Visiting The Air Force Academy
Residents of Colorado Springs, the Air Force Academy is practically in your backyard. This may make it easy to forget about visiting the Air Force Academy, which is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Colorado. AFA attracts about a million visitors per year! What’s the draw? Well, here’s a little guide to what you can see around the Air Force Academy, and what the current visiting situation is with COVID-19.
There are a couple of things you might want to know before you jump into your car and head up to the Academy. It’s easy enough to find--north of Colorado Springs, accessible by exit 156 off I-25. You can’t miss it--Falcon Stadium is visible from the highway!
However, note that you must be ready for a security stop on your way in. IDs are necessary to enter, and the security check may involve a vehicle inspection.
This may well be your first port of call in the Air Force Academy. Open from Monday to Friday, from 9-5 PM, the Visitor Center has historical exhibits, and exhibits on the character development, academic, athletic, and military training cadets undergo at the Academy. There’s plenty of ground to cover -- the Air Force Academy has been operating since 1954! There’s also a theatre, which displays relevant films, and facilities selling merchandise and snacks.
Perhaps the most distinctive and beautiful structure on campus, Cadet Chapel is also the most visited man-made attraction in Colorado. It was built in 1962, designed by Walter Netson, with 17 aluminum spires at 150 feet tall. Cadet Chapel is now considered a masterpiece of modernist architecture, despite it being controversial during construction. Every detail was finessed with an eye to symbolism and beauty: the pews are sculpted to look like WWI propellers, and each of the worship areas of this interfaith chapel contains gorgeous artwork. The Protestant Chapel, which is at the ground level, receives light through the colorful panels in the spires, making it awe-inspiring at any time of day.
Unfortunately, Cadet Chapel is closed for now--not due to COVID, but instead due to renovation, which began in September 2019. It is currently encased in a “hanger” while pieces are removed to install much-needed rain gutters. Be patient, though! It is slated to open again in 2023 when you can finally see this graceful piece of architecture for yourself. In the meantime, you can imagine yourself there with the aid of this 3D virtual tour.
Notable for its 105 ft tall glass spire, designed to look like a plane’s tail, Polaris Hall was designed by Roger Duffy in 2016 as a building where cadets, instructors, military leaders, and public and private officials could convene for discussions on integrity and the Air Force’s moral compass. The lecture hall hosts all sorts of speakers--a beautiful location, for the glass spire opens into the hall, serving as a skylight. Polaris Hall also features rooms for collaborations, and the Honor Board Room, where cadets administer the Air Force Academy honor code: “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”
Arnold Hall serves many purposes but can be summarized as the entertainment hub of the Air Force Academy, hosting concerts, dances, and performances. The theatre there hosts events from open mic nights to plays, and the Arnold Hall Ballroom is known for hosting the fabulous Ring Dance, a formal ball that celebrates Juniors becoming Seniors and the unveiling of the class ring and crest. This is also the primary location for cadets to spend time with civilians.
Arnold Hall is also the place to go for food. Visitors are welcome in the dining hall, which features Dominos and Subway, and more. Or one can pick up a cup of Starbucks coffee and light fare at Polaris Perk.
STEM is an important feature of the Air Force Academy’s educational program, and the Planetarium has a role to play in that, servicing both cadets and visitors. Under normal operating conditions, one can come to see an educational free public show at the Planetarium.
The Terrazzo is the center of the Air Force Academy. This is a vast, landscaped pavilion. One can visit Spirit Hill, in the center, where the cadets daily “take the hill” during noon meal formation (which is definitely an impressive sight to see). The Air Gardens in the east quarter feature geometric pools and walkways, and four retired aircraft sit in the Terrazzo: an F-15, an F;16, an F-105, F-4, each with their unique histories of service.
For those wanting some exercise, the Air Force Academy features 23+ miles of paved and unpaved trails open to visitors. Hikers, bikers, and Equestrians may use the trials. Part of the Santa Fe Trail runs through the length of the Academy along I-25 and continues on for 40 miles in total. The Falcon Trail, a 13-mile loop, features views of the Academy and signs explaining the local plants, geology, and natural phenomena. The Stanley Canyon Trail and the Farish Hiking Trail both feature beautiful views of the surrounding area, with the latter leading into the mountains and the verdant Pike National Forest.
The Air Force Academy is famous for the football games. You will enjoy aircraft flyovers and the Wings of Blue parachute team jumping onto the field. Falcon Stadium is the highest elevated playing field in division 1. It has a capacity of 46,692, and at an altitude of over 6,000 feet.
Despite the closure of the Cadet Chapel and the Planetarium, there’s still plenty to do at the Air Force Academy. Visitors are welcome at the Visitor Center, the Arnold Hall food court, the trails, stables, and the golf course. Visitors may also observe many other areas. Be sure to visit the cadet area, the athletic fields,, and ongoing airmanship training. Noon meal formations resumed on August 9, so visitors are welcome to watch. Additionally, the football season is going forward. The Falcon Athletics ticket office operating from 9 AM to 5 PM in the cadet field house and online.
Visitors must wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. This is due to Defense Department guidelines.
Whether you’re a visitor to colorful Colorado, or a resident, the Air Force Academy is certainly worth a visit. It is also an experience unlike any other.