Three Days In: Royal Gorge Region

The Royal Gorge Route Railroad train winds alongside the Arkansas River with observation and dining cars. © Chad Chisholm

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Colorado’s Royal Gorge Region is filled with more than 100 years of architecture, activities, and natural wonders, including a suspension bridge built in 1929 to a zoo that started in the 1930s. New additions of luxury cabins, jeep tours across rugged terrain, and whitewater rafting through canyons and prairies are all primed for adventure-seekers or vacationers wanting to take in this Colorado mountain wonderland.

I spent three perfect days experiencing it all: splashing through rapids, gliding through the Royal Gorge by train, zipping across the ravine expanse, and even encountering life-sized dinosaurs.

Day 1

Colorado History

Brues Alehouse, along the historic Pueblo Riverwalk, is a great place to enjoy the view from its outdoor patio. © Chad Chisholm

We began our adventure with a walk on the wild side—the Pueblo Zoo. Built in 1933, as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal by the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, many of the buildings were constructed by hand and took a fresh approach to more natural habitats for the animals—a system emulated the world over.

Monkey Island is a charming landmark made from native sandstone quarried 25 miles away. Its miniature lighthouse and “shipwrecked” boat have been home to a variety of primates for more than 80 years. The meandering paths allow for a sprawling sensation, and unlike other zoos, a closer encounter with the animals. We were so close, Meerkats quizzically checked out my camera, a Great Horned Owl blinked its globe-like eyes at me, and I could sense the distinct fragrance of massive Colorado bison from just a few feet away in the observation area. The charm of Pueblo Zoo makes it ideal for young children or for a relaxing day lounging under the mature boughs of trees.

Seeking out lunch, we headed to the Pueblo Riverwalk, where it feels as if you’ve been transported to another state altogether. Rolling lawns and smooth water, framed by wide walkways and pedestrian bridges, are steps from downtown and a pedestrian paradise. We opted for Brues Alehouse—a converted historic police station and jail, sitting right on the water. It offers an outdoor patio and charming indoor space, with a plethora of lagers, IPAs, and hard ciders, which are brewed on-site and pair well with the menu items, such as loaded Pueblo fries (complete with Pueblo green chile) and the Brues Slopper (a massive two-patty burger served open-faced and smothered in Pueblo green chile). Afterward, we walked along the water toward downtown to shake off our food coma before heading to our next stop: The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey near Cañon City.

Sipping assorted wine varietals at The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey. © Chad Chisholm

In 1886, two Benedictine monks from Pennsylvania established The Order of St Benedict Monastery and opened a boarding school in the community of Cañon City. However, when the school was forced to close in 1985, the remaining monks sought out a new source of income by creating a winery. The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey began producing wine in 2000. The tasting room, which opened in 2002, overlooks the vines and sits in the shadow of the Abbey. A large wrap-around porch and old cottonwood trees make for a perfect canopy to sit and enjoy a flight of the award-winning wines, light conversation, and tongue-in-cheek vintages such as Revelation and Merlot Divinity.

A short drive from The Winery at Holy Cross is the Royal Gorge Cabins, which we used as our “home base” while exploring the area. Central to several activities, these luxury cabins are not only stately but afford luxuries, such as kitchenettes and dining patios. After putting a bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc Reserve in the refrigerator, I collapsed into the hammock outside, swinging in the waning summer heat and looking out to the mountains beyond. Our day of exploring from Pueblo to Cañon City to Royal Gorge worked up our appetites, so it was on to dinner.

Strolling along a short walk through a tree-lined drive, and across the street from Royal Gorge Cabins, is 8 Mile Bar and Grill—our dinner spot for the evening. The rafting-inspired décor of the restaurant and mountain history on the walls is interesting and appropriate without being campy or theme park-esque. Outdoor dining is available, and fire pits are popular with cabin guests to relax after a hearty dinner. Colorado-raised beef, sustainable seafood, and locally sourced vegetarian dishes pepper the menu. For those with a sweet tooth, be sure to save room for the decadent American Brownie Sundae for dessert.

Day 2

All About the Gorge

Scaling the red granite cliffs of the Royal Gorge up the Via Ferratta. © Chad Chisholm

This morning was all about the AAA GEM (Great Experiences for Members) Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, which was nearly destroyed by a wildfire in 2013. A quick drive from our cabin, the park came into view with a plethora of activities. First up: walking the bridge itself.

The Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge is the highest in America and sits 956 feet above the Arkansas River. If you have a fear of heights, I don’t suggest looking down through the planks to the river below. Constructed in 1929, the bridge consists of 4,100 steel cables and 1,257 wooden planks that straddle the breathtaking expanse for unparalleled views. Alongside, a newly installed gondola and zip line make for a gentle crossing or high-octane commute across the gorge. We strolled the bridge on our way to the Via Feratta.

Made popular in Europe, Via Feratta is a guided climbing course, ranging from easy to more difficult, on the steep sides of the gorge. Actual metal “steps” are created in conjunction with a steel wire system, which guests are clipped into. After a while, I felt like an expert clipping in and out of the wires, taking confident steps up the course. After we completed the practice course, we opted for a more challenging assent.

Our guide, Marquette, cheerfully chatted with us on a hike down a mountain path, pointing out interesting geological sites along the way. Clipping into to a lower course, we made our way across the granite parapets. Coming to a lookout point, an extremely narrow suspension bridge is one not for the faint of heart, yet the views from the other side made it well worth it. Further along the trek, a picture-perfect vista of the Royal Gorge Bridge appeared from below as we steadfastly ascended the rocky terrain.

After the Via Ferrata, recharging at Café 1280 was a must. Named for its 1,280-feet elevation above the river, the pizzas, burgers, wraps, and salads from this onsite restaurant were a perfect way to restore our energy. A large outdoor patio overlooks the gorge, and the distant screams of joy could be heard from those on the Royal Rush Skycoaster—a 50-mile-per-hour freefall swing over the Gorge itself. After lunch, we checked out the movie at the Plaza Theater, detailing the fascinating history of the area and people involved with this ever-evolving attraction.

Next on the list was the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience—a museum and ropes course great for kids and adults. The museum tour details the prehistoric inhabitants of the area, including a fossilized skeleton of our state dinosaur, the Stegosaurus. Self-guided or guided tours are available and are a great warm-up to the next adventure—a walk among the dinosaurs themselves.

Coming face-to-face with a life-sized animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience ropes course. © Chad Chisholm

Animatronic, life-sized recreations of the reptiles are found in a hiking loop nestled in the high plains desert environment, made me feel like I had stumbled into Jurassic Park itself. From a mother Triceratops and her babies to a ferocious raptor, the scale really made me appreciate these inhabitants of the area.

As if we hadn’t had enough climbing for the day, we had to hop on the ropes course, complete with a roaring 20-foot-tall T-Rex. Three stories high, this unique harness system has guests walking above the dinosaurs. It’s unlike any other ropes course I’ve ever traversed.

Totally exhausted, it was time to relax and let the world pass us by via the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Departing Cañon City four times on weekends, the “rolling restaurant” offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner service through the Gorge, where locally sourced ingredients grace the menus, while passengers enjoy about a two-hour experience.

A fun alternate adventure visitor can enjoy is pairing the train ride with a Jeep tour through the Gorge with Colorado Jeep Tours, or even a with a wine tasting at the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey.

Having comprehensively enjoyed the Gorge, we enjoyed a casual dinner on our patio back at our cabin, with a perfect orange sunset setting behind the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. A bottle of wine from the Abbey and some local meats and cheeses made up our charcuterie board, as the stars started to come out for the evening and feather-soft beds beckoned us for a blissful night’s rest.

Day 3

Aquatic Adventure

Whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River is fun for the whole family. © Chad Chisholm

We awoke refreshed and ready for a day of adventure on the water. From our cabin, we walked across the street to Echo Canyon River Expeditions, one of several rafting outfitters offering an assortment of adventures from family-friendly float trips to heart-pounding rapid-running. We opted for their Bighorn Sheep Canyon trip, a mix of float trip with some intermittent rapids. One of my favorite things they offered was a photo package with waterproof GoPro cameras and shoreside photographers stationed at exciting rapid photo ops along the way. As a photographer, I didn’t have to worry about getting my own camera wet—or lost!

Putting in further toward Salida, the Arkansas River was a welcome way to spend our last day. Colorado sunshine beat down on us and the sparkling waters moved along at a decent click. Our guide told us that wildlife often come down to the water, and sure enough, we spotted some whitetail deer peacefully grazing as we floated past.

Just when we thought we had experienced the area from every angle, the final exploration was to drive “Skyline Drive” on our way home. Sitting 800 feet above Cañon City below, this one-way drive is punctuated with scenic lookout observation areas, 360-degree views, and rock formations containing dinosaur tracks. Steep and winding, the hogback drive offered a memorable and  unique vantage point of all the fantastic activities we experienced over the last three days.

Exploring the Royal Gorge Region’s unique attractions, dining, and history from all angles—above, below, beside, and through—was an exciting adventure and well worth experiencing firsthand. There’s so much more to see and do here that I can’t wait for my next visit.

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