Written by Mary Murphy
Manitou Springs will be without the Manitou Incline (informally known as the Incline) for about four months, as the well-known local trail and popular tourist attraction will be closing in August due to construction. Manitou local Roger Austin is a big fan of the Incline and was recently dubbed the ‘Incline King’ after beating the record for number of trips to the top. His official record is set at 1,401 trips up the Incline, while his unofficial record is above 1,700. With an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet in just under a mile, the Incline has one of the steepest trail distance grades in Colorado. It is “41 percent average grade, but up to 68 percent grade at the steepest point,” according to Manitou’s original site development plan in 2011.
Not only do people of all ages enjoy hiking this trail, but some, like Austin, are even motivated to use it as a workout. Air Force Academy cadets frequently train on the Incline, endurance athletes can be seen running up it before sunrise, and Brandon Stapanowich (a Manitou ultra-runner) even invented ‘Inclineathons’—a marathon-style challenge that includes 13 back-to-back trips up the Incline. Austin himself completed 22 Inclineathons alone in 2015; that’s the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest 19 times. With his overall record, Austin has managed the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest 96 times. And, in the midst of all these workout-crazed and challenge-seeking locals, there is also an entirely different category of people who frequent the Incline: tourists.
Manitou Springs, which is adjacent to Colorado Springs, is a small town with a lot to boast. Manitou is home to the historical Cog Railway, which runs from the base of Pikes Peak to its summit, a plethora of cafes and restaurants, and natural mineral water springs.
“Manitou creates this charming environment—the downtown was recently renovated, but even before then people would come to Manitou to experience this beautiful natural environment,” said Rebecca Davis, Finance Director of Manitou Springs. “Its natural beauty and charm is one of the biggest draws in terms of tourism.” Soon, however, repairs on the Incline will force tourists to explore alternative hiking trails.
“There will be a definite change this year, but the goal is to make the Incline as safe as possible,” said Sarah Bryarly from the Parks and Recreation Department of Colorado Springs. The long-term closure of the Incline will begin in August and is expected to extend through December for Phase Two of the Incline’s construction, according to Bryarly. In 2014, a low-budget Phase One construction project took place. Phase One focused on reinforcing the railroad ties, which act as steps for hikers up the Incline.
“The main purpose for this closure is to make improvements to the existing construction…we will be slowing down the erosion that has occurred and [will be] stabilizing the ties,” Bryarly explained.
While the Parks and Recreation Department is focusing on the safety and longevity of the Incline, the closure may also result in some economic downturn for the city while the trail is being repaired.
“July through September are the most popular months to hike the Incline,” Bryarly commented in a phone interview. This is right in the middle of peak tourist season. While the city of Manitou does not record how many people visit the Incline, they do measure how many trips are made to the top of the Incline.
“We see about 350,000 trips up the Incline per year, which equates to 639 trips daily,” said Bryarly. “It’s a pretty popular place for a lot of people, which is why this construction needs to occur.”
Dan Folke, Planning Director of the City of Colorado Springs, remarked that in the original site development plan, 350,000 hikers are “an estimated minimum.”
“July is probably the most popular month for Manitou,” said Leslie Lewis of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce. “We have over 400,000 visitors annually. Manitou really relies on tourist season to bring in revenue from retail stores, coffee shops, and tourist attractions.” When asked what effect this long-term closure might have on the revenue generated by the Incline, Lewis responded, “Well…the Incline is free.”
There is no charge to hike the Incline, but there are other expenses that sometimes accompany the trek. It’s $5 for parking on average (street parking is metered but some lots charge up to $10), and of course, after hiking this grueling trail, many visitors walk through Manitou looking for something to eat or drink. Most shops in Manitou even sell t-shirts that read: “I climbed the Manitou Incline! Manitou Springs, CO, 6035ft.”
In the past two years the Incline raked in $493,262 solely from parking. In the past three months alone parking revenue totaled over $50,000. In November 2015 the decision was made to increase the cost of parking for Incline hikers. (These numbers don’t include hikers who use street parking.)
“A large amount of the city’s revenue comes from tax revenue collected during tourist season,” reiterated Davis. “In November of 2015, we raised the price of parking in the Barr Trail Lot and the Ruxton Ave Lot because of the Incline traffic.” In addition to parking, Manitou’s overall profit from tax revenue was up 73 percent in 2015 in the month of January, and in 2016 was up 63 percent from the previous year, according to Manitou’s sales tax revenue records.
While it will effect Manitou’s tourism revenue for the next fiscal year, the construction and temporary closure of the Incline is “necessary for the long-term sustainability of the Incline,” said Bryarly. The original press release of the Phase Two construction project states that the majority of funding comes from TOPS (Trail, Open Space, and Parks Funding) and the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant. Last year’s project funding record shows that almost a third of the funding came from this FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant. The purpose of this grant “is to help communities implement hazard mitigation measures following a Presidential major disaster declaration,” as stated on FEMA’s website.
“We will be providing a list of alternative trails,” said Bryarly. The Incline is known as the most unique trail in Manitou Springs, it has a record elevation gain per mile and record grades of steepness. Although not an exact alternative, the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak will stay open for the majority of the time that the Incline is under construction.
While the Incline is obviously a popular natural attraction, will the lack of hikers during this four-month closure really affect local businesses? “[The closure] hurts a little…the Incline hikers are an added bonus to our business,” said Beth Pasture, who has owned and operated Twin Bears Gift Shop in Manitou for the past seven years. “I’m not happy about it, but I’m grateful because I know it could be worse.” Pasture noted that while the most popular attractions in Manitou are Pikes Peak and the Incline, the town itself attracts many tourists.
However, another Manitou business owner remains optimistic. “Even with the Incline closure, the town is not going to change,” said Matt Gray, owner of The Loop Restaurant. “After the downtown was remodeled, this was just the place to be. In the summer there are more people and more tourists.”
“[The Incline] is pretty crowded all the time.,” continued Gray, who has owned The Loop for 25 years. “Manitou Springs is a destination because of the natural wonders like the Cog Railway, Pikes Peak, the Incline.”
His final comment on the closure: I’m not worried. People will always come [to Manitou].”
Although the Incline closure may have a short-term effect on Manitou city revenue and perhaps some private businesses, residents are confident that the charm and popularity of Manitou Springs alone will be enough to continue to draw tourists.