February 1, 2013 Updated: June 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm
It’s finally legal.
After more than 10 years of pleadings, meetings, bureaucratic wrangling and even an act of Congress, the Manitou Incline officially opened to hikers Friday.
“We pride ourselves in this community on loving the outdoors. This really exemplifies that,” said Colorado Springs City Council President Scott Hente just before he smashed a bottle of sparkling cider over a now-retired no trespassing sign that once guarded the base of the Incline. A small crowd cheered and then headed up the jumble of more than 2,500 railroad ties that climbs more than 2,000 feet in less than a mile.
The Incline was a tourist attraction for almost a century but became a cult workout for a small number of runners after the railroad shut down in 1990. From that group, word spread steadily until hundreds of athletes were scaling the stairs.
The Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which owns much of the property, posted no trespassing signs along the ties in 1999. Still, the legion of Incline climbers grew until it was not only runners, but Olympians, church groups, families toting toddlers, grey-haired empty nesters, guys with face tattoos, cops, Special Forces teams and even ... city council members.
“My daughter introduced me to it in 2005 and I got hooked,” Hente said, as he started up the ties. “So many other people were doing it at the time that the joke was if I was arrested half the lawyers in town would represent me pro bono and half the judges would have to recuse themselves because of a conflict of interest.”
Local runners and hikers, including Pikes Peak Marathon record holder Matt Carpenter, tried for years to cajole the Cog Railway into opening the Incline.
In 2007, after giving up, Carpenter told The Gazette, “We’ve got the worst of both worlds now. 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.”
Then, in 2008, Hente realized that for decades the Cog Railway had been unwittingly using city property as a parking lot and used that as leverage to get cog owners to negotiate.
“That put everyone on the same page and we were able to move forward,” Hente said.
“And it is a win for everyone because now the Incline can be managed.”
Moving forward meant years of meetings with various land owners, governments and the U.S. Forest Service. Turning the old rail line into a trail through forest service land required a change in federal law, introduced by U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, and signed by President Barack Obama.
A group of 25 people joined Hente on Friday to celebrate the long-awaited opening — a tiny fraction of the estimated hundreds of thousands who climb the trail each year. Half of them seemed to be passers-by who stopped to see what the balloons and cameras were about.
Then again, why would the crowds who never cared that the Incline was illegal whoop it up when it was finally legalized?
Up near the top, regulars seemed to shrug off the significance of the official opening.
“It doesn’t make a big difference,” said Eddie Baxter.
“But it will be good, now they can fix it up,” said Fred Baxter.
The 59-year-old twins are legends on the Incline because they have climbed the grade an estimated 4,000 times each and can average about 25 minutes to the top.
“I just hope they don’t screw it up,” Fred Baxter said.
“No handrails please,” Ed Baxter said.
Colorado Springs parks officials and the Friends of the Incline plan many improvements, including controlling erosion and removing jagged, rusted pipes and rebar.
But many people climbing the steps on their first legal day agreed with the Baxters: Now that the Incline is legal, they said, keep it real. Don’t eliminate the pain and suffering and fear and joy that have turned so many locals into Incline addicts.
That’s the stuff that keeps 72-year-old Clovis Johnston coming back.
He reached the top with sweat pouring from his bald head and his chest heaving.
“Remind me again why we do this?” he said with a wry grin to other hikers waiting at the top.
“Because it keeps us young,” another man replied.
Johnston has climbed the Incline 780 times since the Baxters introduced him to it six years ago.
“The first time I swore I would never do it again, but I got addicted. I figure I can reach 1,000 before I kick the bucket,” he said. “Doing this has really changed my life. I feel great.”