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.
Tech Sgt. 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.”
Once 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 it.”
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 Defense employees.
The 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