Known for the dramatic Royal Gorge (and, yes, prisons too), Cañon City Colorado is so much more. It is a mecca for outdoor adventures with proximity to metropolitan areas. Located in southern Colorado, however you arrive it is sure to be a beautiful drive. There are plenty of opportunities to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone as we discovered on an early June weekend.
With an invitation from Echo Canyon Rafting my husband and I embarked on an adults-only long-weekend adventure in Cañon City and the Royal Gorge region.
I mention it as adults-only because this did enable us to participate in some activities that our children wouldn’t have been old enough for. And, a couple of these were the ones I was most scared of, and that ended up being the highlights of the trip.
About Cañon City Colorado
Cañon City, located in the beautiful state of Colorado, is a charming and historic city nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Known as the “Gateway to the Rockies,” Cañon City offers breathtaking natural landscapes and a rich cultural heritage.
This small town is home to fewer than 20,000 people. But is big in fun things to do. In addition to outdoor adventure, downtown Cañon City is also worth a visit.
Prison history in Cañon City and Fremont County, Colorado, is a significant part of the region’s heritage. The area is renowned for being home to multiple correctional facilities, earning it the nickname “Prison Valley.” One of the most notable prisons is the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, established in 1871 and considered the oldest prison in Colorado.
The city may be best known as home of the Royal Gorge, a magnificent canyon carved by the Arkansas River. Visitors can experience the awe-inspiring views by crossing the world’s highest suspension bridge or riding the rapids on a raft or a scenic train ride through the gorge.
In addition to its natural wonders, Cañon City boasts a vibrant downtown area with unique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. History enthusiasts can explore the city’s historic district, which showcases well-preserved architecture from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Things to Do in Cañon City Colorado
So what is there to do in Cañon City Colorado? Well, there’s so much that if you are just visiting for a weekend you may have to make a return visit.
Cañon City is located in a stunning area of Colorado, yet accessible to the cities. Just seeing the Gorge is a must-do activity. But there’s actually several ways and view points from which to take it in.
Visit the Royal Gorge
The Royal Gorge Bridge’s construction was finished in 1929. It was intended to be a tourist attraction. But I wonder if the envisioneer, Lon Piper, could have ever foreseen what it would be today. It remains the tallest suspension bridge in North America at 1,053 feet from the top of the bridge towers to the Arkansas River below.
The bridge itself is impressive. But the heart racing, adrenaline inducing activities is what may have visitors most excited. After a couple of visits it is interesting to see how a fear of heights manifests differently in different people. The swaying of the bridge itself makes some need to talk a bit faster.
Others, like me, find it challenge enough just to sit on the zip line. Yet others may feel their heart race as they scale the walls of the gorge with Via Ferrata. I do believe that you have to be just a little crazy to get on the Royal Rush Skycoaster, swing over the gorge.
White Water Rafting
The Arkansas River cuts right through Cañon City and flows through the Royal Gorge with 1000 foot sheer cliffs on either side. For a milder whitewater rafting experience take on the Bighorn Sheep Canyon experience with Echo Canyon Rafting. And, for a more thrilling ride take the Royal Gorge rafting trip taking you through class III to V rapids such as Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, and Boat Eater.
White water rafting doesn’t just provide an adrenaline rush but it is also the best way to cool down on a hot summer day. And, you will see the gorge from a really interesting perspective. We saw old water systems, watched a train go by and looked up 1000 feet at the Royal Gorge Bridge as we rafted under it. We passed by a funicular that is under repair after a fire a few years back.
The Echo Canyon guides are experts at navigating the river, communicating to you how to navigate the rapids and keeping you entertained. It was a real treat getting to experience this natural wonder with such great company.
Rock Climb Via Feratta
Via Feratta is a rock climbing system that was created during World War I to help troops who were not expert rock climbers to be able to climb cliffs. Steel cables and rungs are secured to the cliff so that you can safely climb an otherwise dangerously steep cliff. This particular via ferrata is run by the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park.
I saw this activity when we visited Royal Gorge on a day trip from Colorado Springs last summer. I actually though to myself, “What kind of crazy people scale the walls of a 1,000 foot cliff?’ Well I guess, me. When I was offered the opportunity as a part of a press trip I figured it was one of those bucket list items that I would regret not doing.
Via Ferrata Royal Gorge was not nearly as scary or difficult as I thought it would be. You are harnessed in to the climbing system the entire time. And, you can choose different levels of difficulty of routes. We chose an easier route.
But I was very proud of myself when I reached the top. I tell my kids all the time that it is normal to be scared and that the true test is being able to get through that fear to do something you didn’t think you could or would ever do. I don’t walk that talk enough. But did with this.
The via ferrata climbing systems have become popular throughout Colorado. There are now several diverse options from guided to self-guided routes.
Ride a Dinner Train
Riding a train is always a fun experience. But aboard the Royal Gorge Route Railroad you can take in up close views of the Royal Gorge while relishing a three-course dinner. We enjoyed this experience with a large group. But it was very clearly a popular date night activity. And, I can see why.
You can pass your time dreaming out the window, savoring your dinner or trying local craft brews or wines. Or get up and walk out to the viewing car to take in the sunset or rafters paddling by on the river just below the train. The scenery is beautiful and you do feel like you stepped back in time in these historic railroad cars.
Taste Colorado Wines
The winery at Holy Cross Abbey has the most charming back yard where they hold wine tastings. Here you will find interesting wines, history and storytelling.
The Holy Cross Abbey was built in 1926 and originally was home to a boys’ school, a farm, vineyards and a dairy. Then in 2000 a winery was added to the operations. If you have the chance to visit, be sure to ask for Sally and ask to hear the story of the exorcism. If you are lucky maybe she will share a few other stories with you too.
The wines regularly win awards, and are fun to taste. The entire experience is lovely. Be sure to stop at the store and purchase some wine or other fun art to bring home with you.
Visit the Gold Mine Rock Shop
I have to admit that this wouldn’t have been on my list of must-see attractions in Cañon City. My expectations were quite low so I was blown away. As soon as we stepped in the store, I said, “Wow!” That was before perusing the store and stepping out back where even more rocks are organized. Here you’ll find everything from semi-precious stones to minerals and gems, and even fossils.
We are no rockhounds but thought this was such a fun place to visit. And, our kids would have loved it even more than we did. Here is where we found them souvenirs. We selected some artistic jewelry made from semi-precious stones for our daughter and a mining bucket filled with shark’s teeth, arrowheads, and lots of fun stones for our son.
Bike or Hike
We did not bring our bikes, or build in time for a hike. But I would for the next visit. Cañon City and the Royal Gorge area are clearly an amazing place for outdoor adventure. In 2010 Fremont Adventure Recreation was launched to promote a culture of community and healthy living through human-powered outdoor recreation.
The views and stunning natural Colorado landscape has always existed. But the trail systems are getting better and better. From the 7-mile easy and flat Arkansas Riverwalk Trail and newer Royal Gorge Park Trestles to the more strenuous trails found in Temple Canyon Park there’s sure to a trail for every ability. Or, visit local’s favorite, Garden Park and Red Canyon Park located away on the north side of Fremont Canyon. Many hikes are are dog friendly. Be sure to pick up a Recreation and Trail Guide booklet before you go.
Visit the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience
This museum houses science-focused interactive dinosaur displays, full-scale dinosaur fossil casts, hands-on exhibits with real dinosaur fossils. But perhaps more important to the older kiddos is the multi-story ropes course surrounded by lifelike, moving skinned animatronic dinosaur exhibits. There is something here for every age.
Drive or Hike Skyline Drive
A short one way loop over looking Cañon City and the mountains beyond, this is well worth a short detour. We did it on our way out of town and it was the perfect end to a fun and beautiful weekend.
Where to Eat in Cañon City Colorado
I never would have though of Cañon City as a food destination. But there are some very good and interesting restaurants here.
8 Mile Bar & Grill
Our first night that we rolled into town we enjoyed dinner at 8 Mile Bar & Grill. It was the perfect reception for weary travelers. A cold drink and delicious dinner at an open air restaurant after a beautiful drive hit the spot. Throughout the visit we enjoyed some truly spectacular meals here, as well as the perfect boxed lunch to take back to our patio after our river rafting adventure.
While here take time to read the signs on the walls and ask about the history. You might be lucky enough to get a good story.
Di Rito’s Italian Restaurant
For a hearty authentic Italian meal Di Rito’s hits the spot. We enjoyed their fresh pasta and homemade meatballs. We weren’t very hungry after a wine tasting and antipasti plate prior to arrival. So half portions plus salad were plenty.
But had we come in hungrier we might have tried the Slopper or Super Slopper. We did ask the waiter about it and heard just how delicious it is. It is a grilled hamburger sandwich smothered in their homemade green chili and cheese. Hence southern Colorado meets authentic Italian.
There are a couple of patio areas perfect for outdoor dining.
Bridge View BBQ
Chances are you will visit the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park while in Cañon City. If you take on a challenging activity like Via Feratta you will be ready to fuel up at lunch time. With BBQ and burgers, Bridge View BBQ is the place to do just that. After scaling rock walls a burger had never tasted so good, and the huge iced tea was the best accompaniment.
Where to Stay in Cañon City Colorado
Here I’ve saved the best for last. There are plenty of campgrounds around town. But if you are looking for a special lodging experience there’s only one option.
Royal Gorge Cabins
These thoughtfully designed cabins provide the perfect getaway combining comfort and luxury with mountain life. From comfortable king beds, a pass through fireplace from the living room to patio, a small but fully equipped kitchen and a gas grill these have everything you need for a comfortable stay.
But step out one of the sliding glass walls that make up two walls of the cabin and you know you are in the mountains.
There’s no better place to relax before starting or after ending a day of adventure than by sitting on the deck or laying in the hammock and taking in the mountain views.
There are also glamping tents available. These are perhaps the most luxurious glamping tents I’ve ever seen. The double queen tents even have radiant in floor heat. A fire kit comes with your rental. And, there’s a large communal gas fire pit for roasting s’mores and socializing.
Again the thoughtful design and use of local materials and vendors is part of what make these so special.
Have you visited Cañon City Colorado? What did you do? Where did you stay? Have we missed any fun activities? Tell us in the comments below!