Book a fall adventure of rafting, glamping and wine-ing near Colorado’s incredible Royal Gorge
By Monica Parpal Stockbridge
Photos by M. Markle Photography
Once home to dinosaurs over 100 million years ago, the Royal Gorge region now sees 2.3 million visitors per year. That’s because it’s practically designed for adventure. This central Colorado destination merely two hours from Denver is where guests can find stunning scenery, exceptional accommodations, adrenaline-pumping recreation … and a great bottle of wine.
There’s so much to do that the best way to book a vacation is through the tour booking website, RoyalGorge.info — or by downloading the Royal Gorge mobile app — where visitors can plan multi-adventure and multi-day packages all in one place. “We can help people plan and book their entire vacation with one call to our office,” says Will Colon, owner of Colorado Jeep Tours and Raft Masters.
Of course, with the coronavirus pandemic still a threat to our health and safety, everything is changing day by day. Before heading to the Royal Gorge area, check websites for information on attractions, accommodations and restaurants for the latest updates before you depart.
Let the adventure begin
The best part about an escape to the Royal Gorge is getting to choose your own adventure from start to finish.
Just 10 miles west of Cañon City, the Royal Gorge is perhaps best known for the dizzyingly high Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. The gorge, carved out millions of years ago by what is now the Arkansas River, is 10 miles long, with steep granite walls climbing to over 1,000 feet high. Construction began on the Royal Gorge bridge back in 1929. Today, it’s one of the area’s most popular attractions — that is, if you’re not afraid of heights.
There are many ways to experience and enjoy the Royal Gorge from above, looking down in wonder into its vast depths. One is on four wheels while taking a Jeep tour through the surrounding landscape and over the bridge itself, including some areas inaccessible by the public. Colorado Jeep Tours offers year-round off-road adventures with expert guides prepared to teach people about the area’s history, geography, paleontology and folklore. A half-day Jeep tour is perfect for zipping through piñon pines, juniper and oak brush, taking in historic landmarks and peering at breathtaking views of the Gorge. In the fall, the Gold Belt Jeep tour is especially scenic, winding through historic gold mining routes and steep canyon roads with views of fall foliage.
If you seek something a little more high-adrenaline, plan to ride the highest zipline in the world on the Cloudscraper Zipline, climb your way through the Canyon Aerial Course, or hop aboard a helicopter with Royal Gorge Helitours.
Though incredible from above, the gorge is just as impressive from within. Climb aboard the Royal Gorge Railroad for a scenic rail ride along the gushing Arkansas River, with a variety of different options and packages year-round.
Or, discover the joy of rafting. Join a trip with Raft Masters, in business since 1989, for a white water experience along the Arkansas River. From May through October, rafters can get a taste of the powerful churning river that has formed the canyon over millions of years, and catch a glimpse of the Royal Gorge Bridge from below for an entirely new perspective. Book a full or half-day trip combined with a Jeep or rail tour to make the most of your time.
Of course, exploring the area’s many trails offers fulfilling adventure in itself. Fremont Adventure Recreation, a non-profit organization, maintains dozens of mountain biking, hiking and running trails in the area.
Explore local lodging options
Spending a weekend in Canon City offers several hotel options. If you prefer to rough it just a little, there are a number of excellent, although primitive campgrounds in the area. The 12 sites at East Ridge Campground are free and open year-round, operated by the City of Cañon City. These spots offer quietude, vault toilets, fire rings and a short hike to the canyon rim — magnificent at sunset.
If furnished cabins are more your style, select from Royal Gorge Cabins’ nine luxury one- and two-bedroom cabins with king beds, fully outfitted kitchens, bathrooms, private patios and double-sided fireplaces so guests can enjoy views of the mountains from inside and out.
For something in between camp and cabin, book a stay in a glamping tent operated by Royal Gorge Cabins. These high-end canvas accommodations are furnished with single or double queen beds, air conditioning, electrical outlets and screened windows. Each has a private patio and furniture, a fire ring complete with a campfire kit, and even free WiFi. A bathhouse has pristine showers and restrooms, but five new tents this summer (one of which is fully accessible for guests with disabilities) offer the added luxury of toilets and showers within.
“The glamping tents were a hit from the start, and it became clear that there was a tremendous need for luxury accommodations in this recreation-rich region of Colorado,” says Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions and Royal Gorge Cabins. “As late summer gives way to autumn, we see our guests happily gathered around their fires enjoying the starry skies and fresh mountain air in the evenings and hear comments in the morning that they slept better than they have in months and, sometimes, years.”
Save time for wine
After you’ve fulfilled your adventure quota, it’s time for a glass of wine at The Abbey Winery — also known as The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey. Located on the pastoral property of the historic 1929 Abbey, the winery building dates back to 1911 and opened to the public in 2002. Today, head winemaker Jeff Stultz and assistant winemaker Matt Colon source grapes primarily from Colorado, including locally in Fremont County. In late September, Harvest Fest brings people together for a celebration of wine, local food and live music.
“We are leaders in the industry, using Colorado fruit whenever possible and continually experimenting with yeast strains, fruit and techniques in order to produce interesting and complex wines that help identify Colorado as a bona fide wine-producing state,” says owner Larry Oddo. “We are Southern Colorado’s largest and most-awarded winery and we are proud of our reputation as a place where both wine connoisseurs and fledgling enthusiasts can feel at home while visiting our winery.”
Standout wines include the 2015 Wild Cañon Harvest, a sweet rosé wine made from a blend of 30 different grape varieties shared by over 100 growers in the Cañon City area. Another is the Revelation, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc aged in new American oak for nearly two years, ideal for taking home and aging in the wine cellar.
Even as the weather begins to cool, fall is an ideal time to sit outside by the vines, indulging in a cheese board and wine tasting and imagining what the scene must have looked like 100 — or even one million — years ago.