Long before it became one of Colorado’s busiest tourist landings, the area around Cañon City and The Royal Gorge was popular with the region’s first inhabitants. Centuries ago, the Ute found it ideal for wintering because the towering rock walls provided a natural buffer against the bitterly cold winter winds. They may have been the first, but others followed.
Comanche, Kiowa, Sioux and Cheyenne moved in and out of the area for annual buffalo hunts. The Spaniards were the first Europeans to wander above the towering canyon walls and all along the Arkansas River that runs below.
Today, tourists from across the United States as well as various parts of the world drop in every day of the year to sample nature’s amazing handiwork and for a taste of the Gorge’s many offerings.
Gondolas travel 2,400 feet across the gorge many times daily and the bridge is open 365 days a year along with the theater and visitors center. A lot of people like to come during the slower season because it’s less crowded. Today is a good example of a great day at the Gorge,” said Peggy Gair, Public Relations Manager at the Royal Gorge. “It’s just beautiful.”
Even without the modern-day amenities, the area surrounding the Royal Gorge is magnificent and bathed in a majestic natural beauty. Depending on the time of day or year, the sunlight that bounces off the canyon’s rock walls or floods the seemingly endless plains manufacturers a pallet of eye-catching hues and shades.
“We have the best views of ‘pure Colorado,’” said Gair, who has been on the job at the Royal Gorge nearly 20 years. “On the bridge you get a 360 view; the beautiful Gorge under you; all your senses are excited.” The unofficial Royal Gorge historian says you can’t buy what the Gorge gives away for free, sheer beauty. “Visitors say the number one attraction here is the view. It’s just an awesome, natural phenomenon.”
From atop the bridge---the highest suspension bridge in the country and second highest in the world---you get an idea of what 955 feet looks like up close. The spectacular view is taken in by 350,000 visitors each year. Since opening in 1929, more than 26 million tourists have experienced the same amazing vistas.
A gaze down to the canyon floor, tourists see what seem like Lilliputian-sized freight and passenger trains headed both east and west throughout the day, along with whitewater rafters and kayakers taking advantage of the world class rapids provided by the gushing and churning Arkansas.
A walk across the bridge---made up of 1,292 wooden planks---is usually a leisurely stroll, a bit faster, perhaps, for those with a fear of heights or insecurity about being on a wooden surface and gravity whose laws governing falling objects never change. But, said Gair, while it might be a concern, there’s nothing really to worry about. The bridge can easily hold more than two-million pounds. In fact, a couple of times each year, the bridge allows cars to cross the span.
Building a similar structure today would costs millions. But when it was constructed ninety years ago it took only six months---June to November 1929--- and cost $350,000. Two years later, an incline railway, which allowed visitors to actually go up and down the Gorge’s walls, was added. The railway has since been taken down.
Visitors at the Royal Gorge can buy a general admission ticket---$27 for adults, $22 for children---and experience one of the state’s most unique adventures. Or, they can purchase tickets for the Cloudscraper---a zip line---and the Royal Rush Skycoaster. There are also gondolas if a trip over the canyon strikes one’s fancy.
Only the brave or truly adventurous, said Gair in a half-teasing voice, should have these experiences. But, to date, she stressed, everyone who’s experienced these options has survived in one piece.
The park is set on 5,000 acres of some of Colorado’s most picturesque terrain. And while the attractions have changed, today’s visitors experience the same endless mesquite-covered views that blend seamlessly into the nearby Rocky Mountains. Two celebrity visitors who’ve visited the Gorge include John Wayne, who took time off a movie-shoot to drop in, and President Dwight Eisenhower, in his pre-presidential days, added Gair.
Another movie filmed nearby was “Cat Ballou,” featuring Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin and Nat King Cole. It was shot at Buckskin Joe, an old-West replica town that no longer exists. Marvin, who played dual roles---the villain and the good guy---won the Academy Award for best actor.The Royal Gorge as a tourist site is a bucket-list item, to be sure. But it also has a dark side, too. Not unlike the San Francisco’s Golden Gate, it records one or two suicides each year. While security is trained to be on the lookout for someone who might be considering this choice, “it sometimes happens,” said Gair. “It’s sad. But it affects our people, too.”
The Royal Gorge today is as good as it’s ever been and probably better. A 2013 wildfire that damaged it a few years ago did cause the attraction to shut down for fourteen months for repairs. In all, it destroyed all but four of its 52 buildings and damaged a small portion of the bridge. But the fire is history, said Gair, and the park’s as good as new.
The Royal Gorge is situated minutes from downtown Caῆon City and is equidistant---40-50 minutes---from Pueblo to the east and Colorado Springs north and east. From Denver, travelers should budget about 80 minutes.