One of the easiest, most interesting, and least stressful ways to experience the Pikes Peak Region is to ring “The Peak” by car. There are multiple routes, takeoff points, and degrees of difficulty. The Region doesn’t have specific boundaries — you’re in it if you can see the mountain on a clear day.
First, head south to the Arkansas River Valley
Begin in Colorado Springs, and head south on I-25 to Pueblo, a city with a resplendent past and a lively present. Take the downtown exit and drive a couple of blocks to the Sangre de Cristo Museum Arts Center.
There’s plenty of free parking, great shows, exhibitions throughout the year, and the kid-friendly Buell Children’s Museum. A few blocks away, you can stroll along the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk, a downtown park patterned after San Antonio’s riverwalk. Pueblo’s Riverwalk is a spacious delight, flanked by restaurants, shops and green open space. It’s just steps from Union Avenue, a revived and comfortably walkable historic commercial district.
19th century Pueblo was one of the most dynamic, prosperous industrial cities in the West. The Colorado Fuel and Iron steelworks attracted immigrants from dozens of countries, as did the vast downtown railyards. The city’s splendid Union Station (now an events center) is a downtown centerpiece, as is the nearby railroad museum. For a glimpse at the opulent lifestyle of Pueblo’s industrialists, visit Rosemount, a 37-room 1893 mansion with its original furniture and wallcoverings. Or just walk through one of many Pueblo historic districts and marvel at the homes. For example, take a look at 326 W. Pitkin Ave., where the Gast Mansion rises behind a wrought-iron fence, a joyous eruption of Victorian excess that belongs in a fairy tale instead of a prosaic Pueblo street. The National Register property, built for Pueblo attorney Charles E. Gast in 1892, remains a private residence. Its four-story stone turret soars above its spacious lot, dominating the neighborhood. An ornate stained glass window sparkles in the sun. It’s absurdly romantic, where architecture becomes poetry.
Once you tear yourself away from Pueblo’s many joys, head west to Canon City. It’s a cool, somewhat undiscovered little Colorado town. Don’t miss the pedestrian-only Royal Gorge Bridge, a beautiful structure suspended hundreds of feet above the Arkansas River. Enjoy river rafting with Royal Gorge Rafters, another uniquely Colorado experience. And have fun with or without the kids at the Dinosaur Experience – imagine your own childhood dreams come to life as full-sized, snarling animatronic dinosaurs.
Plan your own detour of adventure
Decision time: take the rugged, twisty and narrow shelf road from Cañon City to Cripple Creek, or keep going to Salida, Buena Vista, South Park, Wilkerson Pass, and Divide before heading south to Cripple Creek. If you have a high clearance, four-wheel drive, and want to scare your passengers and yourself, take the shelf!
Otherwise, continue through Salida to Buena Vista. Great little towns packed with fun shops, restaurants, and art galleries, they’ve become high-country refuges for mountain dwellers priced out of Steamboat, Breckinridge, Vail, and Aspen. Higher demand = higher prices.
Hot springs and hot coffee
Midway between Salida and Buena Vista is Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, a friendly resort where you can stop for an hour or stay for a week. There are plenty of fun, accessible hot springs in Colorado, but Mt. Princeton tops them all. The springs are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the year. Given the post-pandemic rush to such destinations, walk-ins might not always be available.
Once in Buena Vista, don’t miss Brown Dog Coffee – maybe the best java in the state. Linger to savor BV’s many delights, or continue down Highway 24 towards South Park for the third leg of the trip. Rolling through South Park, look for buffalo, antelope, deer, elk, and coyotes. A few miles west of Divide, take the turnoff to the Wolf & Wildlife Center, featuring wolves and other threatened canids in a natural, open-air habitat. It’s an amazing experience – your interactions with these beautiful animals are far more intimate and authentic than those at zoos and roadside attractions.
Gamble like a gold miner
At the intersection of Highway 67 turn right and head for Cripple Creek. The 18-mile ride through the mountains follows the route of the long-vanished Midland Railroad and the mule trace that preceded it. Check out Mueller State Park, the Crags trail up the back side of Pikes Peak, and watch out for Bighorn sheep crossing the highway about 11 miles in.
Once the greatest gold camp in the world, Cripple Creek fell on hard times a dozen years after the rush started in 1891. It slumbered for nearly a century but returned to its heritage as a town where many go broke and a few get rich in 1991, when Colorado voters legalized casino gambling in three historic but destitute mountain towns.
Now it’s an alluring and historic little city with multiple museums and historic sites. You might consider staying overnight – locals like the Hotel St. Nicholas and Carr Manor. Try your luck at Bronco Billy’s, visit the Old Homestead House (a grandly restored 19th-century brothel) and stroll along historic Bennett Ave. Do some time at the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum – it’s located in the 1902 jail, and they’ll be glad to lock you up for a few minutes. Bring bail money!
Next stop: Woodland Park. Check out the Reserve Gallery’s (125 W. Midland) latest show and then stop at the Dinosaur Resource Center. It’s a science museum, paleontology workshop and an altogether fascinating visitor experience – and you can’t have too many dinosaurs!
Emerging from Ute Pass, take the first exit to Manitou Springs, another historic and utterly charming 19th-century resort town. Strangely enough, there are no springs in Colorado Springs but there are seven natural mineral springs in Manitou. It’s still a place of healing waters today. Plan a visit to Sunwater Spa for yoga and a quiet soak.
And there’s so many other things to do. You can walk along Manitou Avenue and enjoy the famous penny arcade, check out the shops, and galleries and marvel at all the 19th-century buildings and homes. Have a look at the spectacular Cliff House, a beautifully restored Victorian Hotel, sign up for the melodrama at Iron Springs Chateau and visit nationally famous attractions such as the Cliff Dwellings, Manitou Incline, Cave of the Winds, and the Broadmoor and Manitou Pikes Peak Cog Railway.
The Cliff Dwellings were re-created in the late 1800’s, bringing public attention to the preservation of Mesa Verde’s extraordinary structures, which were threatened by vandals and treasure hunters. It’s an extraordinary experience, and a worthy tribute to both preservationists and Native Americans.
The Cave of the Winds first opened in 1881. Visitors can marvel at the stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone in the carefully preserved caverns, or participate in the park’s dizzying aerial adventures.
After 133 years, the Broadmoor & Manitou Pikes Peak Cog Railway is still running strong. Thanks to a three-year $100 million renovation that included new cars, track, and a rebuilt roadway, it’s now ready for the 22nd century. The railway runs up the pristine backside of the Peak, terminating at the new summit house. It’s a unique experience – there’s literally nothing like it in the world.
Built on the bed of a long-defunct incline railway, the Manitou Incline challenges the most ardent hiker. Its 2,744 steps gain 2,000 feet in altitude in less than a mile. The return trip down the pleasant switchbacks of the Barr Trail is a lot easier. So popular is the Incline that you need a reservation – info on manitousprings.org. And if you’re suitably fit, you can climb Pikes Peak via the Barr Trail. It’s long and strenuous – you need to be ready for wintry weather and arrange for transportation from the summit unless you want to retrace your 13-mile ascent.
Shop, browse, eat
Continue down Colorado Avenue to Old Colorado City, a 150-year-old restored commercial district. A stand-alone city until annexed by Colorado Springs in 1917, 19th-century Colorado City was a bawdy, rip roaring haven of casinos, saloons, brothels, and venturesome businesses. Today’s OCC is a pedestrian-friendly haven of locally owned shops, restaurants, bars and galleries. Appropriately, there are no chain retailers in the historic core of Old Colorado City. Locally owned businesses dominate the avenue. And in every building, history is alive and present.
Grab a cup of java at Carnelian Coffee and enjoy the sunlight streaming through the windows. Across the street, La Baguette does a brisk business in freshly baked bread, pastries, and most of all perfect, crusty baguettes. The shops are wildly diverse, like an Alice’s Restaurant of retail (as in, you can get anything you want). Perhaps a cool little top from Febra’s or Mackenzie & West, a painting from 45 Degree Gallery, ceramics from Hunter-Wolff, Greek food from Jake & Telly’s, or Italian fare from Paravicini’s? What about a pupusa from Monse’s? Or gluten-free tapas from Tapateria, pizza from Pizzeria Rustica, or maybe just a scoop of ice cream from the Creamery?
Rediscover Colorado Springs
Two more miles down the avenue, and you’re back in Colorado Springs. The Springs has become a big city in recent years, and downtown has been reimagined, rebuilt, and transformed. In the last few years, the city has added a 10,000-seat soccer stadium, a 3,000-seat hockey arena, the Olympic Museum, half a dozen new medium-rise hotels, thousands of apartments, and scores of new businesses. The historic Pioneers Museum is one of the city’s beating hearts, as is Colorado College and its rejuvenated Fine Arts Center. Time permitting, visit both.
Tejon Street is still downtown’s main drag. Parking is easy in any of the public garages, and pleasant destinations are everywhere. Heading south from Acacia Park, check the exhibitions at Gallery 113, shop at Terra Verde and belly up to the lobby bar of the spectacular 1904 Mining Exchange Hotel. Keep on walking south past the Pioneers Museum, and you will enter the renascent South End. New restaurants, coffee shops, retailers, apartment houses, and hotels abound, replacing a dreary landscape of auto repair shops, warehouses, and parking lots. It’s a live/work/play community, and the mountains are always there for a weekend getaway. Best of all, no commuting! A couple of blocks south of the museum, walk a block east and celebrate your trip around the Peak at Homa, an airy cafe/restaurant on the ground floor of Kinship Landing, one of the coolest new hotels in Colorado Springs.
And here’s a final travel suggestion: choose your city, choose your neighborhood, pack up, and move here.