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Spotlight: Royal Gorge-Canon City

Explore a breathtaking gorge or ride the rails of a classic train

For more than 3 million years, the Arkansas River has chipped away at the hard granite of Fremont Peak in central Colorado. At a rate of 12 inches every 2,500 years, it has slowly but surely carved a deep and visually stunning crevasse that now plummets 1,200 feet deep. Today, the crevasse is known as Royal Gorge, a 10-mile-long rocky granite gash that follows the flow of the river west from its main visitor gateway: Canon City.

When you first arrive in Canon City, you’ll notice an abundance of incredible turn-of-the-century architecture. The entire downtown core is listed on the National Historic Registry, and a casual stroll through the center of town is an absolute must for first-time visitors.

The city’s Riverwalk is another popular spot for locals and visitors alike. Following the course of the Arkansas River for more than 7 miles, the Riverwalk consists of a crushed gravel pathway suitable for casual trolling, recreational hiking, leisurely biking and even horseback riding. It winds through wetlands, scenic rows of cottonwoods and John Griffin Regional Park.

The Royal Gorge Bridge crosses the gorge 955 feet above the Arka

Michael Murphy

Radical Rafting

Of course, the best way to experience the Arkansas River when you’re in Canon City or the Royal Gorge area is by strapping on a lifejacket and helmet and jumping in a raft. As temperatures rise, and the snows melt high the Colorado Rockies far above, the Royal Gorge stretch of the river is transformed into a world-class whitewater rapids paradise. Within a short distance of the city, a range of river routes is available for rafters of all skill and experience levels. Bighorn Sheep Canyon lies just west of the city and offers Class II to Class III rapids, while Royal Gorge itself features the steep drops and fast flowing Class IV and V rapids that more experienced rafters travel far and wide to experience.

But if plummeting down raging rivers isn’t quite your pace, then plunk yourself knee-deep in some of the slower stretches of the river. A large selection of connected streams and creeks make the area a renowned fly fishing favorite. Trophy sized wild brown trout are abundant, and a variety of guided fishing trips led by experienced local fisherman are available throughout the season. Hikers, bikers and wildlife watchers will want to head to the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Well-marked trails weave their way through the park, and visitors can expect to see wild bore, bighorn sheep, elk, bald eagles, antelope and even the odd family of black bears.

When it’s time for a change of pace, there’s the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, home to one of the highest suspension bridges in the country. It’s also home to a handful of other tourist attractions, such as a scenic gondola ride and the Royal Rush Skycoaster thrill ride.

Canon City West Side Lumber Train on display at the Royal Gorge

Milan Suvajac

Riding the Rails

Far less tummy turning (but no less dramatic), the Royal Gorge Route Railroad takes guests on a first-class streamliner train for a ride up through the gorge and along the twisting, winding banks of the tumbling Arkansas River. Various classes of train cars are available to choose from, but the open-air car with panoramic views in every direction is available to passengers.

Of course sometimes there’s no substitute for exploring on your own. Skyline Drive is a narrow, one-way paved road that snakes its way to the summit of a high razorback ridge that overlooks the entire surrounding area. The road is narrow and in some parts the terrain on either side drops sharply away, but for careful, confident drivers, the views are worth it. Those who reach the summit are treated to an interpretive display and a chance to view dinosaur footprints that are embedded in the cliff face.

For history buffs, the Royal Gorge Regional Museum is a must visit, as is the Florence Pioneer Museum. At the former, visitors stroll through a historic municipal building completed in 1927 while exploring artifacts that tell the history of the entire Royal Gorge region. Highlights include life-size dinosaur replicas, massive photograph exhibits and an authentic 1860s log cabin. The Florence Pioneer Museum, for its part, is a small collection made up to replicate an old school room, doctor’s office and general store.

Of course, before leaving Canon City you should pay a visit to one of the most unusual attractions of all, the Museum of Colorado Prisons. Since its earliest days, Canon City’s remote location has made it a natural location for incarceration. The area’s history and economy are both significantly tied to the evolution of corrections in the United States, from its wild gun slinging frontier days to the modern era. Today, visitors can explore that history on self-guided audio tours through this very eclectic prison. Exhibits and artifacts are displayed across 32 different prison cells, including confiscated contraband from 1871 to the present day and historic photographs.

For More Information

Royal Gorge Region in Colorado
Colorado Tourism Office