CANON CITY — The look on my daughter’s face as we prepared to climb into our raft was the perfect mix of trepidation and excitement. She was almost 8 years old and had never done anything like this before, but there she was — wetsuit, helmet, and wide eyes — stepping into the Arkansas River which swirled around her ankles.
I have three daughters, and getting any of them for a one-on-one adventure is a huge treat for both of us, and somewhat of a family tradition. This year, I took middle daughter to the Royal Gorge region, where, for three days, we feasted on all the family-friendly activities there.
But first, the river.
From its headwaters near Buena Vista, the Arkansas drops nearly a mile in elevation by the time it reaches the Royal Gorge, some 115 miles downstream, which constricts all that rushing snowmelt between sheer 1,000-foot canyon walls. It’s a remarkable stretch of water that tumbles eastward toward Cañon City, as mighty as they come and, not coincidentally, the most commercially rafted section of river in the United States.
But in late May, early in the season, the crowds were thin. Maybe eight boats or so were also putting in. Later in the season, it would be hundreds. Our guide, Captain Craig, positioned the three adults with paddles on the outside and three kids with grins on the inside — and we were off!
We had opted for the class II and III rapids through Bighorn Sheep Canyon; the put-in and take-out were just a few minutes’ drive west on Highway 50. This half-day trip was one of several levels offered by Echo Canyon River Expeditions, one of the premiere outfitters on the river. They also run a burly Class IV and V trip through the Royal Gorge itself, and a gentle, flat-water, family float with no big drops at all.
As we were carried downstream, most of the nervousness had melted from the kids’ faces into pure splashy, sunny fun. By the end, we were charged, wet, and refreshed.
After lunch, we drove 8 miles east into Cañon City to board the afternoon run of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Here was the Arkansas River from a new angle, out the train window. We ordered beverages — a chocolate milk and a Royal Gorge Rogue (brewed by San Luis Valley Brewing Company) — and began chugging upstream. My daughter and I waved to the boats below, and we shrieked with the other train passengers when some of the rafters pulled up to shore, got out, and mooned us.
Then we went to the open car and gazed upward when the train stopped underneath the Royal Gorge Bridge, 1,000 feet above us. The bridge that goes nowhere — and was built on a boast and a bet in 1929 — soared overhead. We could see the bottom of the gondolas moving slowly, and the specks of people going across on the “Sky Coaster” zipline. The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park was up there too, a newly rebuilt amusement park which almost entirely burned down in the Royal Gorge Fire of 2013 (the bridge itself was one of the only structures that didn’t burn).
We were headed there the following morning; we’d go on some of the rides, walk across the highest bridge in the United States, and stare down at the Arkansas River — from yet another vantage point. We would also spend half a day at the Gold Mine Rock Shop, practically next door to the campground, and at the Dinosaur Experience, a new museum and outdoor ropes course with 16 animatronic dinosaurs and a shaded play area for smaller children. They were all on the same stretch of highway.
But for now, we were still on the train, which jerked back into motion after the brief history lesson underneath the bridge, and we continued our out-and-back, happy-hour journey. We spotted two juvenile bighorn sheep and returned to the campground by BBQ-o’clock.
If you go:
Echo Canyon River Expeditions(45000 W US Highway 50, Cañon City; 800-755-3246) offers a half-day trip through Bighorn Sheep Canyon for $69 per person.
Royal Gorge Cabins and Campground (45044 W US Highway 50, Cañon City, 866-341-7875) has tent sites ($49), fully furnished glamping tents (from $179), and luxury cabins (from $319).
Royal Gorge Route Railroad(330 Royal Gorge Blvd., Cañon City, 888-724-5748) has various departure times and all kinds of themed events, including Ales on Rails and murder mysteries; tickets from $49.
Royal Gorge Bridge & Park (4218 County Road 3A, Cañon City, 888-333-5597) is an amusement park with many activities for kids, and a chance to walk across the famed bridge; entrance is $27 adult, $22 kids.
Dinosaur Experience (44895 W US Highway 50, Cañon City; 719-275-2726) can easily fill half a day, especially if you have children; entrance is $12 adults, $8 children, ropes course is extra.