To ask Barr Trail’s most devoted travelers about the trip up Pikes Peak is to ask them to summon dreams.
“It just flows out,” Teresa Taylor says when asked to reflect.
Barr Trail has been part of her life for more than three decades, with almost half of that spent as a resident caretaker at Barr Camp, the trail’s halfway station.
“All of the memories, they remain vibrant and within me,” says Allen Owen, who helped at Barr Camp in the 1970s and has frequented the famed path since childhood.
“Magic” is a word often used by these two and others. How else to describe what they’ve seen and felt on the trail? How to describe the sounds and smells? The yucca that they say “glows” on spring nights as it blooms? And winter’s ice crystals at night? “Like the biggest spotlight in the woods flashing back at you when it’s crystal cold,” Taylor says.
The colorful flora and scurrying, mysterious fauna. The running streams and sentinel rocks and timber. And the views — the waving pines, the lake-spotted valleys, the granite like cathedrals, the eastern plains expanding with the sky.
Barr Trail is “arguably the best fourteener trail in the state,” says Steve Bremner, who lives near the trailhead and estimates he’s scaled the 14,115-foot peak more than 100 times. “Gaining nearly 8,000 feet in elevation in its 12 miles, you experience the gamut of life zones, from the foothills to alpine.”
There are more technical, skill-demanding fourteeners, says another lifelong regular, Don Sanborn. “But physically, Pikes Peak I think is the hardest fourteener in the state. It’s really grueling.”
For 100 years, Barr Trail has equally conquered and inspired visitors. Since Fred Barr accomplished his mission in 1921, the trail’s legend has grown.
Memories, like dreams, flow forth.
“It’s a special trail,” Taylor says, “and we are so, so fortunate to have it right here.”
Allow the people who know it best to reminisce and take you on the journey, from bottom to top:
JIM STRUB, lifelong climber: The rail fencing alongside the bottom part of Barr Trail, those of course were not there when I first started hiking on that trail in 1967. ... I was appalled. This is a natural forest trail, I thought. Why have they put up these rails? It looks awful.
However, the following winter, I was climbing along, and the tread was icy and hard-packed. I found myself hanging on to the rails. I thought, Oh, there is use for these.
TAYLOR: I am sad when I see the remnants of social trails of those who cut straight down the front of the mountain, dipping beneath fences and causing erosion. I only hope they are unaware of the damage this causes, and I wish I could find a good way to educate people.
SANBORN: I’d say the Incline has pretty much ruined (that part) of the trail, both physically and emotionally. ... As soon as you go past that last turnoff where people come down to Barr Trail off the Incline, then it’s like, Aah. Now you don’t have to deal with the mass of humanity. Suddenly, the trail’s a little quieter.
The other place down low that stands out is around where you go through that rock archway. It’s the first spot where you actually see Pikes Peak. ... You can suddenly realize, Yeah, that’s where I’m going. And then you go, Yeah, that’s a long ways away.
STRUB: Just above No Name Creek, the Barr Trail enters a hollow ... then with a right hand turn into an area my wife and I called “the Garden.”
In July, Peggy would ride the Incline railway and I would hike up to meet her at the 3-mile sign, then we would walk into the Garden and enjoy especially the columbine, which she dearly loved.
TAYLOR: When conditions are right here, it is a botanist’s dream. Long ago, this section of the trail stalled my hike as I photographed more than 28 species of plants, all in bloom. My dream is to catch this section as I did long ago, when conditions are right for the wild things to bloom en masse.
STRUB: There was a tree there. A very old, sick tree, some kind of evergreen. ... The stump is still there. The stump is enormous.
TAYLOR: I still acknowledge the tree, as if an ancestor’s gravesite. It is a marker.
BREMNER: The next landmark we call “Town Overlook,” a good vantage point for views extending to Colorado Springs and points east. Farther up the trail from there is a rock that I call Elephant Rock that extends slightly into the trail. About 15 years ago, I was speeding down the trail and I caught a shoulder on the rock, and it spun me around and sent me unceremoniously down flat-faced to the granite.
TAYLOR: Goodbye Rock is above the 7.8-mile sign ... Goodbye Rock is the name (my husband) Neal and I gave this rock years ago. It is the point to which we could both run down from Barr Camp in the winter when we saw no new tracks in new-fallen snow on winter mornings. Most times, one of us would continue to town to get the mail, and the other would return to camp before up-hikers would start arriving. At Goodbye Rock, we would stop, give each other a kiss and go our separate ways.
BREMNER: After the 7.8 sign ... the next stretch is mostly downhill to rolling before it turns left and rises to Lightning Point and one of the best views of Pikes Peak and the scene of many photos.
OWEN: There’s a corner, like a 90-degree corner, and you can sit on a rock there. But then if you look up the hill, kind of to the southeast, you’ll see some rocks. And you walk up there, and right behind it is a little mini Stonehenge that I don’t think many people have found. ... It’s the most medieval, mystical rocks. How did they all end up in this position, in this circle here, standing straight up? It’s just a magical spot.
STRUB: From my own experience over many years, it appears that the streams along Barr Trail are safe to drink from without filtering. At least I can say that I have never been stricken with giardia. ... My favorite site is a little pool in the brook that runs right along the trail about 15 minutes above Barr Camp — a regular bottle-filling stop for me many, many times.
SANBORN: Least favorite part would probably be between Barr Camp and timberline. That section, there’s some really long switchbacks in there, and you’re kinda just lost in the trees.
You’re just thinking, “Man, when are we gonna be at timberline?”
LING LI, monthly climber: I like it in the fall because the aspens, the fall colors. If you go more toward the second or third week in September, that’s just lush and beautiful. The smell of the trees, the sound of the leaves, the tranquility.
OWEN: It’s a little ways below timberline. You know you’re close because you can hear it. You can hear the water. You go back in there, and it’s just green and mossy. And occasionally you’ll hear something big going clunk-clunk or thunk-thunk. You never know what it is. Is it an elk? Is it a moose? Is it a bear? It could be Bigfoot for all we know.
LI: Every time I pass that Bottomless Pit cutoff, I’m always looking there and it always brings up memories. ... As soon as you turn off on that split-off, you head off to the Bottomless Pit, you are in a completely different side of the mountain.
OWEN: Nearing timberline (on Barr Trail), you run into those bristlecone pines. They’re windswept, barren. And they just stand there. They’re magnificent. They’re just monumental.
TAYLOR: The forest of ghost trees is both eerie and beautiful. Old, twisted and still standing trunks of ancient trees ... as if mummies of the long-ago forest.
LI: Sometimes I’ll go over to the A-frame and look around and see if anybody camped in there or left trash there or whatever. But here I can look and see the horizon. ... I can just see all of Colorado Springs.
A lot of people say when you get to Barr Camp you’re halfway. You’re halfway in terms of distance; 6 miles to Barr Camp, 6 miles to the summit from there. But really, the A-frame, which is 9 miles from the bottom, is halfway in my opinion. ... The last 3 miles you think, All right, I’ve got 3 miles. But they are the longest 3 miles.
TAYLOR: Magic and misery — that is Barr Trail above timberline to me. I do embrace them both.
OWEN: The echoing of the marmots against those granite cliffs. It’s something you won’t forget.
BREMNER: The signage goes from 3 miles to go, 2 miles to go, 1 mile to go. And then finally you reach the 16 Golden Stairs sign, which really means 32 switchbacks. I know, because when I took my 11-year-old daughter to the summit one year, I counted each one.
OWEN: When I’m on the Golden Stairs, I’m not really thinking about the hot, greasy doughnut at the top of the peak. At least not yet.
I’m looking off to the north and south, and there’s a point where you look down into the cirque and, as I’m looking around, my brain is mapping out all of the rock formations, all of the places and secrets that I know. And I’m mapping a few more that I might be seeing now and discovering, seeing what I still need to go explore.
SANBORN: You get to the top, and you get that mixture of diesel from the Cog and frying doughnuts. That doesn’t really do much for my stomach. Though it is uniquely Pikes Peak.