Remember when you were a kid, and you were waiting, and waiting, and waiting for Christmas morning so you could open your presents? Remember how the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas felt like it was a million months? That’s how it’s felt living so close to the South Slope of Pikes Peak, thousands of acres of wild, pristine public land locked behind razor wire fences.
It wasn’t always like that. Before 1913, this side of the 14,115-foot mountain was a popular spot for hiking and exploring in buggies and burro trains. But within its boundaries, reservoirs held the only water source for the city of Colorado Springs below, and as the region grew, officials feared contamination. So they locked up the South Slope.
Time passed. Water delivery systems changed. On the other side of Pikes Peak, the North Slope Recreation Area opened to fishing, mountain biking, kayaking and hiking. Volunteers with a group called Friends of the Peak built a circumference trail called Ring the Peak. Still, we were locked out of the South Slope, a 9,000-acre watershed 10 miles from Colorado Springs.
Until now. Colorado Springs city government has officially allowed us to open this gift. But don’t go wild. There will be no tearing away the wrapping paper and diving in. The South Slope Recreation Area, including McReynolds and Mason reservoirs, is open only two weekends in October and will close again until the spring. If you want to visit, you have to reserve a spot through the City of Colorado Springs website.
If you’re lucky enough to win one of those spots, here are six things to know about the South Slope:
Act fast. Unlike almost any other day-use place in the Pikes Peak region, the South Slope requires a paid reservation that must be made in advance. ($15 per vehicle with up to eight people in a car – leave your dogs at home). And it’s only open Oct. 4 and 5 and Oct. 9-12 from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. After that, you have to wait until the snow melts next spring.
Prepare to enter the wilderness. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Colorado Springs, but the South Slope feels like you are hundreds of miles from any city. Subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce forests share this space with wetlands. The great stands of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine are dense and the closest thing to old growth forest you’ll find around here. There’s no traffic noise or city lights.
Be aware that the experience could leave you breathless. This is high-elevation scenery, ranging from 10,500 to 12,000 feet. In its open meadows, it offers sweeping views and a glimpse of Pikes Peak from the other side.
Got trout? Fishing (catch and release) is allowed at Mason and McReynolds Reservoirs, and human-powered boats are allowed in McReynolds (which is just a puddle right now).
Take your camera. There is a healthy bighorn sheep population here (one of the reasons you can’t go off trail). And on the road in, we’ve seen some massive elk. Because there has been little human presence for more than a century, the area is also home to bears, mountain lions, mule deer and golden eagles. And Pikes Peak’s unofficial mascot, the marmot, often hangs out on boulders for a day of sunbathing.
Look to the future. Friends of the Peak, a local environmental group, has labored for years on trails on the South Slope in preparation for this opening and its volunteers have helped build the new trails that visitors will use. The group’s eventual goal: to further link trails that form the Ring the Peak Trail to make a true circumference trail. But the sections in and around the South Slope are still not complete. Another local mountain bike advocacy group, Medicine Wheel, is spearheading a trail-building effort they call the Lake Moraine-Missing Link Trail – a non-motorized single-track that connects Barr Trail with Lake Moraine, Jones Park and Cheyenne Canyon, would be a piece of Ring the Peak, and could create an exciting new 20-mile loop (Manitou Springs to Barr Camp to Lake Moraine to Jones Park, to Cheyenne or Bear Creek canyons and then back to Manitou on the Intemann Trail.)