Looping around the southern half of E470, south of Aurora, drivers often see the distinct shape of Pikes Peak standing alone to the south. Named for Zebulon Pike who, setting off from the confluence of the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek in Pueblo, made an attempt to summit the thing in 1806. The guy never made it. (Few have succeeded at climbing to the top, in winter, following no real trail, with little in the way of gear.)
The Pikes Peak region, which includes Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, still beckons to travelers. For many newcomers, Colorado Springs is what they expected to find in Denver—a city tucked into the foothills, right smack up against the mountains. Out-of-staters have the expectation that Denver is just buried in snow. Here too, Colorado Springs does a better job of fitting the bill. The Springs are higher up and see nearly twice as much snow as the state capital. Therefore, when you plan a trip to the Pikes Peak part of the state, you have to be a bit more mindful of the weather. With that in mind, we’ve divvied our itinerary into outdoor activities for sunny days and ways to escape nature’s fickle nature.
Fair Weather Fun
Like most of Colorado, the Springs see more days of sun than not… a lot more. Even in the winter you can often count on the warmth of the sun to take the bitter chill from the air. Beyond strolling downtown Manitou Springs or shopping in Old Colorado City, the Colorado Springs area has more than its fair share of outdoor activities, most open year-round. (Things do slow down tourist-wise in the “off season,” so call ahead before you plan a day of activities around any of the following.)
Pikes Peak –
You may have heard the old proverb, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain.” Whoever coined that one, might have had Pikes Peak in mind. At 14,115 feet, however, none of the paths are a breeze. Many travelers drive to the top on the Pikes Peak Highway. Others hoof it up the trail from Colorado Springs (or the shorter trail from the other side of the mountain). And still other take a van up and then ride mountain bikes back down to the bottom. My favorite way up is the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. No matter how you get there, be sure to try a donut at the canteen, and be prepared to start missing oxygen. It’s exhausting just walking around.
The Garden of the Gods –
Northwest of town, nestled up against the mountains (and pretty close to Manitou Springs), the towering red rocks of the Garden of the Gods have attracted visitors for generations. The adjoining Visitor and Nature Center tell the story (geological, ecological, historical, and archaeological) of the park. Inside you can buy tickets for a short HD movie on the Garden, but that’s just context. To really appreciate the park, drive through and get out of your vehicle as often as possible. Many paths are paved and loops are varied enough that the kids won’t get worn out from a little hike. Other paths take you off the pavement and higher up, offering great scenery for photographs. On weekends, you will often find climbers scaling some of the rocks. Keep an eye out for the Balanced Rock. Kids just love climbing around this precariously perched boulder.
North Cheyenne Cañon Park –
South of US 24 (the road that leads to Manitou Springs), North Cheyenne Canyon offers more outdoor adventure, though of a notably more rugged nature than you will find at the the Garden of the Gods. The drive up the canyon is beautiful enough. And a stop at Helen Hunt Falls is rewarding. If you like a do more than stretch your legs, the Columbine Trail leads up the canyon. Start your visit at the Starsmore Discovery Center at the entrance to the park.
Seven Falls –
In the nearby South Cheyenne Canyon is another popular tourist stop. The Seven Falls is a commercial operation, and they charge a tidy sum to visit this natural wonder. But if you’ve never seen the falls before, it’s worth it. At its head, the river that carved the canyon falls dramatically, creating seven distinct waterfalls. It’s almost impossible to get the entirety of the view without getting to a higher altitude. There are stairs that lead to trails higher up, but they also have an elevator in the canyon wall that will take you to the higher viewing platforms. On hot summer days, the canyon is cool and shaded, and makes a great place to stop and grab some concession-style snacks.
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo –
One of the treasures of Colorado Springs is the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo perched on the side of Cheyenne Mountain (overlooking, incidentally, the legendary Broadmoor Hotel). Kids simply love the giraffes. From a platform, families can hand feed giraffes. There’s also a bird house, where kids wait with baited popsicle sticks for small birds to land and feed. It’s not often children can experience animals this close and personal. We’ve always appreciated the representative animals from the Rocky Mountains—huge bears, mountain lions (shudder), and moose—but the monkey house and the meerkat exhibit are also family favorites.
The North Pole –
Nestled at the base of Pikes Peak is a small amusement park that you must visit at least once. The North Pole: Home of Santa’s Workshop is a classic. Built in 1955 and opened in 1956, Santa’s Workshop was a copy of one built in Lake Placid, New York. Most of the rides are just right for elementary aged kids—large ornaments that orbit a tall Christmas tree, a candy cane slide, miniature cars that steer themselves—but older kids will have a blast, and teenagers might just enjoy the goofiness of the place. Two toy shops, one for girls and one for boys, will deplete your wallet, but not prices are not as “seasonally inflated” as we expected. Santa is in attendance year-round to take orders for Christmas morning.
Escape the Elements
So you showed up on Colorado Springs on the one day of the month it’s raining. Have no fear.
The Cave of the Winds –
When the weather turns south, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the geological treasures of being in Colorado Springs. Sure, you could hole up in the Garden of the Gods Visitors Center, or you could explore the other side and head underground. The Cave of the Winds is just north of Manitou Springs, on US 24. A long winding drive takes visitors up into the hills. This is kind of surprising for folks from out east who typically find their holes closer to the ground. The 45-minute Discovery Tour is the one most folks take, but if you have a taste for adventure, they also offer a Lantern Tour. Though there are plenty of stairs involved, the path through the cave is wide and level, and you’re not likely to get overly winded. Guides share the caves history, both its geology and the story of the first people to find and explore the caverns.
Focus on the Family Welcome Center –
As most folks know, Colorado Springs serves as headquarters for more than a few Christian organizations. One of these is Focus on the Family. Whether or not you have interest in the long-running radio program, kids love the Focus on the Family Welcome Center. Admission is free. Older kids can ride a long twisty three-story slide. On the bottom level there are several play areas—an old WWII era bomber, a play stage with costumes, a secret tunnel, and an old cave with screens playing old McGee & Me videos. There’s a separate toddler room with a nature theme—a river winds through on the carpet, and kids climb logs and turtles. In the KYDS Radio room, guests can record their own voices on an Adventures in Odyssey story, and take the CD home (all for free). Best of all, and my favorite reason for visiting, is the Whit’s End Soda Shoppe, which serves up ice cream and other treats.
May Natural History Museum of the Tropics –
There’s something a little kitschy about a business that features both a museum and an RV park, but if you have a kid with a thing for bugs, the May Natural History Museum is the a must-stop stop. Specializing in invertebrates, the museum only shows some 8,000 from the over 100,000 in their collection. There are lots and lots of butterflies. The place is closed November through April, however, so plan accordingly.
Planning Your Visit
There are numerous places to stay in and around Colorado Springs. Most prominent are the usual complement of hotel chains, offering the usual amenities. But when we visit a town, we want to feel like we’re some place unique. So for our most recent visit we stayed at The Inn at Palmer Divide in Palmer Lake north of Colorado Springs. This boutique hotel might not be the obvious choice when traveling with kids (it seems almost too nice), but we found a warm welcome here. All the rooms are individually decorated, feature wide-screen televisions, and have great work spaces. Business travelers surely find a lot to love here, and we found that many of those amenities gave us extra space to work on craft projects amd coloring with the kids. The room rate includes breakfast, which is served in the hotel restaurant, moZaic. This is where the stay went from “really comfortable” to “must visit again… soon.” I don’t think I’ve had a breakfast this good in years. No lukewarm breakfast buffet here: You find a seat and your order is taken.
For meals, the Stagecoach Inn in Manitou Springs has great family dining. Kids get a kick out of the stagecoach out front, and when the weather is good parents love dining outside overlooking the river. Another perennial favorite is Fargo’s Pizza. This themed pizza joint looks like a Victorian saloon/dance hall, and authentic stained glass windows and other features give the restaurant some authenticity. Billed as the “world’s largest family pizza restaurant,” it’s really worth a visit when you’re in town.
If you’re looking for more on Colorado Springs, or anywhere in Colorado for that matter, check out Colorado: An Explorer’s Guide on Amazon.com.