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You can’t visit the Pikes Peak region without visiting Pikes Peak. And no one should miss the dramatic red sandstone spires of Garden of the Gods, a city park at the foot of the mountain. The city also is home to the nation’s only mountain zoological park, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, where you can hop on a Sky Ride that overlooks the zoo and the city below, and feed giraffes from your hand. The U.S. Olympic Training Center also is here; world-class athletes in a variety of sports practice here year-round. The ProRodeo Hall of Fame honors athletes of the Western kind. The U.S. Air Force Academy also draws hordes of visitors each year to its visitors center and architecturally famous Cadet Chapel. A newly expanded Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center welcomes world-class traveling exhibits and has a precious Western collection of its own. Nearby towns also offer a grand variety of attractions. Manitou Springs has one of the nation’s oldest amusement arcades (got a nickel?) and Woodland Park, up Ute Pass, has a dinosaur museum representing the area’s deep archeological roots. Cripple Creek, west of the peak, recalls the area’s rich mining history with museums and mine tours. You also can do a little legal gambling here. Canon City, about an hour southwest of Colorado Springs, has many attractions, including a scenic railroad, an Old West town and the Royal Gorge, with its famous suspension bridge.
If you want a day to acclimate to the altitude and learn a bit about the city you’re going to visit, stop at the free Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. The exhibits are enlightening (who knew dentistry in the 1800s was that terrifying?), but the building itself, a real gem, is worth a visit alone. It’s the rescued—once slated for demolition—1903 El Paso County Courthouse. You can still see the judge’s chambers and ornate accoutrements of its past life. The city’s history archives reside in the basement. The museum is in danger of closing because of lack of funds, but it remains open at least through 2010.
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The nation’s highest and only mountain zoo is on the east side of Cheyenne Mountain, at the end of a winding road behind The Broadmoor hotel, which once owned the zoo. Head first to the African Safari exhibit, where you’ll buy and hand-feed crackers to the giraffes at head-height. These tall, gentle giants (the largest breeding herd in the country) accept the crackers with their soft, prehensile tongues. And don’t miss the Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit, where you almost always see mountain lions up close (through glass, not bars), as well as grizzly bears (you might see them catch trout right in front of you), and a resident moose, who munches on branches and hangs out with wild turkeys all day. Don’t forget to ride the antique wooden carousel. For an overview of the zoo and city beyond, hop on the Sky Ride. If you have a few extra minutes, drive on up to the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, above the zoo on the mountain and included in your zoo admission. It honors the cowboy humorist, who was a friend of the Penroses. The shrine also is the final resting place of Spencer Penrose and his wife Julie.
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Neighborhood: Canon City
About an hour and a half—60 or so miles—southwest of Colorado Springs lies the Royal Gorge. America’s highest suspension bridge, completed in 1929, sways over the 1,200-foot-deep Royal Gorge, making some queasy and others exhilarated. You can ride the tame miniature train in the park to the rim or take a stomach-churning flying leap on the Skycoaster out over the chasm. (Imagine being in a giant slingshot.) Other options include a mule ride, a tram across the span and an incline rail to the bottom. The Royal Gorge Scenic Route Railroad runs through the canyon below, and whitewater rafters ply the wild Arkansas River with local outfitters. Nearby, Buckskin Joe’s is a replica of an authentic Old West town—a place where movies have been made and where mock gunfights (hokey but funny) are held daily.
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Military buffs and all who admire our men and women in service should not miss visiting the U.S. Air Force Academy. A vast complex of buildings and open space, it has an informative visitor center. Security was tight after Sept. 11, 2001, but has gotten less so; you will need to check in at a gate. The top attraction here is the world-famous Cadet Chapel, which looks like a giant piece of stained glass when lit from within at night. This prestigious academy produces some of the nation’s top military leaders and is a significant community partner in many ways. During the school year, catch the cadets on parade. If you’re in town during an Air Force football game, do your best to get tickets. If all things military bore you, skip this one.
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Neighborhood: Manitou Springs
This tribute to childhood Christmas fantasies was established in 1956 on the slope of Pikes Peak, and it remains to this day one of the region’s top attractions. Children and their parents flock here to meet Santa Claus, touch the “North Pole” (frozen any time of year) and pet the resident deer. They also may take a sky ride or a whirl on the carousel and do a little Christmas shopping, even in July. An amusement park with a holiday theme, it includes a small theater for magic shows and dozens of rides included in the admission. This really is a place for kids 12 and younger—teens will think it’s “lame.” The cost is under $20 per person, with coupons and senior discounts available online and at the door. It’s closed after Christmas until mid-May.
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Established in 1936 by local notable Alice Bemis Taylor, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is a museum, art school and performing-arts venue. The original building was designed by New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem, who combined Pueblo Revival and Art Deco styles; it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The center’s permanent collection represents such artists as John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keeffe, Walt Kuhn, John James Audubon and Ansel Adams; the center also hosts traveling exhibits. In 2007, a major expansion—the Taylor Museum—was unveiled that blends well with the original space. An enormous Dale Chihuly chandelier hangs in the lobby, and other Chihuly pieces also are in the permanent collection. The center, home to the Bemis Art School, also has a gem of a small theater (home to a resident company), indoor dining and a bar. It’s open 10AM to 5PM Tuesdays through Sundays; admission is $10 for non-members.
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Visitors’ heads turn as recognizable Olympic athletes stroll by their tour group at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, a unique attraction just outside downtown Colorado Springs. It might be a wrestler, a cyclist or a swimmer—they all come here to train at high altitude and improve their performance. Tours offer insight into how these young athletes live and what it takes to become a world-class competitor. It will bring back memories of Olympics past. And it’s free.
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In this dramatic city park that gets national recognition, don’t go looking for the flowers (though there are wildflowers galore at certain times). This is a rock garden, in the most essential meaning of the word. Soaring and interestingly shaped red sandstone rock formations (Kissing Camels, Balanced Rock) thrust up through the earth. Rock climbing is allowed with proper equipment, but if you get stuck, there’s a hefty fee for rescue. Paved paths thread through the central site, and there are hiking trails and horse trails (check out the nearby Academy Riding Stables) on the perimeter. Stop at the visitors center for helpful information and to learn about free programs, from bird watching to wildflower walks. Also catch the movie, which will explain how this geological wonder was formed. If there’s time, visit the adjacent, historic Rock Ledge Ranch for an insightful local history lesson.
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Cowboys represent a small, but impressive, slice of Western history. Their skills persist today on ranches and at rodeos all over the country. Nowhere will you find a better tribute to this lifestyle than at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame & Museum of the American Cowboy. Besides boots and saddles and other paraphernalia used by famous cowboys, there are photos, displays and even live animals on site to help visitors imagine what it’s like to be a cowboy. We especially appreciate the excellent art collection. Kids will love to see the live, retired rodeo stock that lives on the grounds. If you like the museum and happen to be in town during the annual Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, don’t miss it.
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Neighborhood: El Paso
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Pikes Peak is America’s Mountain, perhaps the most famous peak in the country; it’s named for (but was never climbed by) early explorer Zebulon Pike. Katharine Lee Bates once ascended it and wrote America the Beautiful, inspired by the views from its 14,115-foot summit. Pikes Peak looms over the city as a stunning landmark, affects its weather, and defines the region. You can ascend it by car, via the 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway, or by riding the Pikes Peak Cog Railway (the world’s highest). The train takes 3 hours and 10 minutes, round trip, with a stop for as long as you want on the top. Along the way, riders get panoramic views of the region as well as close-up views of such critters as bighorn sheep and marmots. On foot, Barr Trail is 13 miles from base to summit, but it’s straight up, so it’s only for the athletic, and it typically takes all day—thousands do it every year. You also can ride down on a bike with Challenge Unlimited. However you do it, pack a jacket and hat; no matter how warm it is in the city below, it will be chilly and windy on the peak. At the top, the Summit House serves its famous doughnuts.
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