For some, it's a once-in-awhile brutal workout. For others, it's just a steep hill next to a hippy, happy town. For others, it's a daily obsession.
But to all, there's no doubting the Manitou Incline's value as a unique community asset. As the region's most loved trail celebrates its official grand reopening on Dec. 1, we should set aside a moment to think about how best to protect and preserve this one-of-a-kind trail.
It helps to know some of the context. Physically, the Incline stands apart from any other trail: it rises about 2,000 feet in roughly nine-tenths of a mile, a 45 percent average grade (try setting a treadmill to that; most won't go that far up).
Historically, the Incline was built in 1907 and quickly became a recreational rail line that took riders up to a spectacular view. The tracks were washed out in a rock slide in 1990 and a group of committed locals spent years using it as a guerilla-style physical challenge, and over time they developed personal sweat equity in keeping it viable as a trail. But the land on which the Incline sits has had multiple legal owners, and so it took years of difficult negotiation to reach a compromise in 2013 that removed legal barriers to public use.
Since then, several stakeholders have leveraged these legal gains to collaborate on improving the Incline itself. While once the only way to the top resembled a hilly minefield of sharp steel that threatened ascenders with impalement, about $2 million of public investment and three rounds of improvement by Timberline Landscaping have left the Incline a spectacular success story of care taking and commitment.
So what comes next? How should the community think about the Incline as hikers and runners take the first steps into the Incline's next generation?
First, we should acknowledge that the updates have made the steep stairs more accessible to many more people. In a country where well over two-thirds of adults are obese or overweight, this improved access is to be applauded.
But extra feet mean extra costs. Namely, maintenance and upkeep on the Incline itself, as well as the Incline's designated descent portion on the Barr Trail. To relieve pressure on the Barr, there have also been rumors of building a second trail to take Incliners downhill. These will cost money.
And the challenges aren't just financial.
My wife and I took advantage of the weather to get out on the Incline several times since the "soft opening" last week. Between us, in just a few visits we've seen a woman hiking up with a 60-pound dog off leash, as well as multiple individuals going against the grain and dangerously descending the uphill trail, one of which was a father carrying a baby in his arms. All these were either highly questionable or outright against the posted rules, and examples like these have unfortunately become regular occurrences which ought to trigger a serious relook at the regulations governing the Incline's use.
But rules without enforcement are just wishful thinking.
So, to protect this public asset and the safety of users, it's time to charge a fee for Incline use. A fee could be strictly limited to offset the high costs of maintaining the popular trail. Where there might be concern over costs for those unable or unwilling to pay, the public could consider setting aside some days (or even weeks) as free of charge.
Importantly, the money would pay for management. Olympians, sports teams, and local military units might use an online signup system to mitigate overuse. During designated times, an attendant could enforce rules at the start point, potentially heading off high risk hikers and reducing extra calls for overtaxed first responders.
It might also be time to consider capitalizing on the Incline's popularity for tourism and fundraising. Something as simple as a well-placed sign at the top might cost a little money, but in an age of selfie-snapping tourists looking to record accomplishments - a sign could carry the message that Manitou, Colorado Springs, and the Pike's Peak region are a fun, challenging way to spend hard-earned travel dollars. Or, consider a running race beginning in the Garden of the Gods and terminating at the top of the Incline ("Beauty and the Beast"), with all the profits to benefit the two geological gems.
Now is the time to give the Manitou Incline a fresh look. The trail's been updated; so should our thinking about it be.
Major ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist, a Non Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.