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Colorado Springs

May 2024
5min read

Expectations are everything where travel is concerned, and when I set off last July for Colorado Springs, a Victorian-era resort a mile high in the Rocky Mountains, most of mine were wrong. There are no springs in town, for one thing, so no park takes shape around them, no pattern of streets and alleys converges there, no ramshackle hotels or tidy storefronts line the route to and from the waters. The famous Antlers Hotel, which conjures up visions of a shingle-style edifice crammed with hunting trophies, turns out to be a high-rise built in 1962, its two previous incarnations having long ago been destroyed. I drove the city’s clean, wide avenues for half an hour before giving up and asking where the center of town was, only to find I was in it.

Within a day or so I’d found the touchstones I was looking for; they just were scattered. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Colorado Springs began as that phenomenon we’ve all read about—a resort created out of thin mountain air by the railroads.

Colorado Springs was founded by William Jackson Palmer, who was engaged in building the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Raised in Philadelphia, Palmer in 1870 married an Easterner accustomed to the pleasures of Newport and Saratoga; Colorado Springs, the story goes, grew out of his determination to build a resort rivaling these for his bride.

Palmer bought up some ten thousand acres on a plateau just east of Pikes Peak in 1871 and laid out streets in a grid, naming them for streams and mountain ranges along his rail line. With a developer’s reach for the romantic, he named the town itself for some springs in Manitou, five miles away. Today, driving the thoroughfares he platted on the empty plains, you sense both his foresight and his presumption. “What we have out here is sky,” said Debbie Kovalik, who works at the tourist bureau, as she showed me around. And she’s right. It’s no wonder the Air Force decided in 1954 to build its academy here. Its soaring, ultramodern chapel draws more visitors than any nearby natural or historic site.

In its early years Colorado Springs prospered or declined with the fortunes of nearby mining camps. But that it would finally thrive seems to have been clear almost from the beginning. Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman who arrived on horseback in 1873, grasped the future even then, although her letters home to her sister dwelt more on the present. “From the top of one of the Foot Hill ridges,” she writes in one of them, “I saw the bleak-looking scattered houses of the ambitious watering place of Colorado Springs, the goal of my journey of 150 miles.…A queer embryo-looking place it is, out on the bare Plains, yet it is rising and likely to rise, and has some big hotels much resorted to.…To me no place could be more unattractive than Colorado Springs, from its utter treelessness.”

Palmer addressed the tree problem at once, planting cottonwoods and running irrigation ditches the length of town to keep them watered. He outlawed industry and alcohol (the city would remain dry until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933) and advertised the region’s clean air and scenic wonders. Before long tuberculosis patients began arriving. The Colorado Springs Hotel went up in 1872, the Antlers a decade later; theater and opera, golf and polo would follow.

Despite his efforts, Palmer’s wife never spent much time in Colorado Springs, but other Easterners and Europeans responded to his vision. And they’re still arriving; many of the places we visit today are the very ones he vigorously promoted. Then, as now, tourists could climb Pikes Peak, made more accessible after 1891, when a cog railway began carrying passengers to the summit. A round trip takes three hours and costs seventeen dollars; next time I’d save the money and invest the time in a hike up the Barr Trail, the entrance to which is just beyond the parking lot. You may not make it to the top, but you’ll know you’re in the mountains.

Only slightly less celebrated than the Peak is the Garden of the Gods, part of a red sandstone rock formation that extends across sections of Colorado and Wyoming. A lawyer from Kansas City christened the place in 1859, and although its high-flown name almost guarantees disappointment, I felt no sense of letdown. The rocks looked to me like great dinosaurs; to the more eloquent Helen Hunt Jackson, a novelist and journalist whose writings in the 1870s helped draw visitors, they appeared “like elephants, like gargoyles…all motionless and silent, with a strange look of having been stopped and held back in the very climax of some supernatural catastrophe.”

A number of attractions have been added to the region since Palmer’s day. The best of these is the Colorado Pioneers’ Museum, founded in 1937 and located since 1979 in the handsome El Paso County Courthouse. The high ceilings and birdcage elevator of the courthouse, built in 1903, make a fine setting for this miniature Smithsonian of local history. After a tour of the museum, it’s not far to Giuseppe’s, a restaurant in the old Denver and Rio Grande depot, where you can have lunch overlooking the railroad tracks and watch the freight trains rumble by.

A fine base from which to explore these and other attractions is the luxurious pink terra-cotta Broadmoor Hotel, built in 1918 by Spencer Penrose, the second great champion of Colorado Springs. A generation younger than Palmer but, like him, a Philadelphian, Penrose made his fortune in the gold refineries at Cripple Creek. Before Penrose built the Broadmoor, he constructed a toll road to the top of Pikes Peak, refusing to be discouraged even as each successive mile cost five or ten times what had been estimated. (To ensure a return on his quarter-million-dollar investment, he thought up stunts like sponsoring Barney Oldfield in an auto race to the top.)

Once he had decided to enter the hotel business, Penrose tried to buy the Antlers from Palmer, riding into the lobby, legend has it, on his horse. When the two men couldn’t agree on a price, Penrose turned his attention to a site on a man-made lake southwest of town.

Penrose hired the New York architects Warren and Wetmore, designers of Grand Central Terminal and the Commodore and Biltmore hotels, who drew up plans for a Mediterranean-style palazzo overlooking the lake. To furnish it, Penrose imported marble for the staircase from Italy, hired European craftsmen to decorate the ceilings, and bought a centuries-old Venetian fountain for the entrance. As a masterstroke, he arranged for John D. Rockefeller to be the first to sign the guest book when the hotel opened. Hours later, when Penrose looked for his guest of honor, he found he had left to check into the Antlers, driven away by the smell of fresh paint.

The fountain still splashes near the front entrance to the Broadmoor, and you climb the marble staircase to the heart of the hotel, which is the terrace facing the lake and Cheyenne Mountain. Shaded by juniper trees and decorated with massive urns spilling over with flowers, the terrace perfectly embodies Penrose’s dream of a world-class resort in the American wilderness. There may be no surer way to seize hold of an era than to take up residence, however briefly, in one of its great hotels. In Colorado Springs the Broadmoor is the one.

Shaded by juniper trees, the terrace at the Broadmoor embodies Penrose’s dream of a world-class resort in the wilderness.

Over the years the Broadmoor has had to expand, adding wings and golf courses and fitness trails. Guests who used to arrive with their trunks for a summer of rest now come for a day or two of conventioneering or sport, but the hotel is none the less grand for that. From the Broadmoor it’s a ten-minute drive to Old Colorado City, so named by its founders in 1859 in the naive hope it would become the state capital. Its main street, once home to the bars and brothels outlawed in Colorado Springs, is given over to shops and restaurants now. Incorporated into Colorado Springs in 1917, it has the feel of a real place that the downtown somehow lacks.

A few miles north is Manitou Springs, where there are springs and Victorian hotels with porches, although souvenir shops threaten to overwhelm the landscape. Manitou is also the starting point for the cog railway up Pikes Peak. And on the far side of the peak are two goldmining towns that make an excellent day trip. The drive there along Route 67 winds through the glorious mountain scenery people come to Colorado for, and when you round the bend onto Cripple Creek’s main street, you’re smack in the middle of the Old West. The restored and sandblasted brick storefronts now sell T-shirts and ice cream—the get-rich-quick enterprises of a new generation. Six miles farther along is Victor, a half-deserted hillside town of ghostly beauty. Black clouds gathered as I was there, and a sudden hailstorm materialized out of the July afternoon, sending torrents of rain and ice through the streets and driving everyone indoors. For a moment Victor seemed as sodden and godforsaken as these camps must have been most of the time—making the nearby civilized comforts of Colorado Springs all the more pleasurable.

—Jane Colihan

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