A late-winter train ride up Pikes Peak
manitou springs » oughnuts and I enjoy a special relationship. As a kid, Wednesday’s lunch was always a dozen doughnuts. At the office, I loved staff meetings because the boss brought doughnuts, and I still drive from Aurora to Thornton for haircuts because there’s a Krispy Kreme nearby.
But don’t tell my wife, the nurse. She hates doughnuts.
More specifically, she hates me eating doughnuts, insisting they’re destructive to my health and waistline. That’s why I neglected to tell her the real reason for our winter ascent of Pike’s Peak.
During January and February, the Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway trains only go two-thirds of the way up the mountain. Come March, weather permitting, they travel all the way to the summit. I booked tickets for the season’s first trip to the top.
Unlike normal trains, where steel wheels on rails provide traction, the cog railway employs a toothed gear wheel that claws its way up a notched rack between the tracks. While normal locomotives typically max out on 4 percent slopes, the Pikes Peak cog trains ascend 25 percent grades. On those inclines, front-row passengers sit three stories higher than those in the back.
The 126-year-old route’s original steam engines have long since been replaced with diesel power. Our Swiss-built craft holds 214 passengers and a crew of two. Dave, the engineer, will drive while Lindsey, the conductor, provides a running narrative of sights seen en route.
With Swiss-worthy precision, Dave fired up the engine at 9:20 a.m. and we began our climb up Englemann Canyon. Past Minnehaha Falls, we reached our first 25-percent grade, Son-of-a-Gun Hill. The slightly cleaned-up name, Lindsey explained, was coined by steam-train crewmen who struggled to keep their ravenous boilers stoked with coal up the steep incline.
We passed the site of Half-Way House, where a hotel once stood, and Ruxton Park, where Colorado Springs operates a hydroelectric plant. Snow covers the ground, with only the middle rack rail poking above a blanket of white. A snowdraped ridge shimmers ahead.
Clearing the trees, we soon pass Inspiration Point. The name honors Katharine Lee Bates, who was so inspired by the view from Pikes Peak that she penned the poem that became “America the Beautiful.” To the south sprawled the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a string of snowcapped peaks reaching into New Mexico. To the west stretched the equally snowclad Sawatch Range. Inspiring indeed.
Rounding a final turn, the train crawled up a snow-blown slope to the 14,115-foot mountaintop. In sub-zero windchill conditions, we sprinted into the Summit House, home of the worldfamous Pikes Peak doughnuts.
The highest-made doughnuts in the country have been cooked up here for over a century. Chefs employ a recipe that only works in the thin air of high altitude, and like Colonel Sanders, they add secret ingredients that even Edward Snowden can’t reveal. Served fresh from the fryer, these shiny cake delicacies come light and flaky with a soft, steamy interior. I urged my doughnut-demeaning wife to try one.
“These are pretty good,” she admitted reluctantly.
Returning to town, we stopped for lunch at Mama Muff ’s Kitchen & Spirits in Old Colorado City. One of the menu options caught my spouse’s fancy.
“What’s a cronut burger?” she asked the waitress.
“Instead of a bun,” the young lady explained, “the burger comes in a ‘cronut,’ which is a glazed doughnut made from croissant dough.”
“A burger in a doughnut?” said my enlightened wife as she smiled. “I’ll have one.” Dan Leeth is a travel writer and photographer; more at LookingForTheWorld.com.
round-trip tickets to the top run $40 for adults, $22 for kids 3-12. Parking is $5 extra. Early season trains generally depart at 9:20 a.m. and 1:20 p.m.. Reservations (800-745-3773, www.cograilway.com) a week or more in advance are strongly suggested.
The Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway train sits atop the mountain’s summit.