A late-win­ter train ride up Pikes Peak

The Denver Post - - TRAVEL - DAN LEETH

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.

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