AARP: Explore Colorado’s Royal Gorge Region

Visit this hidden gem at the edge of the Rockies

My prime rib arrived halfway through the “gourmet lunch train,” an afternoon out-and-back ride on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Black-clad servers floated through the narrow aisle of the Vista Dome car, balancing platters as the stark Arkansas River landscape chugged outside the curved windows. I sliced into my steak and took a sip of wine, a civilized moment in the middle of so much rugged earth out there.

We’d boarded the train in Cañon City, Colorado, then traveled up the Arkansas, admiring its 1,000-foot shear walls, carved by the river.

You don’t hear much about the greater Royal Gorge Region, named for the 10-mile-long canyon at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. But it’s a fantastic place to vacation. Based in Cañon City, two hours south of Denver, the area offers beautiful views of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains (the southernmost subrange of the Rockies) and all kinds of fun.

You can float down the river, walk across the Royal Gorge Bridge, visit a winery, bone up on the Mesozoic era at the Dinosaur Experience or browse a massive rock shop.

You’ll want to visit Cañon City, a small town of about 16,500 people that straddles the Arkansas River just as it exits the canyon and the southern gateway into the Pikes Peak region. While still pleasantly low-key, it’s an increasingly popular stop along U.S. Route 50.

Royal Gorge Route Train traveling along tracks in Colorado


Things to do

Royal Gorge Route Railroad offers six classes of service, including a three-course Gourmet Lunch Train, a five-course Wine Dinner Train, an “Ales on Rails” beer tasting series, and Murder Mystery Dinner Trains (Fridays and Saturdays). Trains run daily from Cañon City beginning at 12:30 p.m. Tickets start at $49 (888-724-5748).

Echo Canyon River Expeditions is a rafting company, campground and adventure resort located nine miles west of Cañon City. It offers many trips, including calm river floats and white-water rafting, plus several packages with the Royal Gorge Route Railroad (800-755-3246).

Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is a 360-acre amusement park and historic site in Cañon City, with many activities, including a chance to walk across the famed bridge. It’s the tallest bridge in the United States, built in less than six months during the summer of 1929. The amusement park was rebuilt to the tune of $30 million after a 2013 wildfire wiped out nearly every structure except the bridge; entrance is $27 for adults, $22 for children (888-333-5597).

Garden Park Fossil Area, a National Natural Landmark, is a great spot for hiking and exploring, including a short trail overlooking the famous Marsh Quarry where scientists in the late 19th century found dinosaur fossils of the Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus genuses(719-269-8500).

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey has a tasting room open daily. You can just swing by or reserve your spot on a VIP wine- and cheese-tasting in the park or tasting room terrace for $30 per person (719-276-5191).

Museum of Colorado Prisons is housed in a women’s correctional facility built in 1935. This is one of those small, funky museums unlike anything you’ve ever seen, but also a nod to one of the area’s main industries — hosting some 36,000 inmates in 13 separate prisons, mostly scattered east of town in an area known as “prison valley.” Each of the old cells serves as its own exhibit on different aspects of prison life (719-269-3015).

A Royal Gorge Cabin with lights on during sunset


Where to stay

Royal Gorge Cabins and Campground has basic tent sites, fully furnished glamping tents that sleep four, and luxury cabins with many amenities and views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (866-341-7875, from $49 for tent sites). Staying here gives you immediate access to the restaurant, bar and Echo Canyon River Expeditions, the rafting outfitter across the street.

Jewel of the Canyons Bed & Breakfast is a lovely, small bed-and-breakfast on a quiet corner that’s within walking distance of the downtown restaurants. It attracts a friendly crowd and has a nice big front porch (719-275-0378, from $149).

Where to eat

Pizza Madness on Main Street is popular with locals and visitors alike, with a big, open dining space and video games in an old department store space.

Owl Cigar Store, across the street, is a classic bar and burger joint where the server stacks up all the orders on her arm — no plates or silverware necessary.

Le Petit Chablis, Cañon City’s best upscale option, is a French-inspired bakery and restaurant serving homemade bread and pastries, as well as lamb, veal, duck, beef and Cajun dishes (think seafood, soups and gumbo).

8 Mile Bar and Grill, just west of town, has a gorgeous outdoor (dog-friendly) patio for enjoying a beverage — they offer a range of Colorado craft beers –— with your ahi salad, fried pickles or buffalo burger.

Joshua Berman is the “Around Colorado” columnist for the Denver Post and author of six books about travel, including Moon Colorado Camping.

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