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Royal Gorge & Cañon City

The Royal Gorge, one of the most impressive natural attractions in the state, lies 8 miles west of Cañon City off U.S. 50, at the head of the Arkansas River valley.

This narrow 1,053-foot-deep canyon was cut through solid granite by 3 million years of water and wind erosion. When Zebulon Pike saw the gorge in 1806, he predicted that man would never conquer it. But by 1877, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had laid a route through the canyon and it soon became a major tourist attraction.

The gorge is spanned by what is said to be the world's highest suspension bridge and an aerial tramway, built for no other reason than to thrill tourists. The quarter-mile-long bridge was constructed in 1929, suspended from two 300-ton cables, and reinforced in 1983. An incline railway, believed to be the world's steepest, was completed in 1931; it plunges from the rim of the gorge 1,550 feet to the floor at a 45-degree angle, giving passengers a view from the bottom as well as the top. Added in 1968, the 35-passenger tram provides views of the gorge and the bridge from a height of 1,178 feet above the Arkansas River.

Owned by Cañon City, the park also includes a 260-seat multimedia theater (where visitors can see a video presentation on the area's history and construction of the bridge), miniature railway, trolley, old-fashioned carousel, various thrill rides and children's attractions, restaurants, gift shops, a petting zoo with free burro rides, and herds of tame mule deer. Live entertainment and a variety of special events take place throughout the year.

The bridge is open year-round daily from 7 or 8am to dusk; the rest of the park is open daily late April through October from 10am until 5 to 7pm. Admission -- $22 for adults, $19 for seniors, $17 for children 4 to 11, free for children under 4 -- includes crossing the bridge and all other park rides and attractions. For information, contact Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, P.O. Box 549, Cañon City, CO 81215 (tel. 888/333-5597 or 719/275-7507; www.royalgorgebridge.com).

An interesting way to view the canyon is from the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, 401 Water St. (south of U.S. 50 on 3rd St.), Cañon City, CO 81212 (tel. 888/724-5748 or 303/569-1000; www.royalgorgeroute.com). The train takes passengers on a 2-hour, 24-mile trip through the canyon. From early May to early October, the train departs daily at 9:30am and 12:30pm; there are also 3:30pm departures in summer and 7pm dinner rides on select evenings. Coach tickets cost $33 for adults, $22 for children 3 to 12, and are free for children under 3 who sit on a guardian's lap. Reservations are recommended. Observation dome tickets are $25 more and dinner rides are $85 a person ($110 in the observation dome).

To see this beautiful gorge looking up from the river while also enjoying some thrills, consider a raft trip. Rates for adults run $100 to $120 for a full-day trip, including lunch; a half-day trip is about $50 to $65. Most Royal Gorge raft trips include rough white-water stretches of the river; those preferring calmer sections should inquire with local rafting companies. Major outfitters include Arkansas River Tours (tel. 800/321-4352 or 719/942-4362; www.arkansasrivertours.com), Echo Canyon River Expeditions (tel. 800/748-2953; www.raftecho.com), and Wilderness Aware Rafting (tel. 800/462-7238 or 719/395-2112; www.inaraft.com).

Cañon City was a popular setting for filmmakers during the industry's early days, and it was a special favorite of silent screen actor Tom Mix, who reputedly worked as a cowboy in the area before becoming a film star. The drowning death of a prominent actress temporarily discouraged film companies from coming here, but the area's beautiful scenery and Old West heritage lured them back in the late 1950s with the creation of Buckskin Joe, a Western theme park and movie set. Dozens of films have been shot there since, including How the West Was Won, True Grit, Cat Ballou, and Lightning Jack.

Although movies are rarely shot here nowadays, Buckskin Joe Frontier Town & Railway (tel. 719/275-5149; www.buckskinjoe.com), about 8 miles west of Cañon City on U.S. 50, remains a popular tourist attraction. The authentic-looking Old West town was created from genuine 19th-century buildings relocated from across the state. Visitors can watch gunfights, pan for gold, see a magic show, ride horseback (or in a horse-drawn trolley), and wander through a Western maze. The Scenic Railway (tel. 719/275-5485) offers a 30-minute trip through rugged Royal Gorge country, where you're likely to see deer and other wildlife, to the rim of the Royal Gorge for a panoramic view of the canyon and bridge.

Frontier Town is open May through September and mid-October to Halloween. Hours are 10am to 5pm daily in May, 9:30am to 6pm daily from June to August, and 10am to 5pm Thursday to Monday in September. The railway runs from March to December. Hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day are 9am to 7pm; call for hours at other times. Combination admission tickets, which include the Scenic Railway, a horse-drawn trolley, and all the Frontier Town attractions and entertainment, are $18 for adults, $14 for children 4 to 11, and free for children under 4. Tickets for the railway only are $11 for adults and $10 for children; tickets for Frontier Town only are $14 adults and $12 children. Expect to spend 2 to 4 hours here.

Other Cañon City attractions include the Museum of Colorado Prisons, 201 N. 1st St. (tel. 719/269-3015; www.prisonmuseum.org), especially interesting for those with an appreciation of the macabre. Housed in the state's former women's prison, just outside the walls of the original territorial prison that opened in 1871, it contains an actual gas chamber, historic photos of life behind bars, weapons confiscated from inmates, the last hangman's noose used legally in the state, a simulation of a lethal-injection system and of the "Old Gray Mare" (a cruel apparatus used to punish misbehaving prisoners), and other artifacts and exhibits. There's also a gift shop selling arts and crafts made by inmates at a medium-security prison next door. The museum is open May through September daily from 8:30am to 6pm, October through April Friday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors 65 and older, $5 for youths 6 to 12, and free for children under 6. Allow about an hour.

Those interested in Colorado history might also enjoy stopping at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center, 612 Royal Gorge Blvd. (tel. 719/276-5279), which holds displays of American-Indian artifacts, guns, gems, minerals, wild-game trophies, historic photos, old dolls, pioneer household items, and other memorabilia. These are pretty much the kinds of things you'll find in most small-town museums in the American West, but what sets this museum apart somewhat are several renovated and authentically furnished buildings out back. The 1860 log cabin built by Anson Rudd, local blacksmith and first warden of the Colorado Territorial Prison, is one. The museum is typically open from 10am to 4pm Wednesday through Saturday. It's closed December 24 plus all state and federal holidays. Admission is free. Allow a half-hour.

Another local attraction, especially fascinating for young would-be dinosaur hunters, is Dinosaur Depot, 330 Royal Gorge Blvd. (tel. 800/987-6379 or 719/269-7150; www.dinosaurdepot.com). The depot's main claim to fame is the dinosaur lab, where paleontologists are working to remove various dinosaur fossils from the rock that has encased them for the past 150 million years. There are also several interpretive exhibits, including fossilized bones that visitors can hold, a fossilized tree, a children's Discovery Room with plenty of hands-on exhibits, and a gift shop. Dinosaur Depot also sells brochures for self-guided tours of the internationally renowned Garden Park Fossil Area just north of town, which is the source of many of the museum's exhibits, and to see some 90-million-year-old dinosaur tracks nearby. The museum is open daily from 9am to 5pm late May to mid-August, shorter hours the rest of the year. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children 4 to 12, and free for children under 4. Allow 45 minutes at Dinosaur Depot, and another 1 to 2 hours at Garden Park Fossil Area.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Cañon City has several midpriced lodging options, including the Best Western Royal Gorge Motel, 1925 Fremont Dr., Cañon City, CO 81212 (tel. 800/231-7317 or 719/275-3377), with double rates ranging from $69 to $109 in summer. A more off-the-beaten-path option is The Orchard Bed & Breakfast, 1824 Pinion Ave., Brookside, CO 81212 (tel. 877/212-0497 or 719/275-0072; www.theorchardbandb.com), tucked away in an agricultural area on the edge of an apple orchard south of town. Double rooms are $90, full breakfast included. Merlino's Belvedere, 1330 Elm Ave. (tel. 719/275-5558; www.belvedererestaurant.com), which serves gourmet Italian cuisine, steaks, and seafood at lunch and dinner daily, is my pick for a meal. Most dinner main courses run $15 to $35.

For more information on where to stay and eat, a walking tour of historic downtown Cañon City, and details on scenic drives and other attractions, contact the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce, 403 Royal Gorge Blvd., Cañon City, CO 81212 (tel. 800/876-7922 or 719/275-2331; www.canoncitychamber.com).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.