December 8, 2007
What can the community do about the thousands of people who trespass to climb the Mount Manitou Incline? Landowners could cite them for trespassing, but some of the police, deputy district attorneys and judges who might enforce the law are guilty of the same crime.
It could ask the Army to restore order, but soldiers come by the busload to illegally work out on the 2,600 wood ties that climb the steep flank of Rocky Mountain. It could search for a way to legalize the hike that would satisfy both the public and landowners, but attempts by various groups over the years have failed. Instead, the community has done nothing. The Incline just turned 100. On its centennial, use is skyrocketing, the steep former railroad grade is eroding, and the status quo of inaction seems to be creating problems of its own. But there is a slight glimmer of a solution. “We’ve got the worst of both worlds now,” said renowned trail runner Matt Carpenter. “If they actually closed the Incline, they could rehabilitate the scar. If they opened it, a plan could be made to manage it, but right now, it’s just falling apart.” Carpenter helped popularize the Incline in the 1990s but stopped running it when landowners asked people to stay off. Most of the Incline is on property owned by the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Anyone who climbs the stairs is trespassing. But that hasn’t turned back a flood of hikers. No trail in the region has such broad appeal. On sunny days, it seems the whole city is there. Colorado Springs’ muchpublicized fit residents can jostle for elbow room with Scout troops, moms packing toddlers, teenagers in tight jeans, and unlikely barflies stopping midway for a smoke. In the summer, cars pack every space for almost a mile down Ruxton Avenue. This fall a wildfire blazing next to the Incline didn’t dissuade runners. “The whole canyon was full of smoke and they were still coming up to do the Incline. . . . The popularity of it is truly astounding,” said Spencer Wren, manager of the cog railway, which sits at the Incline’s base. The one-mile railroad bed started in 1906 as a temporary tram used to install a pipeline to a small hydroelectric plant at the base. When workers finished the pipeline they were ready to scrap it, but a group of locals took over in 1907 and spent $35,000 to turn the temporary cable tram into a permanent railroad. The first train took the 16-minute trip up in 1908. “It is the longest and highest Incline on the globe . . . You cannot afford to come to Colorado and not take this splendid scenic trip,” one early brochure proclaimed. Spencer Penrose, owner of The Broadmoor hotel, bought the Incline in 1923 and added it to his tourist attraction empire, where it hauled visitors for decades to “magnificent panoramic views.” The Incline finally closed in 1990 because, managers said, it was expensive to maintain, “unsafe and not a good business to be in.” The rails were torn up, but the wooden ties were left in place to stem erosion. Then the string of ties started its unintended second career. Sometime in the early 1990s, a few west-side fitness buffs started regularly hiking the Incline. In 1995, Carpenter formed the Incline Club, which trained once a week on the near-vertical grade. Word spread. Soon a stream of hikers began parking at the base. Cog railway employees posted “No Trespassing” signs in 1999. They had little effect. In the years since, the Incline has become one of the most popular hikes in the region, easily outpacing the neighboring Barr Trail, which, according to the U.S. Forest Service, gets about 60,000 visitors a year. “We do everything we can to discourage it, and it’s disconcerting to me to see how people disregard property rights,” Wren said. The railway has two issues with people using the Incline: liability and parking. Wren said someone could be hurt climbing the Incline, then sue the railway (and its wealthy parent company, Oklahoma Publishing Co., which also owns The Broadmoor). “There’s no wiggle room on liability,” he said. “If we relaxed on this situation and let people on (the property), someone could tag us big-time.” Parking is just as tricky. During tourist season, the railway, nestled in a narrow canyon, doesn’t have enough parking for paying customers, let alone hordes of hikers. For years, railway management opposed opening the Incline, fearing it would encourage more congestion. The congestion came anyway. “I’ve seen it increase tenfold. Residents are just livid about it,” said Manitou Springs City Administrator Vern Witham. Public attempts to find a solution have failed. Meetings organized by attorney and Manitou resident Ken Jaray in 2003 brought together landowners and users to find a solution. U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Springs Utility representatives, who manage portions of the Incline, seemed to think making the track a legitimate trail could work, Jaray said. But railway representatives refused to budge unless hikers could identify 250 public parking spaces in the canyon. No one could find that many. Talks ended in May 2004. Use did not. It doesn’t matter if it is raining, snowing, 100 degrees or a moonless, icy December evening. People will probably be doing the Incline. “I do it about three times a week,” said Dave Walden, one of about a dozen underground volunteers who maintain the old track by replacing ties and clearing drainage pipes. He knows it’s illegal, but said the Incline is an icon that deserves to be legitimate. “It’s this great natural resource. We’re regularly said to be one of the fittest cities in America, and this is the focus of fitness here. People love it,” he said. “I think we can eventually find a way for everyone here to coexist.” There are hints that railway management may be ready to agree. “Parking is a problem, but we can deal with that,” Wren said earlier this month. “At this point, liability is our No. 1 concern. We are working on some stuff to deal with it, and I can’t be more specific now. We’re close. At this point, I don’t want to say anything.” He said there may be news by spring. A possible answer sits right next to the Incline. The Barr Trail also crosses railway property. The U.S. Forest Service has a trail easement through the property that protects the railway from lawsuits. The Forest Service or another government agency, such as Manitou Springs or Colorado Springs, could hold a similar easement. Wren would not say if an easement agreement was in the works. Walden said volunteers can maintain the Incline for another decade, but eventually, there has to be a long-term solution. “The Incline has been so many different things: workhorse train, tourist attraction,” he said. “It would be perfect on its hundredth anniversary to show that it can be recycled into something with a new, beneficial use.”