Colorado Springs

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In just over an hour, the afternoon has gone from a toasty 88 degrees and sunny to 50 degrees, blustery, and cloudy. In fact, we are IN the clouds…maybe above the clouds. It’s hard to tell from the top of Pikes Peak.

We’ve driven to Colorado so I can attend a conference, but you can’t go to Colorado Springs without visiting a couple of the major tourist attractions, and Pikes Peak is one of them. Just half an hour from the city, Pikes Peak may be the only Colorado mega-mountain you can ascend with your car or on a cog railway. Both take you to the 14,115-ft. summit. And baby, it’s cold up here and the air is thin. My head is pounding and I’m light headed. I dig around in the back seat and add some warm layers before getting out of the car. The view is spectacular.

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WHEN YOU HOP ON THE 19-MILE “America’s Mountain” roadway ($12 per person), you’re advised to drive all the way to the top without stopping and then take your time on the way down – stopping at the pullouts and scenic vistas. This is for two reasons: One, you can take in the views and snap as many photos as you want, and two, you will give your car’s brakes a much-needed rest.

So we followed the advice and drove straight to the top; it took about an hour on the crazy-curvy, hairpin-turning road. A few times it seemed like we could very easily plunge right off the edge of the road to our untimely deaths, but perhaps I was being overly dramatic.

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You start the drive at 7,800 feet and climb, climb, climb. At around 11,800 feet, you’re above the tree line. Most of the really scary switchbacks are above timberline. Sometimes it’s just best to close your eyes (unless, of course, you’re driving).

I’m sure the cog railway is a very different and no less exhilarating experience. The railway cars were at the top of the mountain when we arrived; the red cars really popped against the alpine scenery up there.

When we began our descent, we took our entrance guide’s advice and put my little Prius in engine brake mode. The car makes a funny noise when you use that gear (I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten 99.9 miles to the gallon before), but it seemed to work. Partway down the mountain you have to stop while one of the guides checks your brakes to make sure they’re not overheating. We saw lots of cars with their hoods up in sort of an automotive time-out, waiting for their brakes to cool. But the Prius was good to go.

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We stopped a number of times on our descent, places with names like “Bottomless Pit” and “Devil’s Playground.” We saw bighorn sheep. We saw great views. It was a beautiful day. As we descended, the temperature increased again and I had to take off my layers. Welcome back to summer.

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The next morning, before my conference began, we visited the other top attraction in the region: Garden of the Gods.

This 1,367-acre park is a millions-year-old geological wonder right in the city of Colorado Springs. The amazing rock formations were created during a geological upheaval along a natural fault line. The result is cathedral spires, balanced rocks, and other formations.

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You can drive through this free city park. Better yet, park your car and take a hike; there are 15 miles of trails, and many of them are paved. When we were there, we saw technical rock climbers and horseback riders. A visitor and nature center is nearby, as well as a much-promoted trading post. We stopped at neither.

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Once my conference began at the Air Force Academy, I figured my tourism opportunities were over. But I was wrong, because the Academy itself is a tourist destination, and our group got an extensive tour the first afternoon we were there. Be advised, if you visit, that security is extremely high on the campus as it is also a military base.

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We were lucky to be here when the cadets were on campus, marching in their regiments. We toured the chapel, library (with its spiral staircase), dining hall, and other areas of this most unusual campus.

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The next day we visited the Olympic Training Center in the heart of Colorado Springs. Hour-long guided tours are available for $5. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see athletes training in one or more of the many sport facilities for swimming, gymnastics, shooting, weightlifting, wrestling, etc. There’s also a visitor center with a pretty cool gift shop.

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