Angi and I had Saturday free for the weekend, and we were interested in a more straightforward hike than our Snowmass Mountain attempt from two weeks before. I suggested we were in good enough shape to do Barr Trail in one day, and after a little mental preparation, she agreed.
I wanted to sleep close to the trailhead rather than wake up at 2am to drive down by first light. Since the area around the trailhead is well populated, I decided to look for a place to camp nearby. I found Pikes Peak RV Park & Campground in Manitou Springs on the internet (barely, as RV parks are not on the 'net for the most part). After reserving a tent space Friday morning, we headed down and arrived by 8pm.
It was nice to be so close to the trailhead, but our tent space left a lot to be desired. Basically if you tow a trailer, and you don't have space to park your tow vehicle, they have a gravel overflow parking area. Some of the parking spaces have a picnic table. For $25, this was our campsite for the night, about 30' from the main drag in Manitou Spings. At least we didn't have to use our headlamps around the tent, since the streetlights provided plenty of illumination.
We woke up at 4am and broke camp in 15 minutes. We were at the trailhead a few minutes later. I was not too surprised to see a few other parties preparing to leave, since it was a summer weekend. We finished eating our pop tarts, and after messing around with a trekking pole problem for a while, we hit the trail at 5am. We were a week after the Summer Solstice and sunrise was about half an hour away. We headed off up the smooth, steep trail without headlamps without any trouble.
Soon we were rising above the town of Manitou Springs, and the sun was rising. We passed a couple other parties as the sun rose. It was a pleasant 45 degrees, and we made quick time up the trail. We had passed the top of the incline when the first rays of sun hit us, and we were greeted by our first good view of Pikes Peak, still a long way off in the distance.
We quickly made Barr Camp after just over two hours of effort from the trailhead. I had brought along a water pump, but it wasn't needed, as Barr Camp has drinking water available (donations suggested). After a fifteen minute break, we set off up the trail. We were amazed to see so many runners on the trail, no doubt training for the Pikes Peak Marathon.
After an hour and a half, we had covered the three additional miles to the timberline shelter. I recalled how tired I had been on my first trip to Pikes Peak at this point, even though I had spent the night at Barr Camp. We continued on, as the trail left timberline, and we were greeted by views down to Colorado Springs 5,000' below, even though we had 2,000' remaining to the summit.
I had forgotten I had turned auto-calibrate off on my GPS, so my altimeter was giving me a reading with unknown accuracy, but the altitude signs were plentiful. They were frequent enough above timberline, I was too lazy to calibrate my altimeter.
Our pace was slowing a bit now, and we paused for a break at the Cirque Overlook at 13,200'. The marmots here were very tame, and approached within a few feet of us. Angi even saw them mounting each other, right in front of her! I'm sad I missed that one! After fifteen minutes, and a King Size Snickers, we were again plodding steadily up the trail.
Although we were quite tired, especially Angi, we kept a good pace on the final sections of the climb. We were moving much slower than the rest of the hike, but were still keeping steady forward momentum, and not even rest-stepping. As we neared the ridge, We heard a helicopter and the roar of a car engine. I thought briefly of the Pikes Peak Rally, but thought I would have heard about it beforehand if it was this weekend.
When we crested the ridge we were greeted by throngs of tourists milling around the bright red traincars at the summit. We had climbed 7,300' vertical feet in exactly six hours. A few gave us strange looks and asked "did you walk all the way up here?". We took a picture of a couple of older women, and they returned the favor. She was very concerned that we make sure not to fall over the edge of Pikes north face.
As we entered the Summit House we were in complete shock. Hundreds of people were crammed into this small building. It was chaotic and very loud. We didn't know quite what to think of it all, so we got in line and bought a bunch of food. It wasn't as overpriced as I had remembered, but I was very poor last time I was up. We got soup and chili in bread bowls, two donuts, and some french fries for about $14. We ate until we were stuffed and the tourists got back on the train and headed down.
We sat in relative quiet for a while and then packed up and got ready to wander the broad summit and take a few pictures. When we left the west exit, we saw rally cars, ATVs, TV Crews... You name it, it was a zoo! We wandered for a bit dumbfounded and took a picture of the summit marker and a car. I wanted to continue wandering, but Angi was getting antsy about the weather, and I agreed it was time to get moving.
We made quite time down the trail, and by the time we had reached the Cirque Overlook, clouds were billowing out of the cirque and filling the eastern slopes of the peak. We soon found ourselves descending at about the same rate as the clouds, with clouds and fog above us, and a somewhat clear view down below. We still saw quite a few people headed up the mountain at this point.
Just when we had reached the first trees, we heard the first roll of thunder from higher on the mountain. We were glad we had payed enough attention to the weather to not be above timberline at this point. We continued down towards Barr Camp. Just before reaching Barr camp, it began to sprinkle, and we heard nearly constant thunder growing louder from the north.
We refilled our water at Barr Camp, and were met by a runner in shorts and tee shirt. He headed off down the trail in front of us after our fifteen minute break. Soon, it began to hail, and we paused to put on our ponchos. When we had our ponchos on and were heading off, there was a very close lightning strike which really got our attention.
I was a bit worried since the trail from Barr Camp to the top of the incline follows a ridge line, and is rather exposed to lightning. At this point we just wanted to get home, and we jogged down the trail with thunder crashing all around us. At one point, we had another very close (1/4 mile) strike, and I realized it was time to find a safe spot and stay put. We scampered down the hill a bit, and took shelter under the shortest tree we could find.
We sat under the dripping tree with loud thunderclaps booming every 20 seconds or so. After nearly half an hour, the storm began to fade, the hail stopped, and the rain slowed to a drizzle. We decided it was time to get moving, although our cold, stiff bodies were not interested in continuing. We got a view of the summit, now covered in hail and snow.
We passed a sign telling us it was still 2.5 miles to to the top of the incline. This meant we still had quite a bit of distance to cover. We were getting a bit loopy as we passed the top of the incline and headed further down. We were now seeing a few runners heading up, probably only somewhat aware of what the weather had been like further up the trail.
We finally saw the car in the parking lot far below when we passed the switchback near the incline intersection. It seemed so close, but we still had another half hour to descend. We arrived at the parking lot absolutely exhaused, after 12 hours of hiking, which for 25.2 miles is actually a pretty short time. Angi hiked in her winter boots, and she got to change footwear in the car, but since I had used my trialrunning shoes, I had to drive home in the same shoes I had been wearing for so long. Ouch.
This was a great way to summit Pikes. The trail is very well graded and is essentially the same steepness all the way to the top. Even though the distance is astronomical, this is a doable hike in one day for people who are fit. Plan to leave early. In hindsight, we should have payed more attention to the weather on top and headed down sooner. We were well below treeline when the storm hit, unlike the hikers still headed up the mountain into the fog bank. In fact, as we were driving out the train came in and we saw some of those hikers getting off the train which they had wisely used for their descent. (NOTE: the train is not a guaranteed method of descent, as it can be full or not running due to weather.)