Summit a Fourteener the Easy Way: Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Ride to the top of America's Mountain aboard the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

The Broadmoor Manitou Pikes Peak Cog Railway is one of Colorado’s top attractions. In a state filled with spectacular scenery, riding the historic railway to the top of America’s Mountain offers incredible views and fantastic tales of daring and ingenuity.

In the late nineteenth century, most people would look at a 14,000+ mountain and think getting to the peak required climbing, or riding a pack animal.

Not Zalmon G. Simmons. The founder of the Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Company believed in comfort, and that included getting to the top of Pikes Peak.

The year was 1888. Zalmon Simmons needed to check on telegraph insulators, which he also invented in addition to his mattress, at the summit. The only way to get there was to hike or to ride a mule.

He did the latter. 

After a two-day trip to reach the summit, he decided that wouldn’t work. A train was what he needed. It didn’t matter that trains could handle a four percent grade, and he needed a train that could handle steeper grades up to twenty-five percent. 

It didn’t matter that the tracks would climb an elevation change of over seven thousand feet. 

What mattered was getting to the top without having to ride one of those confounded beasts that left him needing his beauty rest.

In 1889, the do-it-yourselfer founded the Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway Company. Two years later, the first passengers, a church choir from Denver, reached the summit of Pikes Peak via a nine-mile ride on cog rails, carted to the top in cars pushed by steam engines.

Ten thousand tourists would follow their lead that season.

TLTip: You can see three of those original six steam locomotives today. Locomotive #2 is in downtown Manitou Springs, #4 is at the Grand Canyon Railway, and #5 is at The Broadmoor.

That’s one of the many stories you’ll hear when you ride the Broadmoor Manitou Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

This engineering feat begins in Manitou Springs and climbs to the top of America’s Mountain. It’s one of only two cog railways in the United States.

The other one, in New Hampshire, takes riders to the top of Washington Mountain, a relatively stout mountain at 6,288.2 feet. 

Pikes Peak Cog Railway is not only the highest cog railway train in the world, it’s the highest railroad, period, in the northern hemisphere. At nine miles, it’s also the world’s longest cog railroad.

What makes a cog railway different from regular railroad tracks is its third rail. This special rack rail is a row of teeth that grip the cog in the center of the train. Think of it like a gear in a clock.

Normal trains rely on balance and friction, but to climb a fourteener, a mountain whose summit exceeds 14,000 feet, you need a bit more.

History of Pikes Peak

The Utes called it Tava-Kaaví, which means Sun Mountain. The Pawnee, Tûs Pêh, or Where the Heavens Touch the Earth. Spanish conquistadors named it El Capitan*.

*Not to be confused with the California mountain, which had been named by members of a California State Militia.

The first European American to view Tava-Kaaví was Colonel Zebulon Pike. President Jefferson sent the explorer west to find the headwaters of the Arkansas River. In his reports, Pike reported the grandeur of what he named Grand Peak.

Rising from the plains to herald the beginning of the Rocky Mountains, what eventually became known as Pikes Peak is in a row of peaks called the Front Range. It’s a sentinel.

To many, it was a challenge.

The first man of European descent to reach the summit of Pikes Peak was naturalist Edwin James in 1820. He was only 22 years old. The cog railway followed the trail he blazed. 

Thirty-eight years later, Julia Archibald Holmes became the first European American woman to meet the challenge. 

“Nearly everyone tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed that I should succeed,” she wrote to her mother. Julia, who became known as The Bloomer Lady because of her practical fashion sense, defied them all.

She was twenty.

Julia and her husband had traveled from Emporia, Kansas, following the Santa Fe Trail in an effort to find gold.

Related: Julia probably stopped at Bent’s Trading Post to stock up on provisions. It opened in 1853 in Big Timbers, sixty miles east of Bent’s Old Fort, which is now a National Historic Site.

The Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1858 and 1859 enticed around 100,000 people to the Front Range, all hoping to fill their sacks with the shiny metal.

The population swell was short-lived as “go-backers,” as they were called, returned to their home states.

Still, the mountain called.

In 1871, General William Jackson Palmer founded the town of Colorado Springs. His town would be a place of temperance compared to the rowdy Colorado City, which was the first settlement in the Pikes Peak region.

At one point, Colorado City was the capital of the Colorado Territory, but that only lasted a mere five days. By 1917, Colorado Springs annexed the former saloon- and bordello-filled town and today Old Colorado City is a neighborhood in the second largest city in the state. The commercial district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Two years after General Palmer founded Colorado Springs, the U.S. Army Signal Service built a weather observatory at the summit.

Young men lived year-round in Summit House, a two-room station, and recorded the weather at the highest observation post in the world. They communicated via telegraph, and it was those telegraph wires that required Simmons’ burro ride to the peak.

People didn’t wait for Simmons to build his railway to climb Pikes Peak. Hikers could rest at the Halfway Hotel, stopping for coffee and donuts.

In 1892, one year after the first trains reached the summit, President Benjamin Harrison established Pikes Peak Timber Land Reserve, which would become Pike National Forest.

The next year, a teacher named Katharine Lee Bates rode a wagon with other educators to nearly the top, then rode mules to the summit. Once there, Bates was so inspired by the view that she penned one of the country’s most iconic songs:

America the Beautiful.

The Broadmoor Years

Simmons owned the railway until the mid-1920s, when he sold it to entrepreneur Spencer Penrose, owner of The Broadmoor Hotel. An adventure seeker himself, Penrose had already built the Pikes Peak Highway from the old carriage road in 1915.

The next year, he hosted the first Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Also knows as The Race to the Clouds, this auto race invites daredevils to drive as fast as they can up a track that 12.42 miles long and has over 156 turns.

Rea Lentz won that first year with a time of twenty minutes, 55.6 seconds. In 2022? Robin Shute drove the course in ten minutes, nine seconds.

The cog railway ran continuously until 2017, when it closed down for a complete one hundred million dollar renovation. 

Not only did they get new passenger cars, they also laid new track with a new cog system and built a new depot. 

They built a new Pikes Peak Visitor Center, too. In an effort to be as earth-friendly as possible, the new building is “the most sustainable high-altitude structure in the country, if not the world,” according to RTA Architects.

Related: Hike the Broadmoor Seven Falls, another historic Colorado Springs attraction owned by the hotel.

Tips for Riding the Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Disclaimer: our tickets were provided by The Broadmoor Hotel.

At the peak of Pikes Peak

Riding the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway is one of the must-do activities in Colorado Springs.

Arrive at the ticket depot about half an hour early. There’s limited parking and you can also take a free shuttle from Hiawatha Gardens, a parking lot in Manitou Springs.

If you’re going to be in the area for multiple days, plan to ride the railway on the first day. Depending on weather, the train may not reach the summit. If it doesn’t, you can reschedule for another day. They’ll send you a text message prior to departure.

You can also elect to ride it partway, but there are no bathrooms on the train and you might be on it for a couple hours. If you take this option, you’ll get a partial refund.

It’s usually better to take an earlier train because afternoons at the peak can be stormy.

When the train goes to the summit, the total experience takes approximately three hours. The nine-mile ride takes an hour and ten minutes one-way, and you’ll end up with a half hour to forty minutes at the top.

Inside the Pikes Peak Visitor Center is a gift shop and a cafe serving world famous doughnuts. These are famous because cooking at 14,115-foot elevation requires a special recipe.

However, we rode the train with some staff members (what a commute, eh?) and they advised us to skip the line; there’s simply not enough time to see everything.

Make sure you bring plenty of water. You’re climbing over 7,000 feet and will lose over a liter of water during the ride. Altitude sickness is a real danger. Take a large bottle of water, drink it on the way up, and the refill it for the return trip.

After a stop at the restroom and a quick browse of the interactive exhibits, it’s time to head outside. 

Both the high altitude and the panoramic views will take your breath away. You can see the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range; Cripple Creek, known for its still-active gold mines; and the city of Colorado Springs itself. On clear days, you can see all the way to Kansas.

View from the summit Pikes Peak

You’ll also see remnants of that original Summit House, built in 1873.

Whatever you do, do NOT be late for the train. As our conductor said, you know what people who are late are called?

Hikers.

Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway FAQs

How long does it take to ride the Pikes Peak Cog Railway?

Total time, from parking to returning to your vehicle or shuttle, is about three and a half hours.

How much does it cost to take the cog train up to Pikes Peak?

When booked online, tickets are $58.50 for guests 13 and up. Children 12 and under are $48.50. Prices at the Depot are $61 and $51, respectively.

Is the Pikes Peak Cog Railway worth the money?

Considering this adventure is unique, yes.

How are seats configured on the train?

There are two seats on one side of the train and three on the other. Rows face each other, and it’s a tight fit.

What are the best seats on the Cog Railway Pikes Peak?

Try to get a window seat on the left side of the train when facing forward (right side of the train when facing backwards). If you’re traveling with another person, get seats across from each other instead of next to each other.

Can I reserve my seats on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway?

Yes, for an additional charge.

What days is the Pikes Peak Cog Railway open?

During peak season (pun intended), trains run daily.

What if the train can’t make it to the top?

Guests who have purchased tickets online will get a text message informing them that the train won’t make it to the top. You’ll have the option to ride partway, or to reschedule.

Are there bathrooms on the cog railway train?

No. There are facilities at The Depot and at the Pikes Peak Visitor Center.

Can I bring my dog on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway?

No. They have a Service Animal Policy on their website.

Is the train wheelchair accessible?

Yes. Contact the Ticket Office in advance at 719-685-5401.