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Trip Report Pikes Peak or...: Colorado Springs Area and PPIHC

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In late June we visited Colorado Springs, a little of the area nearby and went to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

Background: DH has always been a car and racing fan, mostly from afar over our married life, but in the last few years has become a WRC/rally fan and made it to 3 European events. In his investigation of possible venues to visit in the US, he learned more about the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the 89th running which would be in late June of 2011. This is the nation’s second oldest auto race behind the Indy 500. One of the WRC rally participants, Petter Solberg, was slated to make an appearance at this event. So in April he began to make plans for us to attend the “Race to the Clouds.”

He got airline tickets (arrive Thursday afternoon , departure Monday afternoon in and from Denver International) and purchased tickets to the Sunday event (VIP tickets which included 2 meals and access to an area/tent with shade, tables and chairs, close porta-potties, and fluids). He also made reservations for a hotel in Colorado Springs through PPIHC staff and reserved a car. I did a little investigation of the area and made a few tentative plans for what we might try to see on Friday and Saturday.

After all the plans were made, he learned that Solberg had decided not to attend, but we decided to go for a short vacation anyway. Sunday before we left he got email that PPIHC had had to rebook us and put us in a hotel near the airport instead of near downtown. This was not ok with us, as we wanted to be within walking distance of Fan Fest Friday night as well as choices of restaurants, so DH made our own reservations at the Hilton Antlers; it ended up costing twice as much but was much, much more convenient.

Day 1
Because it saves us more than enough to pay for gas and parking, we had tickets from a nearby bigger airport, so we spent the morning getting there. DH had used some of his AA upgrades to get us first class to DFW (but not on to Denver). Denver is a pretty airport, although I found it a bit time consuming. First ride a train to get to terminal to get luggage. Then ride a bus to get to rental car agencies. But we still got our car within about an hour of touch-down. (Another minor snafu—the car wasn’t one he requested as had some problem with his profile being updated, but Avis did have us a vehicle, a Nissan Murano).

It took about 90 minutes to drive to the hotel; we were on the toll-road a lot; it sure seemed to minimize traffic which became much heavier when we got on I-25, but nowhere was there any major hang-up. (Upon return, we got our itemized toll-road bill, registered by the on-car sensor and then billed to us by Avis--$27 for two trips--$10 Avis billing charge, $17 from airport to I-25 and back. It is probably worth it in terms of driving hassle minimized upon arrival and maybe some time-saving.)

Colorado was having heat wave; it had snowed earlier in the week but now was in the 90’s all the time we were to be there. I had been so looking forward to some cool weather!! Not to be. No rain, though; just mostly absolutely beautiful blue skies with very few clouds, just enough to add interest (if not much shade).

We go checked in smoothly. The Hilton Antlers is a nice hotel all in all. The room was ok; only a queen-sized bed and sufficient room and amenities. It has what is probably the prettiest view I think I’ve ever had from a hotel—Pikes Peak framed by the window on the 4th floor. But it also has the tiniest bathroom ever, like something in Europe with only a shower, no tub, and the door hit the toilet as you opened it to walk in. DH said it was so small he had to step outside to change his mind. (Plus you know those curved shower rods they put in to give the optical illusion of more space? Well, if they don’t re-do the shower floor with a curved threshold , the curtain never keeps all the water in; we had wet bath mats every day.)

After dropping our bags we went to move the car from the entrance. We did not want to pay $15/day to use hotel garage; DH had planned ahead and read on Fodors about some street parking nearby, so we drove about 3 walking blocks from hotel and parked in a non-metered lot on Sawhitch. All the streets around have mostly metered spaces, but we found this spot to work great. It was just some graveled area next to a fence, holding maybe 20 cars.

We next did a little orienting/exploring of the nearby downtown area. We walked a few blocks on Colorado to Tejon. Along the way we passed by lots of nice statuary; this whole area is charming with flowers, clean sidewalks, and statuary on every corner it seems. It is a very pretty area. There are lots of eating places on Tejon. We chose the Ritz Grill and ate outside as it was pleasant and we enjoyed watching the people of all sorts—tourists, street people, bikers both of the motorized and pedaled type, teens, couples, families. The food was great—tender beef dishes with tasty sauces and sides. After dinner we had a tiny bit of energy left, so we walked a bit and found some ice cream at a convenience store (Magnum Bar for me!) We were feeling the altitude and the long day a bit, so back to room to collapse.

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    Day 2
    We didn’t get up in a rush, which is something very unusual for us; our “vacations” are almost always packed with a full itinerary or a long day of travel, so this was a different time for us. We walked over to Pikes Perk, a coffee shop on Tejon, and had tea and breakfast (burrito/taquito for him, yogurt and scone for me). This was a good stop. Then we walked to the car and headed to some Colorado Springs sites. It was a HOT day; we were both a little headachy, probably mostly from altitude but also from heat.

    On the way through Manitou Springs we stopped at a Safeway for a couple things, one of which was some sunscreen which we definitely needed the next few days! Then we went to the Garden of the Gods. Sheila the Garmin GPS had a bit of trouble directing us, but we found it eventually. We stopped at the visitor center for rest, some info, some shopping and some nice views. Inside the Garden, we mainly just drove along the main loop and also took one short walk to get close to one rock formation, the Siamese Twins. It was too hot and we were not altitude adjusted yet for much hiking. These rock formations and views of the Rockies are spectacular. And it’s free! We enjoyed our morning here a lot.

    We found a Subway in Manitou Springs for lunch and a rest. It may be the Subway with the prettiest view of any in America!

    Then I wanted to go to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. It is probably overpriced ($19 for two), but I enjoyed actually walking around in the dwellings and standing in the small, dark, cool interior rooms. It was still quite hot under the blazing blue outside.

    Next we had time left in the afternoon, so we headed to Seven Falls, which I had not read much about but saw mentioned in several brochures and wasn’t that far away. This is also overpriced ($18.50 for two and more after 5 pm). The area’s dry spring is very evident in the not-spectacular falls. It is a nice canyon and the whole area was not crowded, which made for a nice drive and a non-rushed visit. We did NOT climb the many, many stairs but rode an elevator up to an overlook as well as back down. It was an enjoyable time all in all, but maybe not worth the money.

    It was then time to get back to the hotel where we rested a bit. We parked in “our” same free spot (we gave it a name so Sheila could find it for us upon return every time!). This was the night of Fan Fest (a PPIHC event) which started at 5, but we didn’t join the crowd til about 6. We walked around a bit and decided to eat again at the Ritz Grill but inside where it was cooler; tonight the food wasn’t quite as tasty but I’d still recommend them. Then we wandered amid the Fan Fest folks for a couple hours. There were lots of cars and crews as well as several bands playing various rock and roll songs, a few vendors, and a ramp for bike riding tricks which didn’t get started until the sun went down. We went back to the Grill for a rest and a drink for a bit, but before too late we called it a night and went back to the hotel.

    Day 3
    Again we didn’t try to break any records getting started, but we headed to Cripple Creek about 7:30. Another blue sky day with high temps predicted, but we were going to go up in the mountains a little ways, but it was still pretty warm (HOT).
    We stopped in Manitou Springs and got some breakfast items.

    We continued on, following Sheila’s better instructions, through Florrisant (a very pretty drive with not much traffic at all) and over to Cripple Creek, where it was Donkey Derby Day, and there were street closures to contend with. But we wound our way around the edge of town and found parking in front of the train station, which was our destination anyway. We were able to get tickets for a train leaving in 10 minutes. Great timing! The narrow gauge steam engine train ride takes about 40 minutes and is a great little ride with information about the history of Cripple Creek and about the surrounding gold mining. From a couple stops along the route we had great views; one had the mountains spread out in the distance for a lovely vista; we could see the faraway smoke from a wildfire. I had put sunscreen on and the soot from the train stuck to it, so I was sorta grungy the rest of the day!

    Back at the station we got some information and decided to leave the car there and walk up the main street through the Donkey Day crowds and find something to eat, probably at Jackass Café on the other end. There were lots of people thronging the street, including little kids on donkeys. One little girl with a smile as wide as her face was squealing, “I’m riding a DONKEY!” We got to the “Café” which is really sort of a convenience store which sells a few sandwiches and has fountain soft drinks and 2 little tables. We were just in time to sit by the window and watch the beginning of the parade. The bbq sandwiches were fine, and it was a good place to rest in some quiet calm. The floats, Shriners, horse riders, floats, etc., were staging right outside the window, and while we ate the parade basically passed us by.

    We then walked leisurely back to the car, passing all the gambling halls and noticing all sorts of costumes—donkey, sheriff, jail-inmates, ladies with parasols, mountain man. With the blue sky overhead, the American flags blowing, the red, white, and blue buntings decorating the 1890’s storefronts, the occasional hooting of the train, it was a genuine slice of Americana. And towering above the town is America’s largest gold mine’s mountain of slag. It’s huge. There were other Donkey Derby activities going on including a Tobacco Spitting Contest, but we decided to just keep on going.

    Next stop was Victor, which wasn’t much of a stop, as we didn’t need a restaurant or hotel and that’s about all there is; there are a couple museum things I think, but we were just intending on passing through, which we did, on our way to the American Eagle overlook. But we couldn’t find it on GPS or exactly on any map we had (I hadn’t planned this out in any detail at all, and Sheila didn’t have enough input to help enough). We stopped in a TI office and the lady there, in Western frontier costume, gave sorta vague directions, so we headed where she pointed and did find signs. So we followed them and found it.

    This is actually a part of the American Eagle gold mine; they’ve maintained a road with public access and a couple overlooks, as well as some abandoned equipment on the top. We drove up and up along some switchbacks and, after a brief stop at one overlook, parked and walked to the top of the area. Wow! Mostly what you see is the hugeness of the working gold mine spread out. The dump trucks, which we know are gigantic, looked tiny in comparison to the man-made cliffs they were driving along and dumping their loads down. But the views of Pikes Peak and other mountains were also absolutely spectacular from here. It was worth the finding, the driving and the small climbing (which still felt big as we were still out of breath). 10,500 feet here.

    We wanted veggies for dinner so we had Sheila plot a course to a Cracker Barrel which we knew was on I-25. We had a pleasant dinner there, found some cheapish gas, and headed back to the hotel again. Next day would need an early rise, so it was early to bed.

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    Day 4
    We got up at 4:30 and left a bit after 5. We got to Pikes Peak Highway turn off about 5:30 and then encountered traffic, but it was always moving. At the toll booth, someone checked our race tickets and waved us in (bought a $5 program there, too). No traffic for a bit, but then as we approached the reservoir and dam, it backed up.

    We had been told that for a good place to park, if we didn’t want to be “stuck” on the mountain once the course was “hot” and racing had begun (after which no one past the start line could go back down), we should park in a big lot right after the lake. There is a gift shop and a lot on the left there; hardly anyone else was pulling in, but we did; we found a young man who said yes this was a parking lot that wasn’t too far from the starting line and there would be a shuttle running soon. So we parked and took a few pictures of Pikes Peak above the lake and packed up to walk however far it would be. It wasn’t too far—probably not a mile—we were passed by a continual line of cars, and not very far from the lot we began to pass vehicles parked in every available space along the sides of the road.

    Soon we encountered the first evidences of the pit areas and booths and such. We found the (unmarked) VIP area/tent, showed our tickets, got wristbands and walked down the little slope (first of innumerable “walk up/down little slope” times this day) into the tent and got breakfast—huge taquito (they call them breakfast burritos here), fruit, juice, soda. Tasty and filling.

    Then after we caught our breath (still got the altitude-attitude!), we headed toward the start line for DH to figure out a good vantage point. First we tried the righthand side sorta down in a little ditch, but we eventually crossed the road and stood behind the orange netting barrier on a bit of straightaway after the first turn right out of the starting line.

    Then we waited and sat and such. Stuff starting happening around 9. There were lots of people, many of whom went further up the mountain to line the course all the way to the top. We were blessed to be posted next to a very happy young man (10ish) who had his radio on, so we sometimes knew what was happening. And we were next to a group of 4, 3 guys and a girl, who we visited with a little. And eventually a couple other guys hung out; one was from California and DH talked to him about this and that. One was named Isaac and was there as a photographer from European Car. He and DH talked pictures and cameras and traded email/business info.

    Basically the day was a lot of waiting, eventually in the hot sun. The morning began cool, but we were soon peeling off layers, applying sunscreen, and drinking lots of water as we sat through the beginning of races, and by after lunch the sun was punishing. At one point I walked a ways away to find some shade for a bit; at one point I sat down in the dirt and made a shade for my face with my hands and the guy next to us offered me his chair and some water. I think he thought I was about to faint. I wasn’t faint; just very hot! I’ve never drunk so much water in one day.

    We were very near the edge of the road, naturally, but the people on the other side in the apex, not behind a netting, seemed even more vulnerable. Some police officers and some “officials” would sometimes yell, Get off the road! as people were walking before or between racing, but there weren’t a lot of wardens shooing people back. DH noted that this was very different from the European WRC rallies.

    Anyway, the racing was intermittent and halted often by wrecks/off-course issues/mechanical breakdowns that happened somewhere on the course and would have to be cleared away before anyone else went, as it was a one-way course. Each car, of all different sorts and classes, would swoop by for about 6-10 seconds and we would snap shots and watch them quickly disappear. Most of the time we would have a warning, as we would hear their engines revving around the corner and then here they’d come. But sometimes—wham, there they were! The picture taking is certainly a challenge. Turns out that DH did get a good many very good shots; I got a very few good shots! His faster lens, used for the first time at such an event, helped a lot.

    The big event of the day was the Japanese gentleman nicknamed Monster who would be trying to break his record and today travel the 12-mile course in under 10 minutes. When he came by, he was flying, was over on the dirt shoulder on the right side, and was creating his own breeze. And he kept that up! Despite losing power steering and having some overheating problems, he did set a new record of 9:51, going about 10 seconds faster than anyone had ever done. Wow! There were several records broken, I think, but the lack of public announcement or any sort of info board left us pretty much clueless during the races.

    DH and I went back to the VIP tent in separate lunch shifts, so as to not lose our spot, and had bbq and side dishes—and lots of fluids. There were a few food vendors out in the pit areas for those without VIP tickets; having food, water, drinks, and shade at one central spot made the VIP tickets a good value for us, I think.

    A few cars after Monster, I headed back to the VIP tent of sit in the shade and wait for DH to watch however much he wanted to. He joined me soon and we then wandered around a little before catching a shuttle back to the car. When there, we shed some weight of jackets and such and then drove the car back up the mountain a little and found a spot, since lots of people were now leaving. He thought we might watch some of the last racing, mostly motorcycles now, and then maybe stay for the cars to all come back down the mountain when all were done. But there continued to be delays, including a couple crashes I guess, one involving an ambulance and the helicopter for medical evac, so we finally gave up around 7 and left. We were pretty worn out by standing all day and the heat. It was a physically difficult day, with heat, altitude, and no chairs, but it was still interesting and even fun. If I’d had a chair and an umbrella, as the obvious veterans packed in, it would have been a completely great experience watching the race (except the seemingly lax safety-consciousness concerned us both). I think their organization as a whole could be bettered, especially in terms of communication, signage, and information-dissemination.

    We went back to “our” Safeway in Manitou Springs (by a bit longer route that enabled us to drive through some cute parts we hadn’t seen yet) and got some salads and cheesecakes which we took to the hotel room and ate. We parked in a metered spot nearer the hotel this time, because these spots are free 6 pm to 9 am and we’d be leaving before that. I can’t remember being so tired and was kinda light-headed, but the food, more water, a cool room, and a rest did wonders.

    Day 5
    We again didn’t have to rush and packed up and left the room about 8 headed to Pikes Perk for breakfast again. In there we noticed their clock is backwards. Literally. Unique.

    We got all loaded up and we left a bit after 9. We were headed to Focus on the Family on the way back to Denver, but we got sidetracked for a few minutes at the America the Beautiful Park right between the hotel and the interstate. DH said, Hey, there’s a Stargate! A big circle thing loomed right beside the freeway, so we drove closer. It is a revolving (but today waterless) fountain. The park is pretty and next to an Olympic sports complex of some sort.

    After this brief stop, we drove on to Focus and spent about an hour there. He had been here in 2004 when a driver for some church youth on trip to a conference. The funnest thing was they had a Narnia room set up in the children’s area (which is way-cool and could occupy kids for hours and hours—a great cold/rainy day trip!) with a wardrobe, so DH took my picture going in and out.

    Then on to the Denver airport, turned in the rental car, got the shuttle, checked in (oh, we’d been given upgrades to first class for whole flight—yay!) and then found a post office for DH to mail a post card to a little buddy; we had plenty of time for some overpriced but satisfactory sandwiches. On through security, which by following DH with his priority access went very quickly (we got to bypass longish but moving line). The flight was on time and remark-less; upon arrival in DFW, we did end up having an equipment and therefore a gate change, but no problems except we didn’t have time for anything but a pretzel (I wasn’t hungry at all anyway). Upon landing, all went pretty quickly and we were home by 10.

    We really enjoyed Colorado Springs, both for its beauty and great downtown area that was so accessible for us by foot as well as for its nearby sites and sights. The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was a unique, for us, experience and it was great to be there on a record-smashing day.

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    Thanks for taking the time to post texasbookworm, it's always good to read about my hometown.

    Years ago downtown Colorado Springs was a depressing ghost town. They've done a great job of bringing it back to life and we're now quite proud of it. Unfortuntatley, our city fathers have let most of the city's parks go to ^&*%, thanks to cutbacks.

    I'm wondering if you'd considered flying into the Colorado Springs Airport? It would have saved you the drive from Denver, and it's been my experience that car rentals at COS are considerably cheaper than from DIA.

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    MeInq8--Thanks for reading.

    Yes, we did enjoy your hometown. We noticed that the water wasn't on in the fountains at America the Beautiful park, but it was neatly cared for otherwise.

    DH made flight arrangements and he's pretty penny wise so it must have been cheaper on the particular flights we got, I guess.

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    Yes, I don't remember the numbers now, but it was a good bit cheaper and the car was actually lower than I expected based on other places.

    I agree COS would have been closer, but the drive down from Denver was very pleasant until we hit the I-25 rush hour.

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    Car rental prices from COS have skyrocketed in the past six months, perhaps DIA is a better deal than it used to be. On my most recent trip to COS in April (I live Australia now) I booked from an off airport depot because COS rentals were freakishly high. I saved about $600 on a 30 day rental.

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