Who would expect the world’s highest suspension bridge to be stretched across a canyon in Colorado? And, who would expect that bridge to be the central attraction, of an old-fashioned roadside tourist trap? Well, both are true, and perhaps the biggest surprise of all is, Royal Gorge Park is actually a kitschy, fun place to spend a few hours.
The biggest thing to see here is, of course, the bridge. The one-lane wood-decked bridge is more than a quarter-mile long, and hangs 1,053 feet above the Arkansas River.
The bridge was built in 1929, and modernized in 1983. That refurbishing included new steel cables. Work crews had to attach the new ones, before cutting the old ones–a difficult feat. You can see part of the old cable in the middle of the above picture.
I can’t imagine driving faster than 10 miles per hour across this bridge. The deck is rickety, the entire contraption sways in the wind (and it is windy in the middle!), and there are always dozens of people wandering aimlessly in front of you.
All 50 state flags are displayed on the bridge’s support cables.
The view from the center of the bridge.
Being a Florida resident, I had to take this picture. Imagine, the flag of Florida, a state where the highest point is only 345 feet above sea level, flying over a 1,000 foot canyon, surrounded by mountains. What could be more out of place?
If walking across a narrow suspension bridge was the only thing to do at Royal Gorge, the park probably wouldn’t draw much of a crowd. That’s why the park has several other attractions, including this incline railway, which quickly drops you 1,000 feet to the bottom of the gorge.
You ride inside tiny cages, just big enough for two people each. There’s no room to sit, so you have to stand for the entire journey. Halfway down, the track widens from three rails to four, allowing just enough room for the car heading uphill to pass.
The incline railway at Royal Gorge is the world’s steepest, boasting a 100% grade (meaning the track is at a 45 degree angle). The railway was built in 1931, by the same engineer as the bridge.
-it travels at 3 miles per hour
-a one-way trip takes 5 1/2 minutes
-it’s powered by an Otis elevator motor
-equipped with 19 manually operated stopping devices
Once you reach the bottom, you’re activities are somewhat limited. You’re confined to a long, fenced sidewalk, that provides great views of the river, but doesn’t let you wander to the water’s edge.
From the bottom of the gorge, the bridge is even more impressive: an elegant, thin ribbon stretched perfectly across the canyon.
As you walk around at the bottom of the canyon, you’ll be standing next to railroad tracks, which are still used today. Above, you can see the famous “hanging bridge” section of track, where the canyon is so narrow, the track had to be suspended above the class-5 rapids of the Arkansas River.
This stretch of the Arkansas River draws quite a few rafters and kayakers. It won’t take long before you see some drifting by.
You’ll also notice an old wooden pipeline clinging to the side of the canyon. The 30 inch redwood tube carried Cañon City’s water supply for more than 70 years. The line was abandoned in 1974, but pieces of it still remain.
There’s a busy population of hummingbirds at the bottom of the canyon. You’ll find them gathered around a feeder near the incline station.
After traveling back to the top of the gorge…
…you’ll find another record-breaking attraction: this aerial tram ride. The gondola makes the 4/10 of a mile trip every 15 minutes or so. This is the world’s longest single span aerial tram.
If you’re afraid of heights, you might hesitate to ride the tram, but you’d be passing up some great views if you skip this attraction.
Aboard the tram, an unenthusiastic teenager will tell you a little history of the bridge, the park, and the gorge. He will also point out JFK Mountain, a formation that looks a bit like John F. Kennedy lying in repose.
One more view of the canyon.
It’s easy to take your own postcard-quality picture from the observation deck, at the south side of the gorge.
Also on the south side, there’s a small animal park (the Wapiti Western Wildlife Park), that’s home to a few elk, bighorn sheep, and this rare white American Bison.
None of the creatures seemed very energetic during my visit.
Once you’ve seen all there is to see at Royal Gorge, take either road back to US Hwy. 50, then head east towards Cañon City.
Note: This trip was first published in 2005.