Pikes Peak via Barr Trail (14,110 ft)
Day 1: Friday, July 17, 2009
We decided to make a three day trip out of Pikes Peak. We'd spend the first day hiking to Barr Camp, day two to the summit and back, and day three from Barr Camp back to the trailhead. Since we had a relatively short
(6.8 miles) hike to Barr Camp, all below treeline, we opted to start late on Friday, hitting the trailhead around 11am. That, in hindsight, was a bit of a mistake.
For starters, the 20 or so parking spots at the trailhead were full. We had three cars of people (12 people in total) so we all dropped off our gear and the rest of the group and drove back down to find parking. All of the other parking anywhere near the trailhead is for the cog railway or the Iron Mountain lodge (and very clearly marked as such) leading us to continue driving down and down and down closer into Manitou. I finally found a space about 500 feet from the roundabout in Manitou, along the side of the road - a full mile from the trailhead. Starting earlier may not have solved this problem - there were so many trail runners on the trail (running Barr Trail or the Incline) that those parking spots probably filled up very early in the morning. Expect, however, to add a mile to your hike.
In addition to the trailhead parking situation, the temperature was a bit unexpected. Had we thought it through a bit more, we'd have remembered that we weren't starting our hike at 10,000 ft or 11,000 ft, but rather 6,600 ft...it's a bit warmer at 6,600 ft! It was about 85 degrees when we started our hike, and the first few miles of switchbacks offered little to no shade. Bottom line: we sweat a lot! Lisa and I actually both ran out of water about 2 miles from Barr Camp (she had 2 liters, I had 2.5) - which kind of surprised us
since that rarely happens even on long hikes. We had a filter, but there was no stream along the trail (until we got much closer to Barr camp)...thankfully, our hiking partners weren't as thirsty as we were, so we were able to get some water from them.
The number of people on the trail was another surprise. As mentioned before, there were lots of people training for the Pike Peak Ascent or Marathon in August. We lost count of all the trail runners that passed us either going up or down. Once we passed the trail junction where the incline met Barr Trail, the number of runners dropped significantly - most were running up the incline (an old railroad grade starting at the same trailhead) and descending via Barr Trail. There were also a number of day hikers - folks that seemed to be out for an afternoon hike (hopefully they weren't trying to summit as late or unprepared as they looked!). Their numbers decreased passed the incline junction as well. To our surprise, we were even passed by a handful of mountain bikers descending! That's a first on a 14er for us!
The trail itself was in fantastic shape - a good solid dirt trail to follow all the way to camp with a fairly gentle grade and really no opportunity to get lost. Out of our group of twelve, we were the Lisa and I were the second wave to arrive at Barr Camp at about 3:15pm for a total of 4 hours up. The last of our group
arrived around 4:40pm - still plenty of time before a fantastic spaghetti dinner by the Barr Camp hosts, Teresa and Neal.
Our group had rented the upper cabin, which holds 12 people (3 double beds, 6 single bunk beds). In addition to the beds (all in one room), there was a wood burning stove, a few tables, and a food box (to keep squirrels and such from stealing it out of your pack). We set our stuff down on our selected beds and hiked the hundred yards or so back down to the main bunk house. The main bunk house was divided into a few spaces: a living room/kitchen, the sleeping area, and the camp hosts's private loft area above the living room. The living room area joins up with the kitchen (which is only usable by the camp hosts) and is set up for relaxing, with a few couches, chairs, books, games, and a table. The sleeping area is in an adjoining room with its own woodburning stove and a large number of single mattresses. Camp was well appointed with conveniences, including a non-potable water sink to brush your teeth or towel yourself off, a composting pit toilet, plus a
number of comfortable benches and tables outside. The camp sells bottled water (although they indicated that they won't be carrying that in the future), Gatorade, and a few other snacks all at very reasonable prices considering they had to be hauled up to camp.
While waiting for dinner, the smell of the cooking garlic "switchback" bread was making us all salivate as we waited for dinner, conversed with other Barr Camp residents, watched hummingbirds, and just generally relaxed. The mosquitoes were a little bothersome due to all the moisture that we received this year in Colorado - Teresa had indicated that typically they are not a bother at all.
After dinner, we retired to the upper cabin to sleep (we discovered that we had about 5 snorers in our midst - of which I was one...). The cabin was quite warm (and a bit stuffy) with 12 people in it, despite the mid-40 degree temperatures outside. We kept the door shut to keep critters and mosquitoes out, and most of us slept with our sleeping bags wide open. The windows did not open, which left little option for ventilation short of opening the front door.
Day 2: Saturday, July 18, 2009
The following morning, Lisa, Alan, Kristy, and I started hiking at 5:00am (a second wave from our group started around 6:00am). The trail was easy to follow with headlamps , and like the day before, the grade was extremely gentle. The trail took its time climbing up through the trees - it was a tad rockier than the day before, but still a very smooth trail.
The trail was easy to follow and well signed - although some other hikers from our group did not see the sign indicating the fork between the summit and the Bottomless Pit and spent 10 minutes going the wrong way...how they missed this sign is a bit of a mystery, since you actually have to walk around it to go towards the Bottomless Pit.
We reached the A-Frame shelter (and treeline) around 7:00am, two hours after setting out. By then, we'd already been passed by one or two ascending runners on the trail. Once above treeline, we started encountering runners coming from the other direction - starting at the summit, running down to Barr Camp, and back. We reached the "Cirque 1500 Feet Deep" sign around 8:30am, continued to plod along the trail, reaching the Golden Staircase about 30 minutes later.
The famed 16 Golden Stairs was probably the roughest portion of trail, but still a solid class 1 by any standard. This was the only section where I actually ran into any snow on the trail (a small patch, easily stepped over, caught in the shade of the rocks). At first, I tried to count how many switchbacks I'd climbed, but gave up after I kept counting "3" in my head....at just shy of 14,000 ft, this form of higher math seemed to elude me.
The number of runners descending the trail had been increasing steadily all morning, but now I passed a descending runner about once every minute or two. At first, I would step aside to let them through, forgoing the typical "uphill has the right of way" etiquette...I figured they were working almost as hard as I was. Past the seventh or eighth switchback, however, I gave up on this approach - it was too hard to keep stepping aside and stopping to let the runners pass me on the downhill - I needed all the momentum I had. Almost
everywhere else on the trail there was sufficient room for people to pass, but the switchbacks were a bit tighter. Thankfully, nearly every runner paused to let me ascend past them.
I reached the summit at 9:30 - Lisa had been up for about 20 minutes and was enjoying the relative calm of the summit house until the first trainload of tourists unloaded. By the time I arrived, the summit was bustling with people. Lisa and I had the obligatory donut in the summit house (well worth it...at that altitude, it's basically just fat and really thin air). After searching around to try to find the actual summit on top of the massive summit block (I'm not sure we ever really found it) some odd looking clouds began to swirl up from the eastern face of the mountain. They didn't look threatening, but we decided it was probably best to start heading down before they began to build more - we left the summit around 10:15.
As we began to descend, the number of runners on the trail had only increased, as had the number of hikers. We spent a good amount of time stepping aside for runners both descending and ascending and other hikers on
our descent (at least until the trail widened a bit more). Lisa and I were continually amazed at just how many people were on the trail: above and below us were hundreds of people. This was, hands down, the busiest 14er I'd ever been on. The most interesting group we passed was from a football camp out of Colorado Springs and a college football team from Kansas...they were slowly pushing up the mountain (some teammates literally pushing the others) all decked out in their school colors. I'm not sure I've ever seen such misery on a peak!
We reached treeline shortly after noon. By this time, the clouds had consolidated into a dense fog, creating an eerie and creepy environment to hike through the old burnt forest around tree line. We continued down the trail allowing the ascending hikers to pass us by. By 1pm, the number of hikers still ascending had dropped significantly, as did the runners, but there was still an occasional determined group still aiming for the summit.
We returned to Barr Camp at 2pm, total time was about 9 hours to and from camp. It was a welcome relief to
take our hiking boots off after 13 miles of hiking and replace them with Crocs. Most of the campers at camp were different than the previous night, which provided new conversation opportunities. We had a few hours to kill before dinner and most of it was spent sitting around doing as little as possible! The rest of our group had left the summit around 11:45am and staggered into camp over the next few hours.
Dinner was, once again, spaghetti and garlic bread - nothing could've been any better!
Day 3: Sunday, July 19, 2009
For day 3, we took a little more leisurely approach to the morning, waking up around 6am so we could partake
in the Pikes Peak Power Pancakes - whole wheat pancakes with walnuts and apples in them, not to mention fresh coffee. What made all of it even better is that we didn't have to cook any of it! What a great way to start the day...
After breakfast, we packed all of our gear and hit the trail around 8:30am. A steady stream of trail runners were already on the trail - either turning around at Barr Camp to return to the trailhead or pushing all the way to the summit. Occasionally, when we stopped, we could just barely hear the whine of engines from the Pikes Peak Highway - it was the day of the Pikes Peak Hillclimb (the car race up the road).
As we descended, the trail became more and more crowded with day hikers. A few of them looked woefully under prepared to make it even to Barr Camp. One hiker, completely out of water less than a mile from the trailhead (and looking thoroughly beat already) asked if there was water available at Barr Camp...we told him yes, but he still had 5 more miles to go (he refused our offer of water).
We reached the trailhead by 11:15am, with the temperature in the high 80s. It took us about two hours and 15
minutes to descend from camp. The slowest of our group arrived less than thirty minutes later.
This was my second ascent of Pikes - the first was from the Crags campground on the western side of the mountain. The Crags trail was certainly shorter (easily doable in just one day) but there was an elegance to Barr Trail - the grade is always gentle, the trail is very high quality, and the eastern slope of Pikes is much more interesting than the route the Crags trail follows. If you have the time, I highly recommend Barr Trail. Spend at least one night at Barr Camp - it's a great experience. Think about spending two - your legs will thank you!