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America’s Toughest Trail: The Manitou Incline

The Manitou Incline is less than a mile long, but it can feel like an eternity to reach the top.

When it comes to describing the Manitou Incline, there’s no mincing words. It’s relentlessly steep and a ferocious challenge for anyone who tries to hike or run it.

Situated near the base of Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs, Colo., the Manitou Incline rises more than 2,000 vertical feet in less than a mile. It’s unyieldingly steep—68 percent in some places—but that’s why runners and hikers from near and far have been taking the challenge for years.

The trail sits on the site of an old funicular railway that took sightseers up one of the lower flanks of Pikes Peak. The tourist railway existed from 1907 to 1990, but a rockslide damaged some of the rails and railroad ties and it was shut down. Almost immediately upon its closure, the Incline became a destination for hikers and runners.

By 2012 the route fell into disrepair from heavy use and erosion, forcing a temporary closure for repairs and the replacement of the old railroad ties with modern landscaping timbers.

While it takes the average hiker more than 90 minutes to make it to the summit, a well-trained runner can reach the top in less than 30. But that requires an all-out leg- and lung-burning effort.

“It’s beyond relentless,” says Peter Maksimow, an elite-level mountain runner who lives nearby in Manitou Springs. “Whether you are a world-class athlete or a weekend warrior, the Incline has a way of humbling you. No matter how fast or slow you go, it’s really just about surviving. It’s one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do.”

Colorado Springs trail runner Joe Gray, who owns numerous top-10 finishes in international mountain races, ran the fastest known time (FKT) on the Incline last summer when he reached the top of the 0.88-mile route in 17 minutes and 45 seconds. Although other unsubstantiated faster times have been reported, Gray’s time surpassed the longstanding 18:31 mark of mountain running legend and 12-time Pikes Peak Marathon champion Matt Carpenter. Manitou Springs resident Allie McLaughlin, a member of the 2014 U.S. Mountain Running Team, owns the fastest women’s time, 20:07, which she set in 2010.

There are also some crazy records on the Incline that don’t necessarily involve speed. Roger Austin, a 50-year-old Colorado Springs hiker, completed a record-setting 1,719 ascents on the Incline in 2015, while Brandon Stapanowich, a 31-year-old Manitou Springs ultrarunner, did 22 laps up the Incline and down the Barr Trail in 24 hours in 2014.

“You can see it from anywhere in the city, so it just taunts you until you do it,” Stapanowich says. “And even after you do it, it’s still there waiting for you, challenging you to go faster or to do it more times. And that’s kind of how I got into doing multiple laps on it.”

The only secrets to the Incline? Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It helps to look down at the steps—don’t consider enjoying the view until you reach the top. And never underestimate the effort.

“I’ve had a few people stand right in front of me and tell me they could easily go under 20 minutes,” McLaughlin says. “I don’t argue, I just say something like ‘yeah, you should totally go do that!’ Their thoughts usually are very different after they finish it for the first time.”

PHOTOS: The Relentlessly Steep Manitou Incline

VIDEO: The Allure of the Manitou Incline