Changes are afoot yet again at the Manitou Incline.

The city of Colorado Springs, representing the land-owning and top managing entity of the popular trail, on Thursday announced adjustments to the number of reservations allowed at certain times of the busy summer days ahead.

Hikers booking for free online will now see 65 slots available every half-hour from 6 am. to 10 a.m., up from the previous 45 for every half-hour during all opening hours. Now from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., 45 spots will be available every half-hour, while they will be down to 25 every 30 minutes from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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The changes were made in anticipation of the return of the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, said Kurt Schroeder, Colorado Springs' park operations and development manager. Reopening after three years of construction, the train shares the same tight, residential corridor as the Incline — the canyon that has been a center of controversy with increased traffic since the trail's official, public opening in 2013.

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People hike the Manitou Incline in Manitou Springs on Saturday, June 20, 2020. The Incline has been closed since March 17 because of concerns over the coronavirus. People climbed it in protest of the city’s Incline trail closure. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

The idea for the reservation changes was "to reduce the number of Incliners going up (Ruxton Avenue) at the time the number of people using the cog would be increasing," Schroeder said. 

The total 1,125 reservations available daily remains, as agreed upon in the memorandum of understanding signed by officials from Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs last August after a contentious, months-long closure of the Incline.

The changes are allowed by the memorandum. The agreement outlined the possibility of reservation adjustments "upon (the cities') mutual consent depending on the availability of parking spaces at Hiawatha Gardens and Iron Springs Chateau."

A life-changing day on the Manitou Incline

While the private chateau along Ruxton Avenue continues to take parking reservations for its devoted Incline clientele, the public Hiawatha Gardens in the center of town serves all visitors to Manitou. The city in April began charging $1 an hour at the historically free parking lot — a decision officials said would promote more turnover and increase overall traffic flow.

Schroeder said the reservation modifications came at the request of Manitou officials following an analysis. He said his department — which runs the reservation system and pays for attendants at the Incline base — obliged and was pleased to offer more spots during highest-demand morning hours.

With fewer spots in the hot and sometimes-stormy afternoon hours, "we think it's safer," Schroeder said. "It reduces the chance someone gets up there for a hike and realizes it's more than they anticipated." 

Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition, agreed with that much. But she and other leading advocates, including those with fellow nonprofit Incline Friends, continue to oppose the reservation system. 

"We take those phone calls from people all over the country saying, 'I want to do this, but I can't get a reservation,'" Davies said. "They're almost tearful. Folks from all over the country, all over the world for that matter, and to hear they can't get a spot, it's a shame." 

Schroeder expected spots to be filled this summer; they're available to book a week in advance. Of high concern to critics, he said his office continued to monitor a 20% no-show rate — people with reservations who don't end up hiking. 

Often, Schroeder said, those open spots are being used by people who arrive at the Incline without a reservation.

"You wish everybody would show up," Schroeder said. "But it does leave the opportunity for folks that are not as dialed in to the process to still show up and have a chance." 

Some Incline regulars have said they appreciate the thinner crowds from the reservation system. Since its institution, one estimate suggests peak numbers are down by as much as 70%. Proponents say the system strikes a balance increasingly sought by Colorado's top outdoor destinations: that between access and preservation.

But the system could only go so far in limiting access, Davies said. She suspected some people were getting on the Incline via connector paths on either hillside. 

"We certainly don't want to buck the system," she said, "but the whole thing is flawed. It's flawed."

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