Visitors to Canon City, Colorado, shouldn’t miss this train ride that takes them through a dramatic gorge that narrows to 30 feet wide and is more than a thousand feet deep.
By Steven O. Gibbs, F321761
One of the oldest rivers on the North American continent, the Arkansas, wanders through five states before it joins the Mississippi. Along 12 short miles west of Canon City, Colorado (Canon is pronounced “canyon”), it has performed its most impressive work. For 3 million years the Arkansas has cut through a high plateau of granite, carving a path more than 1,000 feet deep and as narrow as 30 feet wide. This is the “Grand Canyon” of the Arkansas, better known as the Royal Gorge.
Late in 1806 Zebulon Pike and a small group of men were exploring the area when they encountered the gorge. Pike is remembered for his exploration of the Arkansas River, which he mistook for the Red River, as well as for a failed, nearly fatal attempt to climb the mountain that bears his name, Pike’s Peak. Pike made at least two observations in his journals: 1) the summit of Pike’s Peak would never be reached, and 2) the (Arkansas) gorge was impassable. But both were conquered by a technology no one saw coming in 1806: the railroad. A cog railroad now climbs to the summit of Pike’s Peak, and an excursion train passes several times a day through the Royal Gorge. Nevertheless, it is hard to fault Pike’s belief that “even animals do not pass” through the gorge after you take a ride on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad.
In the 1870s the discovery of rich silver deposits near Leadville, Colorado, attracted the attention of two railroads. By April 1878 the Santa Fe railroad had laid tracks to Pueblo, while the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) was 35 miles closer to the gorge at Canon City. While it was not unusual for two railroads to occupy the same river valley, Pike’s “impassable gorge” did not appear to have room for even one set of tracks.
In those days, railroad rights-of-way were obtained simply by laying track. The Santa Fe crew went straight to the mouth of the canyon and began grading and track work. Beaten by only hours, the D&RG crews entered the canyon farther upstream and constructed fortlike structures on the canyon walls. They used these outposts to hassle Santa Fe crews and protect their own track-grading efforts. So began the two-year-long Royal Gorge War, fought with harassment in the gorge and lawsuits in the courts. In the end, the D&RG prevailed when both sides finally settled the issue on March 27, 1880. The Santa Fe received $1.8 million for its work and the D&RG reached Leadville on July 20, 1880.
The first passengers to experience the amazing Grand Canyon of the Arkansas traveled to Salida, Colorado, in 1880 and the Royal Gorge Route became part of the transcontinental link, connecting Denver to Salt Lake City, in 1882. Throughout the golden age of cross-country train travel, the D&RG promoted this route as the “Scenic Line of the World.” But the growth of air travel and personal automobiles after World War II brought with it a steady decline in cross-country train travel. In 1967 passenger service through the Royal Gorge ended. Railroad mergers during the 1980s and ’90s made once-competitive routes redundant under the same carrier. Union Pacific no longer needed the route it had absorbed along with the D&RG and petitioned to abandon the line through the Royal Gorge.
A rails-to-trails pathway was proposed, but enough Colorado residents recognized the importance of the Royal Gorge Route and intervened to preserve the rails. In 1998 the Canon City & Royal Gorge Railroad purchased 12 miles of track from Union Pacific between Canon City and Parkdale. After 32 years, passengers could again experience this magnificent trip through the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas “” now on day excursions and dinner train trips.
A trip on the Royal Gorge Route begins at the fully restored Santa Fe Depot in Canon City, 35 miles west of Pueblo on U.S. 50. You will find plenty of parking for large motorhomes. Although the D&RG was the victor in the Royal Gorge War, Santa Fe extended tracks to Canon City and built this depot in anticipation of a victory.
The train runs daily in summer; for 2006 the daily dates are from May 27 through October 8. Up to four excursions run daily during that time, and weekend departures run until Christmas and begin again in February. But the schedule does not end in October; rather, it’s shortened. Dinner trains only run on Saturday evenings from October 7 through December 30.
Trips last two hours (three hours for dinner trains). Riders choose from five classes of service: Coach Class, Observation Dome Class, First Class, Gourmet Lunch, and Dinner trains. Coach Class service includes seating in the coach cars and access to the open-air observation cars, as well as the concession and bar cars. Observation Dome Class puts you in the car with the glass dome roof. First Class service extends seating to one of the dining cars offering the chef’s choice of appetizers, a glass of champagne, and private bar service. Gourmet lunch service includes a three-course meal, and the Dinner Train offers a four-course meal. Another option is to reserve one of two seats available in the engine cab right next to the engineer.
A pair of F7A diesel-electric locomotives pull the former Canadian National Railway passenger cars out of Canon City and along the Arkansas River toward the gorge. During the next 12 miles the train climbs 425 feet on a 2 percent grade. As they lumber along at a gentle pace, allowing for great photo opportunities around every curve, it’s hard to imagine that these engines are capable of speeds up to 100 miles per hour.
Soon the canyon walls begin to rise steeply as the tracks are forced closer and closer to the river. In many places, the water is only a few yards from your vantage point in the open-air observation cars. The Arkansas River is enjoyed by more than 300,000 whitewater enthusiasts each season, so you’ll very likely see many rafts pass by so close that you may feel the spray of water as they smash through the powerful rapids.
In the heart of the gorge, the Royal Gorge Bridge crosses the canyon more than 1,000 feet above your head. The highest suspension bridge in the world is part of Canon City’s Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, where fees are charged for various activities.
Construction of the bridge began in 1929 with the lowering of a single cable from each side of the gorge. Workers at the bottom spliced the two cables together and, once hauled back up, spun them with 2,100 additional strands until the bridge was strong enough to support 3 million pounds. The process was repeated to complete the second cable supporting the roadway from twin towers, one on each side of the gorge.
The bridge was constructed solely as an attraction to draw tourists to Canon City, as the road simply ends in a parking area on the other side. Along this part of the route you will need to divide your attention between the bridge above and the one below. Here the canyon squeezes the river to a width of only 30 feet. The sheer walls rise straight up, leaving no room for a railroad. Santa Fe construction engineer C. Shallor Smith designed a 175-foot plate girder bridge suspended by an A-frame support anchored to the canyon walls. The Hanging Bridge is so impressive that every passenger train since 1880 has stopped here to let passengers marvel at how the tracks are hanging along the river from the canyon walls. This tradition continues when the excursion train stops here on the return trip.
After a few more miles the canyon walls begin to open up to a large plateau as the train arrives at Parkdale. During the 1940s and ’50s, mining and copper milling operations supported this small community of about 70 people. Today only a track siding and quarry remain. After a short stop, the train begins its journey back through the canyon, giving you another chance to enjoy the spectacular views.
As the train nears the end of the trip, you may notice that a road and several tunnels have been carved out of the canyon wall above the tracks. Tunnel Drive originally served the wooden water pipeline that riders will have seen on the other side of the river for most of the trip. A walk on the recently developed hiking path along the original roadway will allow you to take some great shots of the train passing into the canyon.
The Canon City & Royal Gorge Railroad is only one of many attractions that make Canon City a great place to spend several days. You also can:
Explore the Dinosaur Depot Museum, near the train departure point, which contains a large collection of late-Jurassic fossils from the area. A small admission fee is charged.
Combine wine tasting and a stroll around the historical grounds at The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey. Open daily.
Visit Buckskin Joe Frontier Town & Railway, an authentic 1860s frontier town, where countless Westerns have been filmed. The railway here (entirely different from the Royal Gorge Route) takes you to a great viewing point above the gorge. The town is open May through September, while the scenic railway is open daily, weather permitting, March through October, as well as holidays and weekends through December.
Walk on the world’s highest suspension bridge at Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Since 1929 visitors to the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas have been viewing the Royal Gorge from this bridge. The bridge is open year-round, weather permitting.
Visit downtown Canon City, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which boasts one of the largest intact historical districts in Colorado.
Even with plenty of motorhome parking available at the Santa Fe Depot, Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, and at Buckskin Joe’s, it’s recommended that you set up camp in town and use your towed vehicle to visit the area and its many attractions.
After a trip on the Royal Gorge Route, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s not just another train ride.
Royal Gorge Route Railroad
401 Water St.
Canon City, CO 81212
Canon City Chamber of Commerce
403 Royal Gorge Blvd.
Canon City, CO 81212
The chamber offers a free visitors guide and other information. Another helpful Web site is www.canoncitycolorado.com; the visitors guide at this site costs $5 when ordered through the mail.
Other area campgrounds may be found in your favorite campground directory.
Buffalo Bill’s Royal Gorge Campground, C8564
30 County Road 3A
Canon City, CO 81212
Offers discount to FMCA members; full hookups; can accommodate coaches up to 45 feet.