My last substantial hike was Barr Trail last October. Before that, it was when I got altitude sickness between Mt Cameron and Mt Lincoln on the Decalibron loop. So realistically, it has been almost a year and a hip surgery since I last really hiked. Over the weekend, I finally returned to a challenging trail.
When my husband decided he wanted to start traversing the Colorado 14ers, we began with Pikes Peak, the mountain that greeted us at the end of our street every day. When we returned to hiking after my surgery, we chose another in our backyard, another in which we are always in the shadow. Cheyenne Mountain.
Cheyenne Mountain is not a 14er. At what we assume was the summit of the hike, we were only a little above 9600 feet. However, the trail is rated difficult to extreme on several sites and by the trail signs on the route.
Knowing the length of the hike ahead (and how slow we go on the upper portion of a 14er), we began at 5am when Cheyenne Mountain State Park opens.
The trail to Cheyenne Mountain begins counterintuitively. Not that we could see much of it with our headlamps. We started on the Talon trail, which wanders in serpentine lazily through the meadow in Cheyenne Mountain Park. Instead of moving directly toward the base of the dark mountain with the twinkling towers of NORAD on top, the path lead us out in the grass, looping us to approach the mountain from the south.
As we moved through the valley, the air alternated between frigid and warm pockets. We listened to the helicopters wandering the sky from nearby Fort Carson. The trail is flat for the majority of Talon. When we turned onto Talon North, we finally saw some incline. Though it remained gentle. We slowly climbed to look down on the city and the sunrise.
By the time we were in full daylight, we reached the Dixon trail that would take us up the side of Cheyenne Mountain. In the light, we discovered that the trails are very well marked, with colored signs and distances. In the valley, there are even trail map signs at all intersections.
Once we began to climb, it felt like real hiking. However, it took over 3 miles to just reach the Dixon trail. From hiking Mt Harvard, we knew that a long, steady return hike can be even more daunting than a steep one.
The Dixon trail was touted as the challenging portion of the ascent. The trail wound us up the rolling hills that steadily climb towards Cheyenne Mountain from the south. We could still hear the helicopters and Reveille call from Fort Carson, but those were the only sounds besides our footfalls and chatter. The trail was peacefully vacant.
The views became more picturesque with each switchback. Colorado Springs sprawled out below us as we climbed higher on the side of the mountain.
We began to successively summit each small hill and see the western face of the range. Then the trail would alternate back to the eastern face and city views again.
Dixon trail is relatively mild for the first few miles. I would liken it to Barr Trail south of Barr Camp. It definitely reminded me of Barr Trail south of the Incline multiple times, which makes sense considering it overlooks the same city. After 2.5 miles, the trail changes, and bikes and horses are no longer permitted. It becomes “extreme.”
Past this sign, the mild ascent of the groomed dirt trail transitions into steeper grade peppered with rock staircases. The articles I had read on the trail before made it sound extremely challenging if not perilous. I would not agree. While the grade was intense and I had to take a few breathers, I would not liken it to anything I have seen past treeline. Perhaps the extra oxygen helped. It also did not last terribly long. When we broke into the aspen meadow, I turned to my hiking mates and said, “was that it?”
The top of Dixon opens into an unexpected field. The grass (and spiny thistles) tickled at my shoulders. Here, the trail is not exceptionally worn. If not for the constant stakes and flags (often tied to clumps of grass), it would be easy to think it was not even a trail at all. Barely into the meadow is the famed plane crash from 1957.
We did not know what to expect from the plane crash. After being on the mountain for so long, we did not know how much would remain. On the one hand, some 60 years later, it is surprising any of the wreckage remained. On the other, it is a fresh trail for dedicated hikers, so perhaps there should have been more left undisturbed. Even though the remains were small, it was still interesting to examine up close. We could pick out debris among the vegetation for a good distance as we continued to hike.
Among the aspens, we intersected the Mountain Loop trail. This pleasant walk would bring us to our destination.
We wandered through the sprawling field then among the aspen trees with massive trunks. Their roots pressed up through the dirt of the trail, revealing the network between the entire forest. We were spoiled by the laziness of the trail, such a contrast to the brief steep section we had just completed.
The Mountain Loop is only a mile and a half. After another section of incline and expansive views, we found ourselves at the top.
Locating the top was more challenging than on a 14er. Past treeline, identifying the summit is simple. It is also usually littered with cardboard signs for selfies. We settled on one rock formation before continuing on to locate what we believe was Robber’s Roost. It was as close as we could get to the antennae farm of NORAD without going off the edge or over a fence. So we called that our summit.
After staring at the red, blinking antennae atop NORAD my entire life, it was surreal to see them from an entirely new perspective. They actually looked small once we were so close.
Since the ascent was significantly easier than we had anticipated from our research, we decided to add the Dragon’s Backbone to our descent.
On the Dragon’s backbone, we found the challenge we had been expecting from the extreme rating. We also found even more spectacular views.
The trail began similar to its intersecting counterparts at first, wandering along toward the ridge. After some clear views from the perceived safety of enclosing rocks and trees, the trail becomes much more technical. Despite the clear trail markings and cairns, we still managed to deviate from the path several times and almost crawl across the face of the crags.
The trail narrows, becomes entirely large rock stairs and drops. The trees and surrounding rocks recede so that the path is like walking along a backbone, with one side as the steep fall off the side of the mountain. Navigating it got the heart pumping for multiple reasons. Even at less than a mile, it was the longest part of our journey.
The Dragon’s Backbone dumped us back into the aspen field, and we began our long descent. Aside from the backbone, none of the trails were hard to come down. It was more the relentless accumulation of the miles. The sun baked down on us once we left the trees on the steep park of Dixon. By the time we reached Talon, we and our bodies were just over it.
The hike was no longer challenging, but the last 3-5 miles just dragged on. Our feet hurt. Our legs were tired. Our back were knotted. We were just done.
That feeling lifted when we reached the car and the 16.5 miles were behind us. We were relieved to discover the hike only recorded at 16 miles rather than the forecasted 18. Another two miles may have pushed any of us over the line.
Cheyenne Mountain is a beautiful hike. Long but much easier than advertised, if you are accustomed to gauging by 14ers and all the suck that exists past treeline. With all the hype of finally being able to summit this famed and familiar mountain, I was surprised to find the trail largely vacant. We encountered one other group of hikers past where Dixon gets extreme, and we only encountered a handful of people in Cheyenne Mountain Park itself.
Perhaps traffic will increase the longer the full trail is open. Mountain Loop could definitely use some foot traffic to fully establish the trail through the field.
It felt good to be back on the trail, and Cheyenne Mountain was the perfect place to start. I love walking to my car, looking west, and thinking, “I was up there.” Just like I do for Pikes Peak. I have now pointed out Dragon’s Backbone to my kids.
If you want to try Cheyenne Mountain, this article on Springs Magazine gave us flawless directions.
This year will ultimately be largely an off year for hiking for me. We are going to descend Pikes Peak (I’m so excited; I love downhill) in a couple weeks, but I don’t know if we will tackle any new 14ers before the fall snows descend. It may just be something we return to next year, more healed and better planned.