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Manitou Incline is Colorado’s Cardio Holy Grail

When I did this hike I posted, “I survived the Manitou Incline!  2000’ vertical gain in a mile = butt kick workout.”  It’s training ground for Olympic and elite athletes to athlete wannabes like me.  Its reputation as one of the toughest trails in Colorado is on point.  I call it Colorado’s cardio holy grail.

The 2,700 stairs that look like an endless stairway to heaven, but it’s a hell of a workout.  The average grade is 41 percent.  Any time under 20 minutes is Olympic and elite runner level.  Any time under an hour is fantastic.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes you.  When you get to the top, you’ve earned bragging rights for doing mega-cardio at altitude.     

As I started the trail at an elevation of 6,530 feet channeling my inner Olympian, I thought it wasn’t so bad.  The lower portion is a gentle incline.  As it quickly turns into a quad-quivering, lungs-burning and heart-pounding workout climbing up 2,000 feet in a mile.  Here’s a little history on the Incline.  It was originally a cable car railway.  The rails were removed in 1990, but the wooden railroad ties were left to prevent erosion.   

I was surprised how many people were attempting the Incline.  There were folks of all fitness levels.  As I stepped up from railroad tie to railroad tie, I got myself in a breathing rhythm of breathe in for four counts and out for four.  I was trying to pace myself a little slower than I normally hike on this trail of what was starting to feel like endless step ups.

At about 0.6 miles, I reached Bailout Point.  Bailout was exactly what I wanted to do, but I dug deep and kept climbing for Incline bragging rights.  Bailout Point lets you jump on the Barr Trail to take a less steep trail back down.  As I continued up, I hit the steepest and most technical section.  For about next two-tenths of a mile, my breathing count went from four in and out to a two count in and two count out rhythm as I encountered the section where the grade increases to 68%.  I kept telling myself to just breathe as the Incline was testing me physically and mentally. I thought I could see the top of the stairs, but it was only a false summit.  I still had about 300 more steps to go.

With a surge of energy as I was closing in on top, I ran up the last ten or so steps and cheered for myself at the summit.  The views of Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs from 8,550 feet high are stupendous.  I reveled in my accomplishment while enjoying the view.  Then realized I had to get back down.  Although the Barr Trail is longer, it’s way easier on your ankles, knees, and hips to hike it down.  The trail does a lot of twists and turns as you take switchbacks down some of its steeper sections.

If you do the Incline up and Barr Trail down, it’s close to a 4-mile hike.  After we conquered Colorado’s Holy Grail of Cardio, we headed into downtown Manitou Springs and pigged out at brunch!

Tips if you’re going to climb Manitou Incline:   there’s no shade on the Incline so wear sunscreen and sun protection, take plenty of water and snacks for the summit, pace yourself and start out slower than normal, take a lightweight jacket as it can be windy at the top, and go on a weekday as weekends are crowded.  If you do go on a weekend, get there very early to find parking and for less crowd.

Author Jennifer Broome wrote about Colorado’s Holy Grail of Cardio for The Outbound.  She’s logged a lot of miles hiking in Colorado and still considers the Manitou Incline one of the toughest, if not the toughest, trail in the state.