Beginner Trail Guide: The Manitou Incline

The Manitou Incline, or just “The Incline” as it’s more commonly known, is one of the more famous (infamous?) trails in Colorado. But it’s really hard to find any information about it, and all the folklore about how steep and challenging it is can make it seem totally out of your league as a beginner. I’ve hauled myself up it twice, once as a total beginner and once as a slightly-more-fit beginner.

My favorite part about the Incline is that there are legitimately ALL KINDS taking it on. Crazy fit people, total beginners, all body sizes, all ages, moms with kids, teenagers, literally everyone you could think of. People are struggling, people are making it look easy, everyone is just on their own journey.

Going up the Incline is one mile. The most beginner-friendly option to get back down is to take the Barr Trail, which is an additional 3.1 miles, putting you at just over four miles round-trip for this uniquely challenging trail.

How do I get there?

The Incline is just outside of Manitou Springs, which is about an hour and a half south of Denver. It’s an easy drive until the very end, when you’re on a narrow (but paved) road up to the Incline. This part only gets tricky because it’s extremely crowded on the weekend. If at all possible, go to the Incline on a weekday to avoid this (and even then, it can still be crowded).

It costs $10 as of 2019 to park in the lot at the bottom of the Barr Trail, which is also where the Incline starts from. There’s a free shuttle that leaves from elsewhere in town, but I haven’t experimented with that. Considering the trail itself is free to access and is expensive to maintain, $10 is a reasonable fee (in my opinion). Make sure you have a credit card handy to pay!

Where do I go?

There is only one way to go – up! The beginning of the trail is very well marked and there’s only one way to go once you get started. About 2/3 up the trail, there is a bail-out option for you take the Barr Trail back down. At this point, you are 80% of the way there, so I was too stubborn to take the bail-out. I was just too close to finishing to not go all the way. But if you need the bail-out, it’s an option. The Incline is one-mile long one way.

There are two options for getting back down: the way you came up, which is too steep for my liking, and the Barr Trail. The trail is 3.1 miles long, zig-zagging back down from the top of the Incline. It’s tricky because it’s downhill the entire way, so your knees and quads take a bit of a beating. But it’s also very beautiful, and in my opinion, a nice jog back down. Follow signs for the Barr Trail, not Pikes Peak or Barr Camp, which will only take you higher up (the last thing you want at that point).

There are port-o-potties in the parking lot, and nothing at the top of Incline except for a great photo op.

What is the trail like?

It’s obviously difficult. But make it your own challenge. Like I said, there are all kinds of people taking it on. You’ll get passed by people older than you, fitter than you, and carrying kids on their back. You might pass other people yourself. It doesn’t matter – take your time, pace yourself, and see what you can do!

There are railroad ties that make the entire trail like nature’s Stairmaster, which actually makes it easier to climb up the whole thing. You don’t have to worry about sliding back down on the steep parts because it’s basically a staircase.

There are a few parts with wider steps of metal grating that help the trail drain properly. If you’re using hiking poles, be careful not to get them stuck in there. There are also plenty of points where you can pull over on the side if you need a break or to get out of the way for faster hikers. The trail is a consistent width all the way up that makes it easy for people to pass if you’re at a point that there isn’t a place to actually get off the trail. Just try to get as far over the right as possible when you do need to take a breather.

There’s a false summit that you can see right away. You’ll look at it and think there is absolutely no way that it isn’t the real summit. I didn’t believe people when they pointed it out to me. But please believe me, there is more to come after what looks like the top. Don’t be fooled – that was pretty emotionally crushing to me the first time I did it.

The start of the Incline. At the bottom of the picture, you can see one of the wider metal grates. The railroad ties continue all the way up the trail. At the top of the photo is the false summit – see how hard it is to believe that that isn’t the top?! But I promise, it’s not. This was on a weekday in May, which gives you an idea of crowds too.

Assuming you take the Barr Trail back down, which is the most beginner-friendly option, there are parts that get a little rocky and technical, but nothing too advanced. It’s downhill the entire way and controlling your speed can be difficult, so your quads will be a-burning by the time you’re done.

It took me 40 minutes to get up the Incline the second time I did it, including multiple breaks. I was able to run down the Barr Trail in about the same amount of time. For context, I was running pretty regularly at this point preparing for a four-mile section of the Colfax Marathon Relay – averaging two or more 2-3 mile runs per week. I only provide my time for your planning purposes – remember, this is all about challenging yourself and seeing what you can do personally. Plan on being out for two or more hours just to be safe.

For some reason, I only recorded my hike up and not my run down, but you can see the Barr Trail zig-zagging its way back to the parking lot at the bottom of the screenshot. The way up is just as advertised – a mile straight up!

There’s very little shade on any part of the trail, which means it’s a great option for winter (assuming it’s dry) or spring. If you go in the summer, start early to beat the heat!

What should I wear and bring?

Because there is no shade, make sure to slather on plenty of sunblock and wear a hat and sunglasses.

I’ve done the Incline on a warm, sunny day in December and a cloudy day in May, both of which were ideal weather. I wore shorts and a t-shirt both times, but could’ve used a long-sleeved layer for the way back down (particularly the time I hiked down). Because the hike up is so strenuous, I would recommend wearing your grippiest running shoes so you aren’t bogged down with the weight of hiking boots. For this reason, and because I planned on jogging down, I wore my trail running shoes (last year’s model is currently 50% off at REI!).

Hiking poles will certainly make your life easier, particularly helping out your knees on the way down. But the trail is at no point technical enough that you would absolutely NEED them. In the winter, if it’s icy, you might want some extra traction like microspikes.

I regretted not bringing water with me the first time I did the Incline. The second time, I wore my running vest and brought water and snacks (just in case, I always have snacks just in case) as well as chapstick with SPF in it and a long-sleeve shirt. I did my best to pack light since I certainly didn’t want to make going up the Incline any harder than necessary by having a heavy backpack!

Is it crowded?

Yes. Even on the weekdays, there has always been a crowd when I’ve done the Incline! On the weekdays, it’s totally manageable. I was in no way alone either time I’ve done the trail, but people were at least pretty spread out.

I imagine the weekends would be much more challenging, mostly because the road the Incline is on wasn’t built to handle the huge crowds it attracts. I’ve been lucky to do the Incline as part of my workday both times, so I haven’t had to contend with Saturday or Sunday crowds in the parking lot or on the trail.

Anything else I should know?

While I believe almost anyone can do the Incline if they take their time, I don’t think it’s a good idea for someone visiting from sea level unless you are already VERY fit. Colorado altitude can kick your butt on a regular hike, but adding on a hike that is a mile straight up probably isn’t the best idea.

However, if you’re already in Denver or elsewhere in Colorado, it’s less of an extreme. The hike is definitely very challenging, but like any hike, as long as you take your time, listen to your body, and give yourself enough time to complete it in good weather and during the daytime, it’s worth a try. Age and body type aren’t the best predictors of how physically fit someone is, but I’ve seen people of all ages, weights, and fitness levels (based on how out of breath they are when I see them) trying it out.

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