If you wanted to take a train to the top of Pikes Peak, for the last three years, you haven’t been able to. But now, riders can soon ride the train again, and just in time: A brand new, $65 million Summit House Complex at the top of America’s Mountain is set to open next week.
Local boosters hope the two attractions combined with a post-lockdown nation eager to travel will add up to a return to normal for regional tourism.
“It almost feels like a miracle that they came together at the same time,” said Amy Long, chief innovation officer for Visit Colorado Springs, a local nonprofit focused on tourism marketing.
Crews on the two immensely complex projects, both years in the making, had to contend with regular construction delays resulting from extreme weather conditions on the 14-thousand foot summit. Temperatures at the peak can often be 30 or 40 degrees colder than those at the base of the mountain.
It’s not yet clear if enthusiasm for travel in light of easing COVID-19 restrictions will bring in the million or more summit visitors seen in a typical year. Long said her office broadly expects tourism this year to the Pikes Peak region to be up 35 or 40 percent over 2020, though their current projections based on sales tax collections predict still slightly less tourism money coming in compared with 2019.
The Broadmoor Hotel, a luxury resort in Colorado Springs, owns the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and put $100 million into renovating the historic attraction. The train began taking passengers up the steeply-angled mountain track again this May.
During a recent stop at the summit, conductor Steve Huber said it was a relief to see the train operating again. He and his railway colleagues did much of the extensive renovation themselves.
“We took so many things apart and then we had to put it all back together and here it is back better than new,” Huber said as he welcomed passengers off the train. “It was three years of just 10 guys hanging around together and it's nice to see some new faces after that.”
The gleaming glass and steel summit house at the top of Pikes Peak is about three times the size of the previous visitors center, a structure built in the 1960s that workers will continue demolishing into September of this year. The new building offers interactive exhibits detailing weather, ecosystem and human history atop the mountain.
It’s intended to meet strict sustainability metrics known as the Living Building Challenge, and will still sell visitors famous donuts produced from what staff say is the world’s highest-altitude deep fat fryer. Meanwhile, new ADA-accessible concrete walkways outside give visitors a safer experience of the summit’s lauded viewshed.
Officials do not expect the summit house to open to the public until June 24. In the meantime, cog railway passengers are spending their 40-minute intervals at the top of the mountain taking photos from the concrete overlooks. It’s still very cold, so many visitors wear winter coats over the top of summer wear.
Shu Schiller said she was excited to see snow drifts still lingering at the high altitude. She was in the final days of a Colorado vacation from Dayton, Ohio, with her mother and daughter, who just graduated middle school.
“I think it’s freedom,” Schiller said of the feeling on top of the summit. “The freedom to able to smell and enjoy the fresh air, to be a normal human being (following the pandemic).”
Following a few blasts from the cog train’s horn, Schiller and her family climbed back aboard for the long descent back to Manitou Springs, along with other riders from states like Texas, Kansas and Missouri.
Long said while the region is thrilled to be welcoming tourists again, local hospitality services are suffering from the nationwide shortage of job applicants.
“I think [visitors] are still going to have a great experience,” Long said. “but every one of those people that's working is going to be working at 120 percent. I think they're going to be really busting their butts to get out there and make it wonderful.”
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