Looking to put your hiking fitness to the test? The Manitou Incline hike near Colorado Springs may be America’s premier challenge hike. It’s become the training ground of Olympians, soldiers, high-altitude mountaineers, and ultrarunners. But locals and tourists are welcome too.
The incline ascends the side of Pikes Peak from the historic town of Manitou Springs. The top of the incline connects with the Barr Trail, which is the most popular route up Pikes Peak. An ascent of the Manitou Incline and a descent of the Barr Trail makes for a satisfying morning training hike — all within easy distance of great food and breweries.
About the Manitou Incline Hike
The Manitou Incline started its life in 1907 as a cable car. During its early years, it supported the construction of water towers, pipelines and a hydroelectric plant on the side of Pikes Peak.
Once construction wrapped up, the incline was converted to a cog railway and tourist attraction.
In 1990, a rock slide destroyed part of the railway. The cog railway decided to cease operations. It removed the rails, but left the ties in place.
After 1990, runners, hikers, and mountaineers began climbing the rugged railroad bed with its decaying ties as a challenge hike. The incline’s growing popularity created headaches for the city and land management agencies. The climb traversed private property, making this hike technically illegal. Traffic in Ruxton Canyon at the base of the incline also became a nuisance. (The Barr Trail, the most popular hiking route up Pikes Peak, also starts from Ruxton Road.)
Some locals and conservationists considered the Manitou Incline an eye sore. They lobbied to tear out the railroad ties and reforest the area.
However, in 2013, the Forest Service, City of Colorado Springs, and Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway Company reached an agreement to redevelop the incline. The trail was closed for renovation in 2014. Volunteers removed many of the decaying railroad ties and replaced them with a series of steps and platforms. While this renovation made the incline hike somewhat safer, it remains a serious challenge!
Today the Manitou Incline is maintained volunteers associated with the nonprofit Incline Friends. If you enjoy your hike, consider making a donation toward its continued upkeep.
Manitou Incline Facts
- The Manitou Incline hike gains 2,011 feet in 0.88 miles. That’s over 500 feet taller than the Empire State Building and the equivalent of about 150 floors.
- The Manitou Incline is famous for it’s steepness with an average grade of 40% and a maximum grade of 68%.
- The Manitou Incline has 2,744 steps. Every 100th step is numbered—which might either motivate you or make you burst into tears.
- The Manitou Incline climbs to a maximum elevation of 8,573 ft. Visitors from the lowlands will definitely notice the thin air!
- Most hikers descend from the top of the Manitou Incline via the Barr Trail. The hike down is about 3 miles and takes roughly an hour.
- The fastest known ascent time for the Manitou Incline is 17 minutes and 45 seconds. However, most athletes shoot for a time between 30 and 60 minutes. And casual hikers may need 2–3 hours. Budget an additional hour to descend from the top via the Barr Trail.
How Difficult Is the Manitou Incline?
The Manitou Incline hike is steep, unrelenting, and a true challenge! It’s generally best for experienced hikers and people with a strong foundation of fitness.
To give you an idea, I first climbed the incline when I was training for an ultramarathon. I had already done my intervals for the week, so I tried to do it as an aerobic base workout, keeping my heart rate in the fat-burning zone.
This plan turned out to be totally impossible. My heart rate quickly soared above my aerobic threshold, and I was gasping. The only way to stay under threshold was to stop frequently, which got annoying. So I ended up climbing the entire thing above threshold and gasping the whole way.
The stairs of the incline, some of which are two feet high, also present a challenge. Along the way, I passed several hikers who were complaining of cramped, shaky legs. Having some muscular endurance in the glutes really helps on this hike.
It’s also important to consider the psychological challenges of this hike. Some sections of the Manitou Incline can feel a bit exposed and challenging if you’re afraid of heights.
Planning Your Visit
When to Climb
The Manitou Incline hike is open year round. Both the incline steps and the Barr Trail can get icy and slippery in winter. In summer, watch out for afternoon thunderstorms that bring hail and lightning danger.
It’s also worth noting that this is an extremely popular trail. To avoid the worst of the crowds, arrive early and consider climbing on a weekday.
Hours of Operation
As of this writing, the Manitou Incline is open:
- 6 a.m.–8 p.m. (April to October)
- 6 a.m.–6 p.m. (November to March)
Visit the Incline Friends site for the latest hours.
Manitou Incline Parking Tips
Parking for the Manitou Incline can be a huge pain. The city has worked hard to regulate traffic in the narrow Ruxton Canyon. Your best options:
- Park in the free lot at 10 Old Man’s Trail and take the free shuttle (#33) to the Incline/Barr Trail stop. Shuttles run every 20 minutes.
- If you arrive early, on a weekday, or in the off season, you may be able to grab one of the paid parking spaces on Ruxton Avenue. Follow the signs to “Incline Parking.” As of this writing, the parking fee was $8.
Manitou Incline Safety Tips
There is no road access to the Manitou Incline. If you become ill and injured on the Manitou Incline hike, other hikers or search and rescue volunteers will need to bring you down. It can take up to 4 hours for rescuers to reach you and many more to transport you to medical care.
Given all this, it’s important to prevent medical emergencies before they occur. Some rules to follow:
- Only attempt the Manitou Incline hike if you are healthy and in good shape.
- Wear sturdy footwear (hiking boots, hiking shoes, trail runners) and wool or synthetic socks.
- Temperatures change quickly in Colorado! Dress in layered clothing so you can adapt as you go.
- Hiking poles can improve your balance on trail. They also help conserve your leg muscles.
- Don’t let the crowds lull you into a false sense of safety. The Manitou Incline hike will take you into the backcountry. Make sure you’re carrying your 10 essentials of survival gear.
- Start early in summer to avoid thunderstorms.
- In winter, carry extra clothing layers and foot traction like Kahtoola microspikes.
- If you’re a slower hiker, move to the right side of the trail.
- For the sake of everyone on trail, hikers should descend the Barr Trail rather than the incline.
Hiking the Manitou Incline
The Manitou Incline hike starts out at a reasonable grade, but the steepness will ramp up quickly as you climb. Be sure to pace yourself at the beginning. This is not a hike where you want to blow out halfway up.
Feeling like you can’t go on? About two-thirds of the way up, there’s a well-marked “bail-out” path that leads to the Barr Trail.
Almost at the top? Don’t get too excited! The Manitou Incline hike has a false summit about three-fourths of the way up. Expect 500 more steps after passing it.
Alternative: The Castle Rock Mini Incline
If you’re in the Denver area, you can get a taste of the incline at Phillip S. Miller Park in Castle Rock. The Mini Incline has 200 stairs and gains about 170 ft. of elevation. While it’s not as epic as it’s cousin down south, it’s a popular training spot for the locals. For an extra challenge, try a few laps.
And there you have it. Your definitive guide to the Manitou Incline Hike.
Have you hiked the incline? Comment below with your tips.
Originally published Feb. 11, 2020.