Evangelical Christian conservatives, medical marijuana refuges, a top-ranking liberal arts college and multiple military installations contribute to the diversity of Colorado Springs. Colorado’s second-largest city is in a picture-perfect location below Pikes Peak, the 14,100-foot mountain that inspired Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful.” It is home to a wonderful assortment of natural attractions and man-made distractions. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about Colorado Springs, including some essential experiences.
The closet thing to a skyscraper you’ll find around Colorado Springs is 14,110-foot Pikes Peak, which is also the state’s only 14neer (as the 52 peaks across Colorado that are taller than 14,000 feet are known) that can be summited by car, train or foot. Financed by town benefactor Spencer Penrose in 1915, the twisting, 19-mile paved Pikes Peak toll road is open year-round weather permitting. It takes about an hour to get up. A more fun way to reach the top is via the Pikes Peak cog railway that has been chugging up the mountain since 1891. Katharine Lee Bates made the railway journey in 1893 that inspired “America the Beautiful.”
Reach the top the cool way via the 12.5-mile Barr Trail, which climbs 7,300 feet and takes about eight hours for a fit hiker to summit. Just make sure to leave well before daybreak. You’ll need to be down before 3 p.m. when thunderstorms tend to form. If you happen to be a runner, try the Pike’s Peak Ascent (a half marathon — you just go to the top and stop) or Pike’s Peak Marathon held simultaneously in August. The latter is truly grueling. The last half is straight downhill and rough enough to pull the outer skin off a runner’s feet — I’ve seen it, pretty gross, but also proof that you are a total badass.
Back in the day, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you could arrange to tour the North American Radar Air Defense (NORAD) complex, located in the hollowed out Cheyenne Mountain in Southwest Colorado Springs. I did it in college. It required a background check and about a six month clearance wait. Today, you’ll have to settle for viewing the joint U.S.-Canadian airspace command center by spotting its towers atop the mountain. Look to the right while driving south on Interstate 25 around the Circle Road exit. This is where the president will supposedly be sent in the event of a nuclear missile strike. Besides NORAD, Colorado Springs hosts the U.S. Air Force Academy as well as several other surrounding military bases.
When writing about Colorado Springs, I can’t forget my alma mater, which provides a liberal oasis in a largely conservative — or at least Libertarian — city. Consistently ranked in the top 35 liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, its “block system” education plan is cutting edge.
Located six miles west of downtown Colorado Springs is the funky little Manitou Springs, which is home to not only one the country’s largest practicing wicca contingencies but also some outrageous annual festivals. These include the Emma Crawford Coffin Races art Halloween and the post-Christmas Fruit Cake Toss (involving homemade catapults and Aunt Vera’s special rock-hard fruitcake). It is also where the trains depart for the top of Pikes Peak and home to perhaps the coolest old (but still functional) penny arcade in the country.
Drive it, bike it or hike it, but whatever you do, don’t miss Garden of the Gods. Straight out of a movie set, but weirdly situated smack in the center of the city, this bewitching and beautiful urban park is a favorite local attraction, where people come to hike between towering crimson sandstone rock formations.
Colorado Springs is home to around 401,000 people and 88,000 dogs, which equals one dog for every two households, making it one of the nation’s most canine-friendly cities. They also don’t have any breed bans in place. And whether your pup is playing catch in one of the five city dogparks or accompanying its human on a shopping trip to the pro-dog Promenade Shops at Briargate (in the northwest corner of town), Colorado Springs is a good place to be a dog. Dogs can even take in a minor league ballgame at the pet friendly SkySox stadium!
As if military installations and big mountains weren’t impressive enough, Colorado Springs is home to one of three national training centers where U.S. Olympic athletes practice for the summer and winter games. The facility in Colorado Springs is also home to the U.S Olympic Committee, which has been responsible for training, entering and funding the U.S. teams.
Colorado and craft beer are synonymous these days, and Colorado Springs doesn’t disappoint when it comes to small-batch breweries. Occupying a wonderful location downtown, Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. has been a key player on the brewing scene since Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper saved it from the wrecking ball in 1993. Today it serves a roster of home-brewed ales and lagers appealing to all palates along with down-home American comfort food.
If you’re visiting from out of town on an expense account, there is no better place to lay your head than the five-star, five-diamond Broadmoor Hotel & Resort. Even if you don’t stay the night, visit to eat at one of its restaurants. On a warm summer night it is hard to beat the al fresco patio overlooking the lake framed by mountains. Order a glass of bubbly and a cigar, sit back and watch the ducks.