Choose your own adventure at the Air Force Academy
It`s easy to forget, as you hike among the quiet aspen groves and pine forests of the Rampart Range foothills, that you are on a training ground for elite aviators who will pilot advanced war machines.
From late 2001 to 2006, the public was not allowed on the trails at the Air Force Academy, due to the post-9/11 security crackdown on military bases.
But in the past five years, the Academy has poured $300,000 and countless hours into trail work, re-routing paths and building new segments. Far from keeping the public out, Academy officials now welcome hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders.
“The Academy itself is open to public use, as long as you can get yourself on base,” said Brian Mihlbachler of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversees the Academy’s trail network.
Getting yourself on base isn’t as tough as it used to be. All you have to do is show a driver’s license or other government issued ID, pop open your car’s trunk and choose your adventure — be it a long mountain bike ride, a brutal slog up a peak, or an excursion into the national forest.
Spring is a great time to visit, when Colorado’s higher peaks are socked-in with snow and it isn’t too hot on these lower-elevation trails.
Here is your guide for exploring the Academy.
Mountain biker’s paradise
In the heart of the Academy, the Falcon Trail is a 13-mile singletrack loop many consider the Pikes Peak region’s premiere mountain bike trail.
The trail was built piecemeal over the years by cadets, employees and others, as riders followed game trails down canyons and up hillsides.
Since 2005, the Academy has installed signs and blocked off the many
side spurs that were causing erosion. What is left is a great
intermediate ride, with only a few technical sections, through developed
and wild areas of the Academy grounds.
“It isn’t really a technical trail, but it’s
something that provides a cyclist more challenges than just riding the
New Santa Fe Trail,” said Mihlbachler, referring to the flat gravel path
that runs between Colorado Springs and Palmer Lake, through the
Academy’s east side.
Not many people hike the Falcon Trail, because it makes for a
long, sweaty day unless you have a shuttle.
To get there: There are numerous access points,
but for the main trailhead, enter through the Academy’s south gate.
Take South Gate Boulevard, which becomes Stadium Boulevard. Turn west
after you reach the stadium and drive a short distance up Academy Drive
to a spot where the Falcon Trail crosses the road. Park your vehicle.
Cortchie Welch and his unit once did an ascent of Eagle Peak for “PT,”
or physical training.
“I made it halfway,”
said Welch. Such is the workout that awaits climbers on Eagle Peak, a
jagged mountain that towers over the Academy. The trail to the top could
rival the Manitou Incline, gaining 1,900 feet of elevation in 1.25
miles. It is steep — and eroding and needs work.
“It’s a social trail that
developed over the years by the cadets and others hiking up there,” said
Mihlbachler. “It’s not a very sustainable trail, but it gets a heck of a
lot of use.”
climbed mainly by cadets, the word is out about Eagle Peak, thanks to
mountaineering websites. As many as 50 people a day attempt this harsh
route on summer weekends. The 9,368-foot peak has dangerous cliffs on
its east side, where in 2006 a cadet fell and nearly died. Academy
officials posted a warning sign.
Most of the route is in the Pike National Forest.
Frank Landis, a
recreational planner with the U.S. Forest Service, said the trail is not
considered a “system trail,” meaning hikers are free to use it but the
agency does not maintain it. The Forest Service is considering adopting
the Eagle Peak trail, but the grade is too steep, and to smooth it to
the peak’s contours “kind of defeats the purpose of how people are using
To get there:
Park at the visitors center and walk west across Academy Drive to a
dirt road leading up toward the peak. Walk up the road for about a
quartermile, veering right at a power transformer, then left at the next
fork. Look for signs at the trailhead.
Up the canyons
Two trails start on the
Academy’s west side and take hikers for trips into the Rampart Range,
where relative solitude awaits.
The Stanley Canyon
Trail is a steep, secluded climb to a scenic lake. It becomes Forest
Service Trail 707 and climbs two miles to Stanley Reservoir, and
ambitious hikers can continue five more miles to the Academy’s Farish
Recreation Area, a hiking, camping and picnic area open only to
active-duty and retired military and their guests and Department of
other trail, a little farther south, goes up the West Monument Creek
drainage. Hikers must skirt a water plant, and can then hike to Stanley
Reservoir, making for a long but doable loop back to the Stanley Canyon
trailhead. Get back to the car by hiking for a bit on the Falcon Trail.
To get there: From
Stadium Drive, turn west onto Pine Drive. At the fire station, after
about three miles, turn left onto West Monument Creek Drive. Drive about
a mile. Just before a gate closes the road, look for a dirt road on the
right. Park here but don’t block the gate. Follow signs for Trail 713.
(c) 2009, The
Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.). —MCT