The Badlands were a big change from the Black Hills. Less than 100 miles due east the scenery changes from the lush, Ponderosa Pine covered hills to a dry, arid, almost alien moonscape.
We arrived at our campground (Cedar Pass CG) around noon and the temperature was already in the low 90’s.
After setting up we explored the park a little, stopping at the visitors center to get info on hiking. Even though it was brutally hot we did the short Cliff Shelve Trail.
Everywhere you look the views are stunning. But, at least in August, it is hot, hot, hot. We decided to forgo anymore hiking until the next morning when the temperatures would be more reasonable.
The Notch Trail
We had planned to stay for two nights but both because there really aren’t that many trails (we did almost all of them in one afternoon and one morning) and because of the heat we decided to leave after one night.
We were up early (5:15 AM) and making coffee and packing up. We wanted to do the Notch Trail while it was cool(ish). The trail is “not recommended for people with a fear of heights” so it sounded perfect! Roberta was VERY excited.
The trail is less than two miles round trip but the sign warns that it is difficult and can take up to 1.5 hours to complete. We did it in 40 minutes with lots of stops for pictures but it was a lot of fun and…. there was a ladder to climb!
Medicine Root/Castle Trail Loop
After finishing the Notch Trail we headed over to the Medicine Root trail to get in another 5 miles before it got too hot. On the way over we ran into some wildlife.
We did a loop, 2.5 miles out the Medicine Loop trail to Saddle Pass and then back along part of the Castle Trail.
On the way back on the Castle Trail we saw some very strange formations.
After finishing up our hike (and just as it was starting to get hot) we drove out the Badlands Loop Road which has some of the most stunning scenery in the park.
We arrived for our two night stay at a lovely little campground (Grizzly Greek Primitive) in the Black Hill National Forest after a long (~8 hour) drive from Colorado Springs. It was sprinkling when we arrived but stopped soon after and the campground had a lovely stone picnic structure that looks like it was built by the WPA.
Recreation.gov classifies this campground as “primitive” but it had everything we wanted (pit toilets and water).
We spent the next morning in the land of big heads, first visiting Mt Rushmore. We arrived before 7:00 and for the first hour saw very few people. By 9:00 AM it was starting to get a bit peopley.
It took the Gutzon Bordlum 14 years to reshape Mt Rushmore and I have to say it is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, unlike Cary Grant in “North by Northwest”, you can’t climb on George Washington’s nose. Or even Lincoln’s.
And, to keep things balanced, we also visited the (very unfinished) Crazy Horse Memorial a few miles from Mt Rushmore.
The Black Hills (named that because, from a distance, the Ponderosa Pines make the hills look dark) are lovely with lakes and hiking trails (and mountains with very big heads). We did a couple of trails ending up briefly on the 110 mile Centennial Trail (traverses pretty much the entire Black Hills National Park from north to south).
So, after two nights in the Black Hills, we head northeast to The Badlands. The Black Hills were quite nice, the weather was moderate, even in August and the Centennial Trail goes on the list of potential thru-hikes!
It’s called the Decalibron, for Mt Democrat, Mt Cameron, Mt Lincoln and Mt Bross (not sure where the “n” comes from). Four 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet) that can be climbed in one loop.
You have a couple of options. The trailhead at Kite Lake is about 2 hours west of Colorado Springs (near Alma). Some people just get up very early and drive there. For me that would have leaving at 4:00 AM to get there at 6:00. The other option is to camp at the lake. There are 5 official, first-come, first-served campsites. You arrive in the afternoon after most of that days climbers have left, snag a campsite and are set to hike first thing the next day. This is the option I chose.
I arrived at Kite Lake at 3:00PM on Sunday, Aug 16 after a very bumpy ride on a gravel road (the last mile is not recommended if you do not have 4WD and decent clearance). Kite Lake is at about 12,000 feet.
I did the climbs a bit differently than most folks. After setting up my tent, I decided to do a little acclimatization hike and ended up climbing Mt Democrat. I had planned to just go to the saddle between Democrat and Cameron but the weather was so nice I decided just to go to the summit.
This was a 2,100 foot, 4 mile round trip hike. Not tough normally but I was starting at 12,000 feet so it was all about the oxygen, or lack thereof.
It took me 1:45 to get to the peak and I had the whole mountain to myself. I only saw two other hikers (while I was coming down).
It took me about 1:15 to get back to camp (about 6:30). I read until it started to get dark (and cold) and then hit the sack.
I was up at 5:00 AM the next morning, making coffee and getting my pack ready for the day. I could see two or three headlamps in the dark heading up the mountain. This was not an option for me as my headlamp batteries died in the night.
It was a chilly (low 40’s with frost on the ground) but clear morning as I started out. The weather held all morning, clear with just a little breeze. It took me about an hour to reach the saddle between Democrat and Cameron. About the same as yesterday but I was breathing much easier today.
I ran into my first group of hikers at the saddle. But, because I did Democrat yesterday, I leave the “crowd” and heat east up Cameron.
The traverse across the ridge was not bad, it only got steep again near the summit. It took me about an hour to get from the saddle to the peak of Cameron, arriving just before 8:00 AM.
The traverse across to Mt Lincoln was short, only taking about 20 minutes.
I ran into a couple other hikers on the summit of Lincoln. A couple of guys from Pennsylvania and a young man from Ft Collins.
From Lincoln you retrace your steps back to the saddle between Cameron and Lincoln, where you take a left (south) heading toward Mt Bross.
Another pretty easy (though longer) traverse had me at the summit of Bross at 9:15 AM. On the way I saw a couple of signs warning that the trail to Bross was closed.
But, like all good hikers, I basically did what everyone else was doing and ignored the sign. The issue is that the top of Bross is privately owned (I think by a mining company). Though I saw no sign of any ownership outside of a couple of signs.
The final climb up to Bross (on the “closed” trail) was steep but not too long. I caught up with my Lincoln hiker buddies on Mt Bross (they were all hiking faster than me).
The descent down the south side of Mt Bross was not much fun. Steep, rocky with lots of loose gravel. I slipped several times and ended on my butt once. If I had to do it over I would return back over Cameron and the Cameron/Democrat saddle (the way I came up).
I was back at my tent by 10:15, so 4:15 to do roughly 6 miles and three peaks. It was a very good day.
I decided to hike the only 14er close to Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak at 14,180 feet. The start of the Barr Trail is only 5 miles from our AirBnB. But, unlike most 14er hikes, which usually start above 10,000 feet, the Barr Trail starts in Manitou Springs at 6,800 feet. This makes for a 7,400 foot climb. Most people do it one very long day. The trail is 12 miles long but with the detour at the top (they are rebuilding the welcome center) it is now 13 miles. You can turn around and head back down after summiting, which makes for a very long (14 hours or so) day. But you can also schedule a shuttle ride (private cars are not allowed to the top of Pikes Peak) back to the bottom – nice!
I decided to do it in two days, stopping at Barr Camp, 10,200 feet and about halfway and then going for the peak the following morning. This allowed for more hiking in the cool morning and more time to acclimatize. I also scheduled a shuttle with Rocky Mountain Rides for 1:00 PM. My knees were grateful.
Day 1, August 10
Bert dropped me off and I started hiking at 6:25 AM.
I made really good time and felt good. The morning was cool and the trail was not too steep. I was passed by a couple of people running up the trail (yes people do run this trail) and I saw a few other hikers.
I arrived at Barr Camp at 9:30. This was about an hour earlier than I had planned. Camp Barr is a lovely spot, nestled in pines. It has composting toilets, a bear box and lots of tenting spots. They also have some cabins but these are closed because of Covid. There is no potable water but there is a stream that runs through the camp. And they serve breakfast.
With the extra time I decided, after checking in with the camp manager, setting up my tent and filtering water, to take an acclimatization hike up another 1,000 feet or so.
Around noon, at about mile 7, I ran into a family from Nebraska. A very tired looking, overweight guy and three teenagers (all in t-shirts and shorts). They had started at “around 4:30” so had been hiking for about 7 hours.
He said this was “our first hike”. After finding out they did not have any rain gear I suggested they abort. On my way down I ran into them again and they were headed up. I told the father “you know it can snow up here, even in August.”I also explained that they were only halfway effort-wise (probably less actually) and that even at their current pace (highly unlikely as they moved higher) they would not get to the top before 6 or 7 PM. When I left them they were still headed up.
Near camp on the way down took a side trail the camp manager told me about. Walked 1/2 mile to a great lookout spot and had lunch.
I was back at camp by 1:00 cleaning up and it started to sprinkle. Rained off and on for an hour or so (thinking about that Nebraska family!).
Day 2, August 11
I passed on the Barr Camp famous pancake breakfast both because my stomach was a little iffy (probably altitude) and also because I wanted to get an early start (they serve at 7:00 AM). I left camp headed for the top at 6:30.
Day 2 was a lot tougher than yesterday. I was definitely moving slower but my stomach felt better as the morning wore on. I passed one hiker, a young lady with a dog, at about mile 8. And that was it until the top. I literally had the entire mountain to myself almost all morning.
I left the trees just past mile 9 and 12,000 feet. I lost the trail for a while but found it again after a very steep bushwack (and thanks to my Gaia navigation app!).
The combination of the altitude and the steepness made for pretty slow going (I average about 1.5 mph on this day). But the views were stunning, it was a gorgeous, sunny day and, thanks to my early start, I had plenty of time.
I stopped just after 10:00 with about a mile to go for a rest and a snack.
The last challenge before the top is a set of 16 steep, short, rocky switchbacks called the 16 Golden Stairs. They are about 400 feet below the summit.
Near the top I passed a couple coming down who suggested I try to talk a construction worker into letting me through the construction zone rather than doing the 1 mile detour.Another couple (who started at 4:15AM from the bottom) caught up with me about 200’ from the top and suggested we summit together (strength in numbers I guess).
We managed to hail a construction worker on the other side of the fence. He was very nice but …. no go … so after topping out (at 10:40 or so) we all started the 1.0 mile detour down 250 feet and back up on the paved road – not fun!
And, after spending nearly the entire morning not seeing another person, the top was a complete zoo. Construction workers and machines and a relentless parade of white shuttle vans dropping off (inappropriately dressed) tourists. The top was disappointing, with construction blocking most of the good views.
Our shuttle (four hikers) arrived on time and we had a nice, 1 hour ride back to the Manitou Springs trailhead. During the wait for the shuttle we had some rain and snow flurries and it was kind of fun to watch the people in flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts hop out of the van and realize they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
After a week of doing short hikes near our AirBnB in the Red Rock Canyon Open Space (a couple miles south of the Garden of the Gods) acclimating to the 6200′ elevation of Colorado Springs I did my first “big” hike to the top of Cheyenne Mountain. Cheyenne Mountain is the big mountain just to the south of Colorado Springs. It is the home of Norad and, until 2018, you could not (legally) climb to the top. In 2018 the Cheyenne Mountain Park trail system was extended to allow access to the peak.
According to the park trail maps this is a ~16.5 mile round trip hike with a 3200′ altitude gain. The high point of 9,300′ is a rocky promontory on the east face of the mountain called Robbers Roost. It’s where I ate my lunch.
I got to the park after a short 20 minute drive and was on the trail by 6:30. An early start is important as it is hitting 90 degrees in the afternoon now and afternoon thunderstorms are almost a given. I started the trail with 3 liters of water and was glad for each drop.
From the parking lot ($9 day fee) the Talon trail winds south and then west for 3.5 miles climbing slightly. The real ascent begins with the Dixon trail heading first west to catch the south rib of the mountain and then north to the top. After 2.5 miles on the Dixon (6 miles into the hike) I reached the “No Horses/No Bikes” sign indicating things were about to get real.
For the next mile or so the trail is steep and rocky. Near the top are the remains of an old plane wreck (from the year after I was born!)
I split from the Dixon to take the Dragons Backbone trail. This “trail” (it really is an extended rock scramble) runs along the eastern top of the mountain and has all the great views of Colorado Springs (see map).
At the northern end of the Backbone is Robbers Roost, a rocky promontory that requires a 20′ scramble up a cleft in the rock face to reach the top. This is the highest point on the trail and where I had my lunch.
I left the top about 10:45 and headed down. I ran into my first hiker of the day about halfway down. I was back at the trail head (completely out of water) by 1:00 PM beating the afternoon thunderstorms (with hail) by a good 2 hours! I wondered about those folks who were at least two hours behind me.