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Royal Gorge Country offers plenty for the eye

By Larry Dreiling

Over three million years ago, the Rocky Mountains emerged from the surrounding prairie and with them, a river.

This river cut a deep channel up to 1,200 feet deep in some spots over the course of ensuing epochs through a 10-mile long canyon of granite.

Thus, the Royal Gorge was born.

The Royal Gorge and Cañon City make for a great short vacation within a few hours of anywhere on the High Plains.

As has been this reporter's custom over the years, he has brought along nephew Paul to comment with a more youthful eye on attractions that are cool or lame.

A little pre-planning can go a long way in having fun. To obtain a free 56-page visitors' guide to Royal Gorge Country, just call 800-704-6743 or visit

A reminder, too, that you will be at altitude for parts of this trip. For a healthy good time hydrate well, avoid caffeine and alcohol and use sunscreen and sunglasses.


There are more than 20 motels and hotels, more than a dozen campgrounds and five bed and breakfasts in Cañon City. You can also stay in the dozen or so hotels in Pueblo about a half hour away. Most major lodging brands are represented in both cities.

Royal Gorge

The city of Cañon City authorized the building of the Royal Gorge Bridge in 1929, which at 1,053 feet above the river is the highest suspension bridge over water in the world. The bridge is the centerpiece of Royal Gorge Park, a 360-acre theme park owned and run by the city.

Along with the bridge, there's the world's longest single-span aerial tram, world's steepest incline railway and the park's newest thrill ride, the world's highest Skycoaster.

There are lots of other things to do, including burro rides, covered wagon rides, and a carrousel and petting zoo for the kids. Rest your feet in the Plaza Theatre for a brief film on the geography of the park, settlement of the area, and how the bridge was built.

Fees are what you'd find at any major city theme park. Ask for AAA and senior discounts. Summer weekends are jammed with activities, so you might want to consider two days at the park and get an annual passport that offers even more savings.

Paul's opinion: "Very cool. I thought that drive across the bridge was pretty good. The aerial tram is what to ride to get a really good view. No, Paul will not ride the Skycoaster."

Royal Gorge Park

888-333-5597 or 719-275-7507

Buckskin Joe Frontier Town & Scenic Railway

The route from Cañon City to the Royal Gorge is loaded with fun, touristy places that make the trip memorable. Celebrating its 50th year, Buckskin Joe features antiques, street gunfights, and a fun throwback to an easier time. The Scenic Railway offers a route to great views of the Royal Gorge and Bridge as viewed from the northwest--perfect for evening twilight photography.

Paul's opinion: "Really kitschy. It's loaded with lots of tourist stuff that (Uncle Larry) might have liked as a kid. I didn't think the railway would be worth it but once you get to the end point by the gorge there's a great payoff."

Buckskin Joe Frontier Town & Scenic Railway


Royal Gorge Route Railroad

The most unique way to see the gorge is through the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Ride in climate controlled coaches and Vista Dome service. The ride can last from two to three hours depending on meal service.

Reservations are highly recommended for this attraction. Trains depart up to four times a day.

Paul's comment: "The train wasn't operating the days we were there, but everyone we talked to said it's worth it."

Royal Gorge Route Railroad

Santa Fe Depot

Reservations: 888-724-5748 (RAILS4U)

Whitewater Rafting

Everyone says it if they've done it: No trip to the Royal Gorge area would be complete without experiencing the rapids of the Arkansas River; from a mild family trip through Bighorn Sheep Canyon to the wild excitement of the Royal Gorge. More than a dozen firms operate rafting tours. Go to and click on Whitewater Rafting for more information.

Paul's comment: "Paul don't raft!" Uncle Larry's comment: "Chicken."


Add a little cultural easy time by visiting some of the area's really good museums.

Buy a Community Heritage Pass and get admission to four locations for one low price. Passes are available for purchase at each of the facilities.

Colorado Museum of Prisons

Fremont County, where Cañon City is located, has been dubbed the "Prison Capital of the World." More prisons, 13 federal and state lockups, are located in the county than anywhere else worldwide.

The Colorado Museum of Prisons offers a glimpse into prison life. Exhibits include the Colorado gas chamber last used in1967, the original state hangman's noose, plus 30 cells on different aspects of prison life.

Paul's comment: "Way cool. You'd never think you'd ever see a gas chamber, but there it is."

Colorado Museum of Prisons


Fremont Center for the Arts

The Fremont Center for the Arts is the nation's oldest community arts council. The works of local artists as well as traveling exhibits are featured. Be sure to check for current scheduled exhibits.

Paul's comment: "It's pretty nice little gallery. You can tell the people here have a lot of pride in their arts community."

Fremont Center for the Arts


Dinosaur Depot Museum

The Dinosaur Depot Museum houses dinosaur fossils from the Garden Park Fossil Area. It has an active laboratory where visitors can view the preparation of fossils and talk to knowledgable volunteers and professionals.

Paul's take: "OK. This isn't the biggest fossil museum you'll ever see, but they seem to have some good docents that know what they're talking about and some decent displays of what they've found out in the area."

Dinosaur Depot Museum


Royal Gorge Regional Museum

Offers both exhibits and research materials that portray and interpret the history of the region and its people.

Paul's comment: "I wasn't really into it. I think you might be if you are into the specific items or wanting specific information, then this might be OK."

Royal Gorge Regional Museum


Other attractions

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey

Looking for agritourism sites, the biggest crowd we found was at The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey. The winery, located on the grounds of a former Benedictine monastery, offers merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, Riesling, chardonnay, and syrah varietals. Viticulturalist and winemaker Matt Cookson and his wife Sally manage the winery established in 2001. Paul's take: "This is really cool. Call ahead and see if there's a time to tour the vineyards, which you can see from the main highway. Thanks Uncle Larry for buying me that bottle of merlot for my 21st birthday. Don't drink it before I get there."

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey


Cañon City also boasts some great dining, including a downtown brewpub, and two golf courses--one public, the other is a fee-based private course.

Surrounding towns


Florence is a pretty town just to the east of Cañon City. The Main Street Historic District is filled with at least a dozen antique shops and art galleries.


We found Pueblo to be an "event" city. Certainly, the Colorado State Fair is the biggest event each year. A couple of weekends after the fair closes is the annual Chile and Frijoles Festival.

We went to the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, made a walk around the Arkansas Riverwalk and then walked a bit to Union Street, home of one of the funkiest shopping districts we've ever been to. Several little bistros, antique stores and specialty shops can be found in that area. There's also a small whitewater park in this revitalized downtown.

Outside of downtown are the Pueblo Zoo, with over 400 animals, and the Nature Center of Pueblo, with a nice raptor exhibit. Further west is Lake Pueblo, where you can enjoy some time fishing or on your boat.

Side Trip-- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Two hours of a lovely drive into the mountains south and west of Pueblo is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Alpine tundra, forests, massive dunes, grasslands, and wetlands work together to create one of the most tender, complex and beautiful ecosystems you'll ever find.

Take in the visitor's center first and learn how it all fits. Then spend a day exploring this incredible natural wonder. Brevity keeps us from explaining everything about the dunes, but know they're the tallest in North America.

Paul's take: "From what we learned, the best time to come is a couple of weeks either side of Memorial Day. We also could see wildlife up so close we could touch the deer if we had wanted. This is way cool. You learn how fragile the planet really is because of how fragile this one little ecosystem is. Kind of humbling."

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Visitor Center


Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by e-mail at


Date: 5/8/08


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