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On Walkabout On: Pikes Peak Via the Crags Trailhead

Basic Information

  • Name:  Devil’s Playground Trail
  • Where: Pikes Peak, Colorado (14,115 feet / 4,302 meters)
  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 4,150 feet
  • Time: 7-10 hours
  • Difficulty: Hard
Map made using GPSvisualizer.com

Narrative

Pikes Peak for good reason is known as “America’s Mountain” for good reason due to how easily accessible the summit of this 14,115 foot mountain has been over the years.  In the past people that didn’t want to hike up the mountain took donkeys to the summit.  Then in 1890 people wanting to take in views from the summit without hiking had the option of traveling on the newly constructed Pikes Peak Cog Railway.  Then in 1915 yet anther way up the mountain was established with the opening of the Pikes Peak Highway.  It was on a trip to the summit of Pikes Peak in 1895 that Katharine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics to the famous American anthem “America the Beautiful“.

A view of the snow covered Pikes Peak from Woodland Park, Colorado.

However, the summit to Pikes Peak has not always been so accessible which Lieutenant Zebulon Pike who first explored the area for the US government in 1806 can attest to.  He tried to climb the peak and utterly failed in his attempt, regardless the mountain was eventually given his name Pikes Peak.  Pike may not have made it up to the summit of the mountain that now bears his name, but he did get to the summit of nearby 11,499 ft (3,505 m) Mt. Rosa to survey the area.  You can read more about Pike and Mt. Rosa at the below link:

Pike would later write that Pikes Peak was unclimbable.  Little did he know was that the Native-Americans had regularly traveled to the summit of the mountain and later millions of people would travel by train and cars to the summit of this famous mountain.  I recently decided to go up Pikes Peak myself the old fashioned way, by hiking up it.  Most people take the Barr Trail up to the summit which at times can be amazingly crowded with hikers.  For my recent hike up Pikes Peak I decided to use the lesser traveled Devil’s Playground Trail that begins at the Crags Campground on the west side of Pikes Peak:


View Larger Map

This is another trail featured in The Best Colorado Springs Hikes (Colorado Mountain Club Pack Guides) guidebook that has been a hiking Bible for me this past year.  Not only is the Devil’s Playground Trail uncrowded it is also a shorter hike at 12-miles roundtrip compared to the 26-mile roundtrip Barr Trail.  This means that the Devil’s Playground Trail is easier to complete in one day compared to Barr Trail that usually takes most hikers two days to finish.  To complete the Devil’s Playground Trail in one day though requires an early start.  I parked my truck at the trailhead located just outside of the Crags Campground and left on my hike at exactly 6:00 AM in the morning.  It was still dark when set off on my hike:

At about 6:30 AM the sun was slowly coming up making it a bit easier to navigate on the trail:

As I gain altitude up the trail, I looked west towards the rest of the Rocky Mountains and the rising sun made the view look like something out of an Old West painting.  It was a really beautiful sight to see:

Here is a closer look at the mountains:

On the way up the initial part of the hike this large rock wall I found to be pretty impressive as well:

Here is another view of the impressive rock wall from further up the trail:

Here is another view of the rock wall from even further up the trail:

Also note that in the above photo, the rock face just above the rock wall is where the trailhead for the hike begins.  So I had already walked a pretty good distance and had not even broken tree line.  On my hikes in Colorado I usually see wildlife around the trail, but the only wildlife I saw on this day was a lot of birds to include this bird which I think is a pheasant:

As I slowly followed the switchbacks of the trail I eventually began to approach tree line:

 

The trees continued to thin out the higher up the trail I went:

Eventually only the smallest of trees remained as I broke into the alpine tundra portion of Pikes Peak:

At this point of the hike I was at about 12,500 feet in elevation which meant I had expansive views of the mountains to the west of Pikes Peak:

At about 12,800 feet in elevation the trail leveled out and I had my first view of the summit of Pikes Peak:

The trail is definitely shorter than Barr Trail since it took me only 2 hours of hiking to get up to this high of an elevation.  However, the trail is very steep and does not gradually gain elevation like Barr Trail.  So I may have only been hiking for two hours, but it was two hours of hard work to get up the trail.  The alpine tundra area of Pikes Peak only support plant life and no trees:

This means that this area of the mountain is a popular spot to see mountain goats grazing on the plentiful grass.  Unfortunately on this day I did not spot any mountain goats.  Nevertheless I enjoyed the sweeping views from this high altitude:

Besides grass something else that was plentiful was a lot of large boulders lying around everywhere:

The Devil’s Playground Trail even passes through a crack in one these large rock formations on the mountain:

This portion of the hike had little elevation gain and by the time I spotted the Pikes Peak Highway, I was nearing about 13,000 feet in elevation:

At the Pikes Peak Highway I made sure to be careful crossing the road because sometimes people can come flying up this highway especially the motorcycle riders:

On the other side of the highway I spotted this signs that explains why this area is known as the Devil’s Playground:

From here the trail follows the Pikes Peak Highway and very gradually gains elevation:

Usually at about 13,000 feet is when I really begin to notice the lack of oxygen in the air whenever I go hiking.  However, on this hike I was at about 13,000 feet and feeling good because of how gradual the incline was.  I was really enjoying my hike when I came to this incredible viewpoint of one of the rugged cliffsides of Pikes Peak:

Here is the view looking east towards the Rampart Range down below which was the area that was severely burned during this summer’s wildfire:

Here is a closer look at the area of the Rampart Range that was burned:

Here is a closer look at Crystal Creek Reservoir which Pikes Peak Highway passes down below:

In the above photograph the forest slopes of Pikes Peak are green while on the other side of Ute Pass the Rampart Range looks brown due to the wildfire.  From the lookout it was a pleasant and mostly level hike to the summit dome of Pikes Peak:

As I got to the summit dome I was at about 13,200 feet of elevation and I thought this final push to the summit should take me about 15-20 minutes:

I ended up being quite wrong about how long it would take me to get up this final ascent on the hike because it took me an hour to get to the top of the final summit dome.  This was because the trail was quite difficult to follow due to the rocky and steep terrain:

The Forest Service had little rock piles to designate the trail, but they were hard to spot at times.  The Forest Service really needs to install metal poles to designate the trail which are much easier to spot.  Another problem I had was that the exertion to get up the summit dome was causing me to become quite short on breath due to the altitude.  In fact I actually started to get dizzy and would stop to catch my breath and stop the dizziness before continuing on.  Whenever I stopped to catch my breath at least I had some great views to take in:

Eventually I spotted the visitor center at the top of the mountain which meant I was almost on top of the mountain:

The top of Pikes Peak is actually quite a large area that provides plenty of parking for all the cars that drive up the highway.  The US Army even has a high altitude research laboratory on the top of the mountain as well:

What most people driving up the highway do not realize is that this pile of rocks in the middle of the parking lot is the true summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet:

After setting foot on the true summit of Pikes Peak, I then walked over to the visitor center which is known as the Summit House:

Outside the visitor center they have this marker which shows the elevation of Pikes Peak at the visitor center as being 14,110 feet above sea level.  This marker causes a lot of confusion on what the true elevation of the mountain is:

Going inside the Summit House and just the summit of Pikes Peak in general is a bit surreal.  During my hike I saw a group of three people way in front me and that was it the entire way up the mountain.  So it was a pretty quiet and solitary walk up the mountain until I arrived at the summit and was surrounded by cars and people.  In fact when I reached the summit I had people wanting to take my picture because they couldn’t believe I walked up the mountain.  I even had one guy in all seriousness ask me why I didn’t just drive up the mountain?  Then inside the Summit House the place is packed with people trying to get warm, decide what souvenirs to buy all their relatives, and finally what to eat.   Like I said it is a bit surreal.

However, I do have to admit that it is quite nice to be able to sit down, drink a warm cup of coffee, and eat donuts after hiking up a 14,000 foot mountain:

The donuts served in the Summit House are a bit famous because they are actually baked up there on top of the mountain using a special recipe that only works at high altitudes.  I have eaten these donuts before on prior trips to the top of Pikes Peak and found the donuts to taste just like any other donut.  However, after expending all that energy to hike to the top of the mountain these donuts tasted like the best donuts ever!

Next Posting: On Walkabout On: Pikes Peak Via the Devil’s Playground Trail – Part 2

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