A Visit to Canon City and The Royal Gorge
The Royal Gorge in Canon City, Colorado is one of those places where you leave thinking, “How did I never know about this place before?”. Seriously, I figured I had to be the only person that never knew about this magical place.
Like much of Colorado, Canon City traces its roots to mining and is about an hour southwest of Colorado Springs. Mark has had Canon City circled on the map for years. We had to scrap plans twice, so the third time was the charm for getting our plans to work. It was a little different going during this darn pandemic. We’ll have to experience the fully open Canon City on a return trip because we will surely make another visit.
The Royal Gorge gets much of the attention, deservedly so. The Arkansas River carved out a beautiful stretch of land just north of downtown.
Our entire stay in town was centered around the gorge. We could even see it and the bridge from our campsite.
We knew we wanted to take the train into the gorge and see the bridge at the top. The surprise was a hike two miles into the gorge!
Tunnel Drive Hike
We started our gorge on the Gorge with the Tunnel Drive Hike right out of town. It’s an easy trail, mostly flat that meanders 30 or so feet above the water. The original tunnels were blasted out of the granite walls in the late 1800’s as a way to deliver water to places east of Penrose. Those plans were scrapped mainly because of expense.
After sitting idle for a few years, the city reopened it as a drive, naming it Tunnel Drive. The road had good periods and bad and was closed to vehicle traffic after a group of teens was injured in a 1988 vehicle accident. In 1992, the city teamed up with the parks department to give the road new life as a hiking and biking trail. The new Tunnel Drive Trail opened for one mile in 1997 with the rest of the path opening in 2000 after two bridges were repaired.
The hardest part of the trail is the very beginning, maybe 1/3 of a mile, where the trail climbs up from the parking lot. From there it is wide and flat. The three tunnels are in the first mile. One is pretty long and gave us a nice break from the summer heat. Us desert dwellers are keen on finding cool spots in any shade, even a tunnel. When we are driving, Mark always beeps the horn when we drive through a tunnel. What do you do when you walk through one? We decided whistling was appropriate and whistled our way through each of them.
The Arkansas River was our constant companion on our left. It cascaded downriver over rocks, around bends, and next to towering rock walls as we walked upriver. We hit the trail about 10 am, hoping to catch some rafters and the first train of the day.
The scenery was spectacular. In some sections, the walls were so straight and tall. Other parts were more rugged and we could see where waterfalls would be in a storm. The trail bends with the river and each bend revealed a little more of the gorge history. As we walked, we wondered out loud if the Grand Canyon looked like this a million years ago.
We got to the end at the 2-mile mark and turned back. Our hope of seeing the train and some rafters hadn’t materialized yet and we were bummed at missing it. But wait, a little while into our return walk back we heard the train. As luck would have it, we were even at an interesting bend in the river! We turned around to see not one, but two rafts in the water and the very front of the train. It was so cool to watch it come! We stood there snapping pictures as they both got closer. I was so happy to get these pictures I practically skipped back to the car.
The Royal Gorge Bridge
The next part of our gorge on the Gorge was at the very tippy top. The Royal Gorge Bridge has been standing atop the gorge since 1929. It’s 1,260 feet long and is 955 feet above the river below. The train and rafters are so small way below as they go by. Over the years it’s become a Disneyland of sorts. You can walk across the bridge, take a gondola ride, zip line across the gorge, and even take a daredevil ride right over the gorge wall.
I couldn’t wait to walk across the bridge. Full disclosure, I am not afraid of heights so peering over the edge looking for rafters and the train didn’t bother me at all. I felt bad for a woman that was practically being dragged out onto the bridge by her husband. She stood with him on one side and her grandson on the other with the “mother of all” death grips on them. I wanted to offer words of encouragement as she slowly made her way to the middle before telling him she was ready to go back, but we decided it would only add to her fear.
Some of the original 18-foot planks are still in place – oh the stories they could tell from almost 100 years. The engineering for the time is amazing and the new updates are right there for everyone to see. The new cable system is impressive and huge! Each state is represented as you walk across with a state flag blowing in the breeze. families took pictures in front of their flag. It was cool seeing kids be so excited looking over the edge, counting the wooden planks and staring up at all the engineering in wonder.
More Fun to be Had
The zip line was up next for us. It’s a fun ride back across the gorge, although I was bummed we couldn’t film our ride. I get it, they don’t want cameras falling almost 1,000 feet to the river below and potentially hurting someone. It still would have been fun to film. Our last ride was the gondola ride. Here’s a hot tip, the line is a lot longer on the parking lot side. We took one look at that long line when getting off the zipline and decided we’d grab a water and walk back over the bridge. It’s the star of the area anyway, so we might as well get our bridge money’s worth. Since the gondola ride is slower than the zipline, you can get a better view of everything, including just how long the bridge really is!
There are lots of things to do on the other side including a merry-go-round, a giant play structure, a new guided rock climbing adventure, a movie house that shows the life of the bridge, a stage with a nice park-like setting to sit, observation areas and several places to eat. During normal non-COVID times, this would be a fun place to spend an afternoon listening to music.
The Royal Gorge Railroad
We saved the train for last.
The Royal Gorge Railroad has quite a colorful history! Did you know there was a railroad war for control of the line? A silver rush in Leadville meant a new rail line was needed for transport but there was only room in the gorge for one line. Workers for the competing rail lines would rush out to lay new tracks early only to find their previous work sabotaged. Both sides hired nefarious men to guard their lines which led to fights and gunshots. Both sides agreed to stop the fighting with the signing of the Treaty of Boston. The finished rail line reached Leadville in July 1880. Today the Royal Gorge Railroad takes passengers back in time along the same tracks that were laid so long ago.
We chose the last ride of the day, in part so we could spend the morning at the top of the gorge and so we could enjoy a happy hour drink on the ride. The train departs at 9:15, 12:30 and 3:30 daily with food and drink service on each. There are large open-air cars that allow you to take in everything around you which I think is the best way to do it. Yeah, you can sit in the coach car or first-class car and watch through the windows but for us, this ride was all about being outside.
We were first to arrive in our beautiful car. I’m not kidding, it was beautiful. Carved wood with metal inlays, rich carpeting, and period lights – it looked like a train car from the rail’s early days. And, for several minutes we had the whole car to ourselves. Brandi was our cheerful hostess and explained she could get us anything we wanted that was already on the train of course.
We slowly pulled out of the station, right on time, and made our way to the gorge. We took our drinks out to the open-air car just in time to pass the Tunnel Drive trailhead that we’d hiked earlier. This was going to be a fun ride from a different angle.
The ride was spectacular. The sky spit rain on us a bit and it smelled wonderful. We desert dwellers love the smell of rain since it comes so rarely. The open-air car is the perfect place to see the gorge all the way around from the water to the tippy top of the canyon walls. On the hike, I looked around but also had to be mindful of the trail so I couldn’t devote the entire hike to taking it all in. On the train, you can see it all without worrying about that pesky prickly pear cactus right next to you.
Along the other side of the river sat miles of large wooden pipes. We learned it was an early way for Canon City to get water for their growing city. It was fascinating that some sections were almost completely rotted while other parts looked like they could still transport water.
Not far into the ride, we saw several white water rafters. They were nearing the end of their ride and waved as enthusiastically at us as we did to them. I wondered how many hikers were like me hoping to catch a picture of the train and rafters.
We rounded the bend a few times checking out all the different places where waterfalls would be if it was really raining hard then we saw it. The giant bridge we stood on that morning was the teeny tiny line across the sky high above us. It’s amazing how small something looks when it’s over 900 feet above you. The gorge was at it’s narrowest point, only 30 feet across. The walls were straight up at this point and laying tracks for the train was an engineering feat for the time. Hanging Bridge, as it’s called, is almost just as it was way back then. This section would be super cool to see from a raft and as we rolled along I was bummed we decided not to take the rafting trip.
All too soon it was time to head back to the station. The ride back was all downhill so we went a little faster. You could hear the squeal of the now lead engine car braking. All the raft rides were done for the day so, besides us, the canyon was quiet. Three deer were at the water’s edge for a drink. Mark managed to snap a couple of pictures before they were out of sight. We were the last train ride and soon the canyon would belong completely to nature until morning.
Our gorge on the Gorge was all we’d hoped for. It’s rare to experience something from top to bottom. Our next experience like this will be when we hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. I know that I’ll miss much of the beauty concentrating on the task at hand. I hope I’ll get chances to stop and take it all in as we did on this day.
Meet the Family
I’m Maureen Milne, F446881. Mark and I are becoming empty nest veterans and you know what, we enjoy it! We are always on the lookout for the next adventure, our friends call us the X-Games family. We are avid hikers, cyclists and skiers (both snow and water). Mark does triathlons and we run several races a year. We’ve been RVing together since we were teenagers and we love traveling with our two grown sons. I share our RV adventures, RV friendly recipes, wonderful campgrounds and more on my blog, M&M Hit The Road. You can also find our fun on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.