DAY TRIPPER: Charm Springs Eternal in Manitou

Manitou Springs is a fountain of fun and relaxation often overlooked by naive metro dwellers.

ManitouIncline

Step it up if you want the climb of your life. The famous Manitou Incline is over 2,000 feet of elevation over about a mile.

ManitouTown

Downtown Manitou Springs is walking distance from the start on the incline.

Even metro Denver residents with a particular hankering for exploring this Centennial State have something of a blind spot when it comes to Colorado’s other big metro, Colorado Springs.

What — so the thinking goes —could Colorado Springs and its surrounding foothills possibly have that the bigger city to the north and its surrounding foothills don’t already offer?

We see the 719’s Garden of the Gods and raise you one big Red Rocks.

And yes, Pike’s Peak towers over Colorado Springs just a short ride to the west, but Denver is barely an hour from the state’s biggest hill, Mount Elbert, and that Lake County peak has a good 300 feet on Pike’s.

So, again, these parochial types argue, why would we venture an hour south when we could see something decidedly cooler by heading west?

To that I have two words for you: Manitou Springs.

Tucked in the foothills a quick jaunt west of Colorado’s second city, this quirky small town sits at the base of Pike’s Peak with parts of the shops along the main drag even built right into the mountainsides.

And while much of Colorado Springs has a stodgy rep thanks to its hyper-conservative politics and abundance of military posts, Manitou is an eclectic little outpost that hardly fits that mold. You’ll see more tie-dye here than you will starched collars, and a pair of Tevas is the footwear of choice, almost never wingtips.

Manitou is no johnny-come-lately to the tourism industry. In fact, it was the first tourist destination recorded west of the Mississippi. It’s plentiful carbonated springs waters have been legendary for well over 100 years. Long considered healthful, in the late 1800s the water was actually trucked by wagon to swank Denver hotels for luxury baths. Early attempts to bottle the region’s answer to Perrier failed because the water is so carbonated it exploded bottles.

Springs sites are all around town. Don’t miss them.

Long before then, the springs were destinations to numerous Native American tribes, who first recognized the restorative quality from drinking and soaking in the carbonated mineral water.  At the base of the mountain “Tava” which westerners renamed Pike’s Peak, homesteaders called the area Manitou, after the Algonquin word for ‘Great Spirit.’

And if you make the trek to Manitou, and you have the gams for it, you’d be a fool to skip the Manitou Incline, a grueling 1-mile hike at the base of Pike’s Peak that covers 2,000 feet in elevation. If you’re trying to think back to algebra class to determine just what that means, know this: it’s incredibly steep. And as you plod your way up the corduroy steps, you’ll swear it’s getting steeper because, well, it is.

And be warned, the climb has a couple of brutal false summits that will snooker you into thinking you’ve reached the top when in reality you’ve got a few hundred more quad-burning steps to cover. Once you’ve reached the peak, ascended down the back side along the Barr Trail. You can walk back down the steps if you’d like, but the Barr Trail along the back is a nice way to let your legs cool off and it’ll dump you in the same spot as walking back down the steps will.

While the incline is free, parking there and pretty much everywhere in this tiny mountain enclave can be rough. Your best bet is to drop your car in one the free lots just east of downtown and hop the free shuttle up to the incline.

After you’ve conquered the hike, head over to SunWater Spa back in town and take a dip in their cedar tubs. The carbonated water comes from the area’s mineral springs, and scent of cedar, along with an awesome view, is the ideal way to unwind and let those leg muscles recover.

For dinner, hit the Swirl Wine bar at 717 Manitou Ave. Like any small town, dining options dwindle as the night wears on, but the good folks at Swirl stay open till midnight so you can get your fix of handmade flatbreads — try the Veggie Goat — or sandwiches even if you take your sweet time getting up and down that incline.

Manitou Springs

Elevation: 6,500 ft

Population: 5,222

Square Miles: 3.3

Mineral Drinking Springs: 8

20+ Locally Owned Restaurants

15+ Hiking Trails in a 30-minute Vicinity

Downtown Colorado Springs: 6 miles

Aurora: 80 miles