Canon City-Royal Gorge
Located among the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Cañon City delivers a dose of Old West culture and rugged scenery that has provided the backdrop for TV series such as “How the West Was Won” and “True Grit.” Nearby, One of Colorado’s most spectacular natural attractions, the Royal Gorge is a dramatic gash in the earth carved over 3 million years by the Arkansas River. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River,” the 10-mile-long spectacle plummets 1,250 feet at its deepest point. Many visitors start their visit at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, built near the 1,260-foot-long namesake suspension bridge.
Going Deep in the Gorge
One of Colorado’s deepest canyons, Royal Gorge is located 125 miles south of Denver and 50 miles southwest of Colorado Springs at the head of the Arkansas River Valley, just off U.S. Route 50. From the mouth of Grape Creek, 2 miles west of Cañon City, the canyon funnels northwest for approximately 10 miles. The best times to visit the Gorge are from March to May and from September to October, when cooler but comfortable temperatures prevail and there are fewer crowds. Averaging 250 sunny days per year, July temperatures nudge 90 degrees, while in January daytime temps can drop to 45 degrees.
One of the world’s highest suspension bridges, the Royal Gorge Bridge, built in 1929, is the centerpiece to a diverse medley of attractions and recreational pursuits in the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Crossing the bridge in your vehicle is thrilling, but nothing beats standing on the span’s walkway as a brisk breeze blows through the canyon. Peer down at the river, a dizzying 950-plus feet below, or ride the trolley that crosses the bridge, allowing you to make it to the other side in a comfortable car. Running parallel to the bridge, bright red gondolas glide along cables, giving passengers views of the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
With gaping canyons, towering walls up to 1,000 feet, rushing waters and a breathtaking mountainous landscape, the Royal Gorge region delivers superb hiking, rafting, four-wheeling, mountain biking and horseback riding. Rafting the world-class rapids of the Arkansas River is a rite of passage for many rafters, and local outfitters offer trips on Class III, IV and V rapids that allow for moderate to extreme thrills while surrounded by the towering red granite walls. The Royal Gorge region is woven with dozens of trails ranging from novice rambles to steep ascents that require more technical expertise. One of the most accessible (but incredibly scenic) hikes in the area, the Royal Gorge Rim Trail is a mellow 3-mile loop trail with just over 100 feet of elevation gain.
Riding Royal Rails
From the depot in Cañon City, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad takes passengers on a two-hour scenic and historic journey through the gorge with spectacular views from the bottom up rather than top down. The orange diesel engine pulls 17 cars — including dining cars, an open-air car and observation domes — that glide between the gorge’s granite walls and provide views of the river and the underside of the bridge along a route that’s been in service since 1879.
Old West Ways
Back at Cañon City, visitors can enjoy cultural pursuits that include art galleries, antique emporiums and the Fremont Center for the Arts, which stages multimedia art shows by local artists. The Museum of Colorado Prisons gives visitors a visceral feel for incarceration; visitors can tour a real gas chamber, view weapons confiscated from inmates and check out the last hangman’s noose used legally in Colorado.
The historic Holy Cross Abbey in Cañon City is a worthy excursion for oenophiles and travelers looking for a taste of the finer things in life. The atmospheric former monastery and boarding school, built in Gothic Revival style in 1925, is now home to one of Colorado’s top-rated wineries. Framed by the serrated granite peaks of the Wet Mountains, the Abbey’s bucolic gardens and inviting tasting rooms provide a tranquil setting for flight tastings of the winery’s many award-winning wines. Tours of the winery are conducted every week.
Millions of years in the making, geologists estimate that the Arkansas River continues to sculpt the canyon, wearing down the Royal Gorge’s 1,250-foot depth by 1 foot every 2,500 years. Paleontologists have discovered the remains of ancient species less than 3 miles from the Royal Gorge Bridge, including 100 million-year-old allosaurus, stegosaurus and brontosaurus fossils. The first European arrival was none other than Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) who, after seeing the gorge in 1806, predicted that man would never triumph over such a force of nature. In 1877, following a battle with the Santa Fe Railroad over the right of way in the canyon, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad laid tracks and established the gorge as a major tourist attraction.
For More Information
Royal Gorge Region in Colorado
Colorado Tourism Office