Cañon City has exquisite wineries, world-class rafting, fine dining and a unique climate. Located in Southeastern Colorado — one of the only banana belts in the USA — it maintains a warm, dry and temperate climate year-round. It lies along the Arkansas Rive and features the world-famous Royal Gorge, also known as Colorado’s Grand Canyon, making it a hiking, rock-climbing and especially whitewater rafting mecca. It is also home to world-renowned dinosaur fossils. This historical city’s downtown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 has come a long way since being known as a prison town. The first prison in the area was erected in 1868 and to date there are 15 prisons in Fremont County. The Colorado Prison Museum is still a top tourism draw to this town once called “the cheeriest prison town in America.”
Cañon City is located on the Arkansas River, which is the longest continuous whitewater rafting river in the United States. We chose the Bighorn sheep float (level 3 rapids) and saw beautiful cacti, bright flowers and Colorado’s state animal, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Echo Canyon River Expedition is known for their extensive GoPro recordings and highly organized professional tours. Many options are available for adrenaline junkies with higher levels of rapids. There is also a float level for a family experience.
One of my favorite experiences was the Royal Gorge route railroad, which has been in operation since 1879. They offer daily departures with several classes of services: Coach, Club, Vista Dome, as well as First Class Dinner and Murder Mystery Trains available every Saturday. We experienced a first-class, three course dinner paired with cocktails and wine. There was music, lights and incredible views of 1,000-foot granite cliffs on the open-air car, which was amazing at night.
The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is another way to experience the spectacular canyon views. Their suspension is America’s highest at 965 feet above the Arkansas River. You can walk across it past all the states as markers for a good 20 minutes if you don’t fear heights, allowing for beautiful photos and sights looking down at the rushing river and gorge. The park has the popular Via Ferrara where you can mountaineer like a soldier in WW1. The attraction is named after the Italian Alps “Iron Way” where soldiers began the sport of mountaineering for the purposes of battle. With an expert guide and harness you can climb vertically up slabs and 1,200-foot canyon walls. You can also ride the gondola and zipline across the gorge while seated 1,200 feet in the air. There is also a sky coaster similar to a ship ride at the amusement park, but you’re strapped in the ship at 1,200 feet in the air. For more low-key activities, there is also a playland for children with wax hands and gold panning, a theater with the fascinating history of the bridge, a birds of prey show and a visitor’s center.
Another surprising draw in Cañon City is that it is one of the most well-known fossil areas in the United States. The Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience has science-focused interactive displays, full-scale dinosaur fossil casts, hands-on exhibits with real dinosaur fossils, skinned animatronic dinosaur exhibits, guided tours, a multi-story ropes course and quite realistic animatronic sculptures outside for a great family experience. You can buy impressive local rocks, crystals and fossils at the museum’s rock shop.
Dining options include downtown’s Di Rito’s authentic Italian-American cuisine with hearty portions, outdoor seating, an extensive menu and popular bar. Le Petit Chablis serves French fare, and 8 Mile Bar and Grill attached to Echo Canyon River Expedition dishes up the best burgers in town.
A surprising gem in Cañon City is a popular Gothic Revival monastery turned winery. The banana belt has made it a grower’s paradise for 150 years, as it rests on 200 acres with the stunning backdrop of the Wet Mountains. The prestigious winery has won 150 awards and medals to date, including a Viognier this year. In 1886, Benedictine monks from Pennsylvania established an Abbey in the city. In 2001, a monk from the Holy Cross Abbey performed an exorcism for the first winery in town, and thus the friars were inspired to build their own. So please, do a gorgeous al fresco wine tasting with charcuterie and try their Riesling in the blue bottle available locally and their Wild Canyon Harvest which uses local grapes and is only released during Thanksgiving week. There is also a nice gift shop for souvenirs and wine specific items.
Echo Canyon River Expedition also houses the luxurious Royal Gorge Cabins. They have glamping tents with heated flooring, an adorable start-your-own fire kit to roast s’mores in, an ultra-comfy bed with linens, lamps, a love seat, desk and chair, and an outdoor porch with chairs and table. We stayed in the luxury cabins, which have a full kitchen, fireplace and beautiful full-panel, 360-degree window views of the Rockies. There was also a relaxing hammock after a day of exploring; nothing beats a room with a view.
Skyline Drive is another one of Colorado’s unknown gems. It’s a one-way, narrow road, with a precipice on one side or the other or both sides. It was recommended as a must do, and I myself was shaking the entire time as a passenger. Do not try this if you’re a timid driver or afraid of heights, but the panoramic views of the Arkansas River Valley are spectacular and were worth it.
Photos courtesy Canyon River Expeditions and Colin Lloyd.
Originally published in the Winter + Spring 2021-22 issue.