Royal Gorge: The Ultimate Colorado Escape for Denver Families
posted by: Amber Johnson
As my husband Jamie and I nestle up to each other in golden-hour light overlooking Royal Gorge from our perch at Bighorn Mountaintop Lodge, I am reminded that not all lodging properties are created equally. At this moment when escape is at a premium, I soak it all in. The Park has been emptied for the evening and staying at the only lodging property for miles, it feels like these glorious nightly sunsets are solely for us.
Pair one of Colorado’s most iconic natural wonders with one of the world’s highest suspension bridges and you have the formula for a knock-it-out-of-the-park Colorado family vacation. Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, to be specific. COVID-19 has brought many disappointments but a bright spot was finding availability at one of Colorado’s most unique lodging destinations.
Our trip to the Royal Gorge Region was everything I could have hoped for, a heady mix of adrenaline-fueled adventure scrambling up cliffs on the new Via Ferrata and white-water rafting with Arkansas River Tours, followed by quiet contemplation in our rustic 3-bedroom lodge as we watched the sun ignite the gorge every night before disappearing into the unknown.
I was surprised to learn that most Coloradoans have never been to this iconic landmark located just an hour south of Colorado Springs near Canon City. The Arkansas River cuts through this high plateau of igneous rocks forming a spectacular steep-walled gorge over a thousand feet deep. History runs deep here–back to 100 million years ago when dinosaurs ruled the land–but there’s nothing like the present to get the ultimate top-down perspective on this beautiful gorge.
Royal Gorge Bridge and Park
My husband Jamie jokingly calls the Royal Gorge Bridge “the bridge to nowhere” but apparently if you build it, they will come because this 360-acre park has attracted upwards of 30 million people since opening in 1929.
For the Casual Traveler
There are a few different ways to experience the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. The most optimal is to simply stroll across to stand 956 feet above the Arkansas River, marveling at the structure’s complex engineering as you pose with your Icee and mask in hand (the ultimate Instagram pose for 2020; selfies work, too).
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse below at the whitewater adventurers navigating the rapids or one the Royal Gorge Route Railroad’s many scenic trains which depart daily from the Sante Fe Depot in Canon City. If you prefer riding in style, glide across the gorge in the comfort of an aerial gondola.
Be sure to stop by the Plaza Theater for a mini-documentary about the Park’s history (the bridge was built in only seven months time), fun facts (a total of 1,292 wooden planks make up the length of the bridge) and drama (the 2013 Royal Gorge Fire decimated the Park but the bridge only lost 32 wooden planks off the platform). You can also see original artifacts and photos at the Plaza Theater Historical Expo. In summer, grab lunch at Cafe 1230 or from the many concession stands and enjoy live entertainment at the Elk Park Amphitheater.
For the Fun-loving Traveler
The Park does a great job catering to families. The Littles will love Tommy Knocker Playland’s three-story playland with ropes, slides, 20-foot towers and splash pad. They can also pan for gold at Ole Zeb’s Sluice Box, go for a whirl around the vintage-style Daisy’s Carousel or stop by the Wax Hands shop to make casts of their hands, a forever souvenir. Note: Be sure to check the Park’s website for any COVID closures and restrictions.
Royal Gorge Bridge & Park delivers big-time adventures like the Royal Rush Skycoaster. Renowned as Colorado’s biggest adrenaline rush, adventurers are hoisted to the top of a 100-foot tower and swwwwwing 50 mph in a free fall, momentarily dangling 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River nestled deep, deep, deep into the gorge. All riders must be 42-82 inches tall and have a lot more bravery than my family because I couldn’t convince anyone to do the Skycoaster with me.
If you want a thrill with less of a punch, definitely try the Cloudscraper Zip Line, called the Travel Channel’s #1 Colorado Bucket List experience as you soar across the Arkansas. We have ridden a number of ziplines over the years and we found this ride more awe-inspiring than scary unless you have a fear of heights, in which case you should just keep your chin up, eyes forward. But if you like big adventures with the biggest of views, enjoy the 360-degree spectacle that unfolds. All riders must be 10+ years of age and weigh between 100-245 pounds.
General Admission tickets include the Bridge, Aerial Gondolas (weather permitting), Plaza Theater and Tommy Knockerland (seasonal). Extra pay features include the Royal Rush Skycoaster, the Cloudscraper Zip Line by ZipRider, and the Royal Gorge Via Ferrata.
For the Ultimate Adventure: The Royal Gorge Via Ferrata
Climbing a Via Ferrata has been on my bucket list for years and we had an incredible adventure at Royal Gorge Bridge & Park dangling off those precipitous cliffs overlooking one of the highest suspension bridges in the world.
Sounds scary? It’s really not! Popular in Europe, a Via Ferrata ‘iron path’ is a protected climbing route, built with a steel cable rail fixed to the rock, metal steps, ladders, suspension bridges and zip wires. I’m not a fan of rock climbing because I hate finding hand and footholds; via ferratas allow non-expert climbers to reach high altitudes in a safe way. The gear is similar but there are no ropes, knots, or belays. You traverse and ascend steep rock faces but do it while wearing a harness that attaches to a series of half-inch steel cables. If you slip, the short lanyards and cables break the fall. Where there are no rock ledges to grab or step on, you’ll find steel hand and footholds drilled into the rock — exactly where you need them.
The Royal Gorge Via Ferrata offers five possible routes. We started on Gneiss & Easy for our practice route and once we grew more confident, we moved onto the Iron Way, a 450-foot vertical climb that took us across Throne Bridge. Our total hike including the practice slabs was roughly 3.3 miles…and this adventure was a highlight of 2020 for my family.
Arkansas River Tours
“Forward three!” “Left back!” As our hilarious guide Kyle barked out our paddle orders, I quickly glanced downriver toward our next series of rapids, trying to stay synchronized with my family as we barreled toward our next adventure.
We were rafting Bighorn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River. After some water-related missteps when my kids were younger, I waited until they were teenagers to raft as a family; this intermediate-level adventure was the perfect introduction to the wet and wild world of whitewater. Spike bug. Puppy Dog. Shark’s Tooth. Last Chance. All of these rapids whet our whistles for their Levels 3 and 4 adventures. When we weren’t navigating the whitewater, we were picking water fights with the three other rafts, the perfect way to cool down on a hot day.
Arkansas River Tours is one of Colorado’s original whitewater rafting companies and has been around since 1973. That longevity preaches to the kind of river experience you’ll get from their experienced guides. By rafting with this medium-sized outfitter, you’ll get a more nimble, personalized experience without the cram-packed shuttle and long caravan of rafts on the river.
As a bonus, the Arkansas River has one of the latest seasons in the state due to a voluntary flow program that helps keep water in the river much longer than nearby rivers on the Front Range. This makes the Arkansas River a great option for rafting in August and September so paddle away!
Stay: Bighorn Mountaintop Lodge
Guaranteed, when you rent the 1,500-square-foot Bighorn Mountaintop Lodge perched like a hoverboard on the edge of the gorge, you’re in for one of your most memorable lodging experiences ever. With three bedrooms, this spacious retreat was originally built to house the Park’s administrative and accounting team and was the home for the Park’s operations manager during the late 1960s and 70s. It was fully restored and designated as an event center for smaller functions in the early 2000s and now gets rave reviews for being the ultimate rustic retreat.
The lodge has a full-serve kitchen, fridge, fireplace lounge, linens, secluded outdoor patio and laundry room for your home-away-from-home…and don’t forget those million-dollar views. Pro tip: Go through the side gate at dusk and hike down to the boulders to watch the sun slip behind the Rocky Mountains.
Play Now, Rest Later
I thought this much-needed trip to the Royal Gorge Region would be a relaxing one but I guess when you’re a travel writer who hasn’t traveled in months, you tend to go a bit overboard. No complaints. The Royal Gorge was a much-needed reprieve from all of 2020’s drudgery.
However, my exhausted daughter commented she is going to plan our next vacation which will consist of a beach and spa which sounds pretty great…except one time Jamie and I went to the Dominican Republic with zero plans beyond sitting on the beach and after 30 minutes, we looked at each other and said, “OK, what now?”
Apparently, we’re the kind of people who need a vacation to recover from our vacations and rest assured, Royal Gorge is a good one.