail, and the U.S. Forest Service expects to issue a special use permit this spring for the upper portion.
It could all take months to work out (even after a few years of negotiations), but progress has been made. An Incline friends group has formed, and work has begun to rebuild the lower section of trail.
So how did we get here?
Declining popularity of the train
The modern history of the Incline goes back to 1990. For 81 years, trains had been taking tourists to the top of Mount Manitou, 2,000 feet of elevation gain in about a mile, where they could stroll around, enjoy the view and ride back down without sweating their way up Barr Trail from town.
“It is the longest and highest incline on the globe . . . You cannot afford to come to Colorado and not take this splendid scenic trip,” one brochure proclaimed.
But by 1990, ridership was down to 45,000 people a year, as more tourists opted to ride the Cog Railway up Pikes Peak, which had the same owners. Because of the high cost of clearing rockslides from the steep track, co-owners Oklahoma Publishing Co. and El Pomar Foundation decided to stop the train.
That summer, The Gazette reported that a rockslide turned a 500-foot section of the track into a "twisted mess of metal."
But if tourists weren't riding the Manitou Incline much, locals hikers were, taking the train to avoid the tortuous switchbacks in the lower section of Barr Trail, the main route up Pikes Peak. More than 35,000 people eventually signed a petition urging it to reopen, but to no avail, as the owners said it was simply too unsafe to bring the trains back.
At Barr Camp, the overnight stopover halfway up Barr Trail, caretakers saw a 20 percent drop in business and considered closing.
Popularity rises among elite athletes
The tracks were removed, but the staircase of rail ties rising above Manitou Springs did not go unused for long.
The Pikes Peak region has long been a haven for fitness buffs, with its thin air, close proximity to mountains and headquarters of the U.S. Olympic Committee and high altitude training center. Slowly, mountaineers, ultra-runners and other competitive athletes began to surreptitiously hike the route.
In 1993, when the AdAmAn Club prepared for its New Year's Eve climb to shoot fireworks from the top of Pikes Peak, they told The Gazette they "warmed up" by climbing the Incline. When runner Matt Carpenter shattered the old records for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, he did so, in part, by training on the Incline. He even dubbed the group who ran the Incline on Thursday afternoons the Incline Club.
By 1999, the Cog Railway, which owns the bottom portion of the route, tried to close the Incline because it was concerned about legal liability and Incline users crowding the parking in the narrow canyon of Ruxton Avenue.
Illegality only increases popularity
The first "no trespassing" signs put up by Cog officials were torn down. In 2000, a metal sign was installed at the start of the route. A rope was meant to bar hikers from the railroad bed and computer print-outs explained why the Incline was closed.
Carpenter and his club stopped training on the Incline, but its popularity increased. Hundreds of people a day were using the route by 2003.
"If they think it’s such great exercise, then they should buy a stair stepper and do that in their back yard," an exasperated Doug Doane, general manager of the Cog Railway, told The Gazette. Once a year, the Cog would post employees to keep hikers out, as a token show of resistance, but otherwise lacked the resources to post someone there full-time.
Though the Cog only owns the middle third of the land, it became the source of hikers' ire. Still, frequent public exhortations for the company to open the route to hikers went nowhere.
First steps to legality
But the tone changed in 2004 when a small group of runners began working with the landowners - the Cog Railway; Colorado Springs Utilities and the U.S. Forest Service.
“Maybe there’s something that could be done,” Cog General Manager Doug Doane told The Gazette. “My personal feeling is, ''Who’s to say something won’t work out?'"
Meanwhile, the Incline's popularity continued to skyrocket. A 2006 guide book, “Best Loop Hikes: Colorado," became the first such publication to include the Incline. Sports Illustrated and The New York Times wrote about the Incline as the ultimate proving ground for Olympic athletes.
In 2008, word finally got out that an agreement was near. Brokered in large part by Colorado Springs City Councilman Scott Hente, an Incline user, the deal called for Colorado Springs Utilities to give the city land along Ruxton Avenue for a parking lot in exchange for an easement for a trail.
Officials optimistically said legal access could be a reality within a matter of months.
From the announcement of the deal, the process proved more complicated than originally thought. In early 2009, Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs city councils approved working together on a management plan for the Incline.
Manitou officials wanted parking problems to be resolved as part of the legal opening, and when that city began charging hikers to park in the Barr Trail lot near the base of the Incline, discussions with Utilities over how the revenue would be spent took up the time of all involved.
Other distractions also slowed the process. Colorado Springs, its hands full trying to close massive budget gaps and salvaging a deal to keep the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters from leaving the city, put the Incline on the "back burner," said one official at the time.
In December of 2009, Great Outdoors Colorado announced a $70,500 grant to the city of Colorado Springs, coupled with a $25,000 donation from philanthropist Lyda Hill’s foundation, to come up with a management plan for the Incline.
Months of public meetings followed, culminating in a draft management plan released in October 2010.
The plan called for Colorado Springs to manage the trail, with basic maintenance and parking enforcement from Manitou Springs. Click here to read the 88-page document.
Other elements included:
• Trailhead parking for 10 cars would be created in the Pikes Peak Cog Railway lot at the base of the Incline. In exchange, the Cog would get specially designated parking spots on Ruxton Avenue.
• Pets would be banned.
• The Incline would be closed dusk to dawn.
• The Barr Trail trailhead would become a pay parking lot with a fee structure that encourages all-day overnight use and discourages short-term use.
• To manage the sometimes cutthroat parking situation on Ruxton Avenue, 59 of the roughly 159 parking spaces on the street would be reserved for residents. Many of the others would be limited to 3-hour parking. Manitou officials would look to build a bigger trailhead parking area.
• Social trails connecting the top of the Incline to Barr Trail would be closed, and a more sustainable connection would be built.
• A coalition of volunteers and professionals would stabilize the ties that make up the Incline trail and create drainage controls for the 25 percent of the trail that is in poor condition, then continue to improve the trail as time and funds allow.
In February and March of 2011, both city councils approved the plan to legalize and manage the trail. A special use permit from the Forest Service was the next step, and officials anticipated the trail would legally open by October.
But in summer, city planners realized there was no federal railway abandonment document showing the Manitou Incline and Scenic Railway, owned by the Cog Railway, ever legally abandoned the right-of-way. The Forest Service could not sign an agreement for management of the upper portion of the trail until the federal abandonement paperwork went through, which was estimated to take another four months.
In fall 2011, another Incline opening date came and went.
“I’ve been wrong every time I’ve given you a date, so I don’t want to guess" when the Incline legally will open to the public, Hente told The Gazette in September.
Finally open in spring 2012?
As of mid-January, the rail abandonment issue was on the verge of being resolved, said Frank Landis, recreation planner with the Forest Service's Pikes Peak Ranger District. He said it's a "technicality" that may be resolved through Congressional action.
The agency is evaluating the special use permit application submitted by Colorado Springs and has completed studies on the impact opening the Incline will have on plant and animal life and cultural resources.
"We anticipate having an approved operation plan and permit by the spring," Landis said.
Meanwhile, volunteers aren't waiting for a formal opening to get to work. See these photos from a 2011 cleanup day.
The Incline Friends group formed in the fall of 2011, with local hiker and runner Steve Bremner as its president. The group has held trail cleanups and re-routed a lower social trail leading to the railroad ties.
The Friends group is considering making chips and installing sensors on the Incline, so it can be proven who is the fastest runner. Incline users could buy the sensor, with money going to support trail maintenance, and the results would be posted online, Bremner said. The on-ground sensors that would track users would blend into the natural surroundings, he said.
The group is having its first membership drive Jan. 25 from 6 to 9 p.m. at Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. Membership costs $35, which includes a T-shirt, Bremner said.
An inter-governmental agreement for how Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs will share responsibilities is expected to be on agendas for both city councils in January or February 2012.