At the front counter of the Poppy Seed, a small gift shop at the foothills of the Colorado Mountains, a tall, lanky man in an oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans leans against the counter, chatting up the woman behind it.
“Like, man, this place is, like, the grooviest,” he says, pausing. He laughs a little. “I’m having a rad day.”
Rad? Groovy? I look around the store at the racks of tie-dye t-shirts and shelves of Indian essence oils. Reggae music drums away. American flags line the wall. But outside, when we walked the streets earlier, the buildings were a pastel-coloured-style of elegant and Swiss-world European.
“Anshula,” you ask, a little confused. “Where have you brought me?”
I smile, sheepishly.
Manitou Springs is a small town, fifteen minutes outside of Colorado Springs, with a neat population of 5,000. Manitou is the essence of a hippie-paradise. Boho vibes. A new age soul. A little recreational marijuana. Ummm, never mind that (don’t worry, I didn’t try any, but it is legal here)…
Manitou is Colorado Springs void of chain stores, sprinkled with a cultivated mystic aura.
So how did we end up in this store next to a real-life Shaggy Rogers? Let’s rewind.
We wouldn’t miss Pikes Peak for anything.
But right now, we’re stuck in the holiday rush bubble. The cars are packed in a uniform line like soldiers marching through a military compound. The air singes. The wind cuts. We’re prisoners of the road, and while a few vehicles have swerved out and escaped, we breathe perseverance.
All good things come with patience. So they say. So we’ve heard. So we’ve been told. We’ll find out.
Outside, the crickets buzz like the slow, soft pull of a guitar lullaby’s last note. Pause. Pause. And then a steady strum. The birds’ hums are clipped by the rustling of the pines in the breeze. The rocks, beefy and rugged, feed muted tones. Another pause…more silence…and we inch forward towards the gate.
Some of the mountains have the look of an old man’s beard – thin trees, stripped of pines, jut out from the chin of the rounded summits. And there, amongst the peaks, you can hear the siren sing. Pikes Peak is a “fourteener”, a monstrous mountain that mimics an enchantress with sweeping lush green overlay and an iced crown.
Know Before You Go
A daredevil’s climb and an adventure seeker’s drive, Pikes Peak is one of Colorado’s biggest attractions. In 2015, visitor spending in the the region was almost 2 billion. And with over 20 million visitors annually, it is easy to understand that getting to Pikes Peak is a wait. A long one. An hour rolls by slowly. And another. And another.
Eventually, the entrance booth is within sight, and in a few moments, we are side-by-side with the ticket-seller, a chipper gentleman sporting a Southern lilt. He smiles as we fork over $15 a piece before continuing our journey along the road.
The traffic stops here. Our car glides into the woods. The forested growth surrounds us – richly saturated trees nestled in clumps, their needles outstretched.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” – Robert Frost
Best Stops for Photo-Ops
At the bend of the road, shades of blue start to emerge. The hues grow into a monotone expanse. Crystal Lake, known by fishing enthusiasts for its run of trout, is an easy-to-spot reservoir (one of three) at Pikes Peak.
This view was worth every minute of the wait. 😸 Yes, the line for Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs, was over 4 hours! 🚘 The cars on the road were bumper to bumper and barely wormed forward as each second ticked by. Luckily, dear ol' Colorado is a wonderful sight in all directions ("every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top" – Meghan Trainor) so the wait was, admittedly, quite enjoyable. ☺️ ••• Tell me, what is the longest you have waited for an attraction?
We snap pictures. We listen to the calm silence of the water. And then, we’re back on the road. As we climb higher and higher, the air starts to thin. The oxygen decreases, ever-so-slightly. The temperature drops, slowly. 80 degrees. 70 degrees. 60 degrees.
At its highest point, Pikes Peak is 42 degrees. Yes, even in the dead of summer, Pikes Peak begs sweater weather.
“Cause it’s too co-oh-oh-oh-old for you here and now….”
Is it just me singing? I apologize.
Eventually, the trees dissipate and the land is a slate of green. The mountains brood a different kind of enchantment now. As we reach the peak, they mold into a form more vampire-like than fairy-friendly. Slivers of powdered white fang down from wrinkles of ash-gray. The jagged edges of the peaks and the rough-cut mountain sides are iced with thick chunks. Engraved within the ice are names and messages.
“I love you. To my dear. My forever.”
Lovers, they do the darndest things. Personally, my love stops at engraving someone’s name in a chunk of ice thicker than Dudley Dursley when it is 50 degrees outside. Although, I might change my mind if I had a pickaxe (or two).
But I digress. As the ice melts, we see lakes spool from the glacier’s steady drips. Ice masses ribbon along the side of the mountain, and at the very bottom, little white flakes trickle down into the ground, one droplet at a time.
Right now, the oxygen is too thin for us to get out of the car (it might just be me, but I’m starting to feel a little dizzy). Pikes Peak is not for the faint of heart. The road clings to the edge of the mountain. And at each turn, the view shifts. A sprawling cityscape. A plunging drop into a breadth of trees. A spider-web of lanes snake downward.
“Close your eyes, Anshula,” I tell myself. “We’re almost there.”
Ahh, heights. I love the views. I hate the feeling. Trust me, I’m confident that at 12,000 feet of elevation, I’m undergoing more freak-out moments than the narrator of the Tell-Tale Heart in his literary lifetime.At the summit, our breathing is short. A steady staccato. But we still get out of the car to see the view. There’s a cafe here. And a gift shop. For once, I feel like we deserve a kitschy treat to celebrate (Hello, world! We made it to the top with our hearts in our mouths!).
The gusts of wind are slaps of ice against our exposed skin. Okay, so Pikes Peak isn’t sweater weather, it’s polar bear jacket weather.
Down, Down, Down
If the drive up was Dr. Henry Jekyll, then the drive back to the base is Mr. Hyde. For the next eighteen miles, the car pulls downwards.
“Don’t go too fast!” you scream. “Not that fast!”
“I’m only going twenty miles an hour,” I reply, hands shaking on the wheel. But I understand your sentiment. We wouldn’t want to ruin the brakes (or…ummm…run off the side of a mountain).
You twist and turn the giant brochure in your hands. The ticket-seller had given it to us earlier. But now, a little notice amongst a list of warnings catches your eyes.
“Wait, shift into low gear!” you yell.
“Just do it.”
Low-Gear. Two words that will prevent us from landing in a personalized live-action version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
At the halfway point, between mile markers 9 and 10, our car halts, stopped by a line of vehicles. A park ranger scans the car and motions for us to move to the campground.
Sigh. Our brakes overheated. Lesson learned: pay attention to the warnings.
Coming Round the Mountain
Next up in Anshula’s life lessons, there is no such thing as boredom if you explore. Instead of waiting in the car for twenty minutes, we decide to climb up a small flight of stairs intersecting at the parking lot. We enter an open wooded pass. It’s empty here. Quiet. Just you and me and the trees. While I could continue sitting quietly on a rock, contemplating the meaning of life, I instead decide to frolic amongst trees and become one with nature. #totallyunashamed
If I embarrassed you, I duly apologize. But sadly, you can’t run away from this crazy blogger because a) we have so much left to explore and b) I have the car keys .
At this point, you’re probably considering taking the Cog Railway, the “highest train in the USA”, back to the entrance. I understand. Driving up 14, 114 feet of elevation for over an hour, without Internet Connection (for the most part), has been tiring. The Cog Railway, on the other hand, is almost like a small group tour (not so much maneuvering on our part). But tickets do have to be purchased for a round trip.
Tip: If you decide to take the Cog Railway, be sure to book online or call well in advance because tickets run out about as fast as any new book published by J.K. Rowling.
Pikes Peak: 1-800-525-2250, Website, 9AM – 5PM (timings vary by season), max $15/adult
Where to Eat and Drink?
We’re heading to Manitou Springs’ historic district for the rest of the day. I know. I know. We’re hungry. We’re tired. But this is where we will eat, shop, and ultimately fall asleep with our heads face flat on a pillow.
Actually, let’s grab a light meal now. Manitou Springs’ Historic District is a breeding ground for innovative and upscale dining. And while most are high-end titles, there do exist a few budget options.
A Little Coffee Run
I’m starting off by bringing you to a visitor favourite: the Sahara Cafe, a Mediterranean eatery less than a two minute walk from the ticket booth for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Based on its faded exterior and easy-to-miss sign, the Sahara Cafe doesn’t look like much. But inside, it’s all a hit: stunning service, fab food, delicious dessert. Must-tries include the kabobs and home-made ice-cream.
Good Karma is a local favourite, a coffee shop marked by its relaxing ambience. Imagine you are in an upscale rustic cabin. You’re sitting at a wooden table surrounded by stone walls. Look up, and your eyes are welcomed by a charming chandelier. You have a cup of roasted coffee resting in your hand and you’re reading your favourite book. Now, imagine the feeling that scenario gives you. Good Karma oozes just that feeling and it’s best described as…well, good karma. The coffee “lounge” (as they call it) certainly lives up to its name.
Red Dog Coffee is Manitou’s cool, contemporary hangout. The food is decent. So is the price. So is the service. But what draws us to Red Dog is the logo. Red Dog Coffee’s logo is surprisingly not a red dog. In fact, it’s a black cat (wait…what???). We’re naturally confused at first, but our confusion eventually transforms into an Alice in Wonderland curiosity.
As we walk in, we realize that Red Dog is a pooch-obsessed person’s paradise. Locally drawn dog-art. A dog-mural. Dog-books. Yes, all things dog (I’m still curious about the cat logo). CM Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker series would completely fit here. And I’ll be honest, I was half-expecting to see those oil paintings somewhere on the walls.
Sahara Cafe: Website, 10AM – 9PM , 954 Manitou Ave, Manitou Springs, CO 80829
Good Karma: Website, 7AM – 3PM, 110 Canon Ave, Manitou Springs, CO 80829
Red Dog Coffee: Website, 7AM – 9PM, 739 Manitou Ave, Manitou Springs, CO 80829
Be Our Guest
Manitou Springs is all about refined food. We’re not going to find a run-of-the-mill grab-and-go shop here. After all, this is a town that thrives on taking grub to an artisan level. The culmination of experience and taste is part of a deeply rooted package.
To start our fine dining experience, we head to The Mona Lisa Fondue Restaurant. Don’t worry, we made reservations in advance. And yes, I know it is expensive, but tonight is the night to splurge (also, you can typically score a Groupon discount).
Now, I’ve never been fondue-ing (as Steve Rogers would call it), but the Mona Lisa Fondue Restaurant exceeds all expectations. It is more of an experience than a meal. The wait staff is enthusiastic and the whole fondue process is explained to us with poised fervor. If you can get over the fact that “fondue is just cheese and bread, my friend” (seriously though, The First Avenger never failed to make me crave fondue), then the Mona Lisa is a must.
Up next, Border Burger Bar. I’ve always thought burgers were bread, meat, a slab of veggies, and more bread. But Border Burger Bar plays with the craft of burger-making by toying with cultural immersions. There’s the All-American, The Japanese, The Cuban, and the K-town Dog. Barbecued buns. A smother of internationally-style sauce. A balance of fresh-cut vegetables, spiced and zested. Border Burger Bar borders brilliance.
Mona Lisa Fondue Restaurant: Website, 5 – 8:30PM , 733 Manitou Ave, Manitou Springs, CO 80829
Border Burger Bar: Website, 11AM – 10PM , 819 Manitou Ave, Manitou Springs, CO 80829
Things to Do
I get it, you’re full. At this point, you feel like a balloon ready to pop. I know, I definitely do. But there are still quite a few hours left before we hit the haystack (or Spring Stack or Manitou Stack…never mind).
Option One: The cliff dwellings in Manitou Springs. These Anasazi ruins date back to 1200.
“But Anshula,” you say. “There were no Anasazi in Manitou Springs.”
And you would be absolutely right. Yes, the Anasazi did live in the four corners region of USA (this knowledge may or may not be the product of watching too much Scooby Doo as a child), but Manitou Springs does have a museum that features actual collapsed stones, shipped to the region, and used for reconstructing history.
And while museums are up my alley, I’m a little too full to walk (or much less drive) all the way there. Instead, let’s make the most of the Historic District. After all, we’re here now. We’ve gotten to know the area a little through food. Let’s see what else the district has to offer.A cute gazebo. Statues all around. A winding creek. Memorial Park is the fantasy neighborhood-style park we’ve been looking for. It’s cute. It’s small. But it still has charm (and is perhaps the best place for us to lose a few pounds gained from an all-too large lunch). We walk around for a bit…sit down on a bench and stare at the mountains peeking out from the trees.
Whew! What a view!
Then, we just stroll around the area. We walk into every store we can. There’s one that sells clothing from the Far East: silk and cotton saris, Buddhist statues, and small figurines. There’s another that has a unique showcase of hand-crafted local art, a hodgepodge of heavy-stroked paintings and smooth pottery. There’s even an apothecary (aptly title Apothecary).
Just walking in this district is other-wordly. Hidden street art. Busy canals. Pastel coloured buildings offset with uniform white highlights. The grunge-European-meets-Eastern vibe starts to build up.
And of course, there are the springs. Yes, there are actual springs in Manitou Springs. Eight to be exact. You can drink from them (they are rumoured to have magical healing properties). Personally, I find the idea of sharing a faucet with a million other tourists a little revolting, but searching for the mini fountains, tucked away behind statues and against shrubbery is a satisfying scavenger hunt in itself.
At the end of the street, at the foothills of the Colorado Mountains, is a small gift shop. We can see the sun begin to set from the window. The sky is ablaze.
The shop is called The Poppy Seed. And at the front counter, a tall, lanky man in an oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans leans against the counter, chatting up the woman behind it.
“Like, man, this place is, like, the grooviest,” he says, pausing. He laughs a little. “I’m having a rad day.”
Rad? Groovy? We smile. Our day in Manitou Springs has definitely been “rad” and “groovy”. In fact, there are no better words to describe this small town.
Did you enjoy this guide to Manitou Springs? Have you ever been to Manitou Springs? Let me know in the comments below! As always, I love hearing from you!