Do you like history? How about train tunnels? Or is a hike through the mountains more your thing? Along the mostly-unknown Manitou Railroad Grade near Colorado Springs, CO you can experience all these things, as well as much more. The trail is only about a mile each way, but you’ll pass through a total of 6 train tunnels as you walk this mostly-flat path. You’ll be walking along the side of a cliff with views of the mountains, although at times you get better views of the mountainous canyon and US-24 below you. It is also a photographer’s dream, because you can frame the mountains through some of the tunnels…very cool! We even found quite a few wildflowers along the grade. So, it’s got something for just about everyone who doesn’t mind a bit of walking on a lesser-known trail!
One website says that “reaching the trailhead for this hike is the hardest part”. I agree with this. The trailhead is unmarked and you’ll be driving down US-24 (a divided highway with quite a bit of traffic), so it’s not like you can slow down to search for it. However, I’ll give you the best directions I can. First, you’ll need to be traveling down US-24 East (downhill, not uphill) towards Colorado Springs. If you’re coming from the east and Colorado Springs, take US-24 West to the turnaround for Waldo Canyon—there will be a parking area on your right as you make this turn. Don’t be overly anxious about Waldo Canyon; you will pass at least one parking area across from a turnaround before you come to the right one. The one you want is about 2.5 miles beyond Sunshine Trail, a road that crosses US-24 after you’ve left the heart of Colorado Springs (and after you’ve left most of civilization behind). If you come to the town of Cascade, you know you’ve gone too far. Turn around and start heading back toward Colorado Springs on US-24 East.
To get to the trailhead, you’ll need to drive about 0.8 miles past the trailhead for Waldo Canyon (Waldo Canyon Turnaround), or about 2.5 miles from the town of Cascade on US-24 East. There will be a large, dirt pull-out on the left side of the highway, just before a stream goes under the road. The pull-out is made of reddish orange sand, so it’s fairly easy to see. However, if you miss it, there’s another turnaround very shortly down the road; you can take this, turn around at the Waldo Canyon Turnaround, and come back—I missed it the first time and ended up having do this very thing. Once you’ve found the trailhead and parked, you’ll need to cross to the right side of the highway. There is plenty of traffic, so look very carefully before you cross—it could take a few minutes. Then continue to walk down the same direction the cars are racing (downhill towards Colorado Springs). When you reach the beginning of the guard rail, you should be able to see a social trail heading up the embankment above you. Take this trail up to the railroad grade.
When you get to the grade, turn left to continue on “down the highway”, except that now you’re on a narrow path above the highway. The trail is fairly flat and somewhat sandy with a slow downhill slope. As you walk along, you’ll notice that the highway is losing elevation much faster than the railroad grade. Between this and the fact that, after a while, the grade turns away from the highway, you’ll eventually leave the highway behind. When hiked it, I found that the highway, although there, wasn’t much of a nuisance. You can hear it and often see it, but it didn’t bother me. I think part of the reason for that was because you’re so high above it that it’s in a different world than you. Watch for wildflowers blooming—I hiked this in early September after an early snowfall, and the fall flowers were really pretty. Most of the higher trails were snowed in, but this is a low enough elevation that it didn’t have any snow along it—the trail would also melt out faster in the spring than the higher elevations.
After just less than 0.2 miles, you will come to your first tunnel. This is one of the longer tunnels, but not the longest you’ll find along the grade. Some people recommend that you bring a strong flashlight, because some of the tunnels have curves in them, and the light just seems to disappear in the soot on the top and sides of the tunnels. We brought flashlights, but didn’t find them to be very necessary. I’d pack one just in case, but you can still do the trail if you left all your flashlights home. When you finally pop out the other side of this tunnel, you will see the railroad grade continuing along the cliff edge as it curves away from you. Keep following the trail. It may be a bit grown in in places, but it’s still very passible. How would you like to have been an engineer driving a train down this path? No thanks!
In the next 0.45 miles, you’ll pass through two more tunnels. These are both quite short—only a few yards each—but are worth seeing. Watch your step as there are rocks around the tunnels from previous rockfalls. About 0.7 miles from the trailhead, you’ll enter your fourth tunnel (which is longer than the previous two, but not as long as the first one), and almost immediately see the fifth tunnel. This is the longest tunnel along the hike (about 0.1 mile), and well worth spending time enjoying. It’s amazing to think that so many of these tunnels were built by hand, as is evidenced by the roughhewn rock. It’s also hard to imagine the condition of the air inside these tunnels after a steam train came through—the soot that is still very much intact on the top and sides of the tunnel is evidence that steam trains are not the cleanest method of getting around! The fifth tunnel also has a curve in it, which begins to take you away from the highway.
The last tunnel is less than 0.1 mile from the end of the fifth tunnel. About halfway through the sixth tunnel, the trail enters private property. The owners have put up a hefty-looking gate to keep visitors from going any further along the railroad grade. Actually, it’s a real let-down of an ending: the owners of the property have tossed quite a bit of garbage (including some old bed springs, cans, and barrels) into their side of the tunnel. So, you might just want to admire the tunnel from the outside. By the way, you can get a great map and old pictures of the railroad grade at http://www.hikingintherockies.com/hiking/hike%20reports/manitouRR/manitouRR.htm.
Return by the way you came. The trail may be mostly unknown, but it’s well worth doing if you’re in the area. After all, how many places can you think of where you can walk through six old train tunnels in less than 1.5 miles?
Round Trip Trail Distance: 2.3 miles
Facilities: None. Some members of my group were desperate for a restroom, but…there’s not even any private bushes!
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
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