Canon City, Colorado: From Fossils to Festivals
Set against the rising foothills of the Rockies, Cañon City enjoys a temperate climate, some of the most dramatic scenery in Colorado and numerous tourist attractions that will keep visitors busy. And it’s all 115 miles southwest of Denver.
Dinosaurs walked here, and the proof is in the footprints, replicated for visitors to view at the Dinosaur Depot downtown. In addition to a small but fascinating exhibit of paleontological treasures, you sometimes can watch fossils being worked in a lab. The staff hands out maps so you can explore the place where much of the fossils were found – via an interpretive hiking trail just north of town.
Ancient geological forces created the nearby Royal Gorge. A privately owned park flanks the gorge, so the only way to see it is to pay admission. But while you’re there, take a stroll across the world’s highest suspension bridge, which spans the rims over a 1,000-foot drop. Or check out the very scary Royal Rush Sky Coaster, whereby riders are harnessed up and swung out over the canyon. Yes, it’s as scary as it sounds, but what fun.
Park admission includes a ride to the bottom of the gorge on a vertical tram. If you have a problem with heights, just don’t look down. Admission also includes various shows and other attractions. Mule rides and the Sky Coaster cost extra.
Not far from the Royal Gorge Park is Buckskin Joe Frontier Town and Railway. You might recognize the reconstructed town site from old Western movies, and you might catch the G-rated gunfighter show (corny, but kids seem to love it).
No visit would be complete without a ride on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. The train, resurrected in the 1990s, takes riders through the gorge, alongside the roaring Arkansas River. You can watch the intrepid whitewater rafters go by, or you can join them. Signs and advertisements for local outfitters are everywhere. It’s more thrilling than the train, but a lot wetter.
If you prefer the drier ride of the train, consider taking the dinner train, a leisurely, elegant meal reminiscent of another era. (For a thrill, do the Murder Mystery Train ride instead.) Or plan to dine at Le Petit Chablis (512 Royal Gorge Blvd., 719-269-3333), arguably the town’s finest upscale restaurant.
If you prefer afternoon or high tea, make a reservation at the new Cañon City Queen Anne Tea House (813 Macon Ave., 719-275-5354). For good Mexican food, stop by the family-owned Ortega’s (2301 E. Main St., 719-275-9437). And for breakfast, locals love the Waffle Wagon (1310 Royal Gorge Blvd., 719-269-3428).
Be sure to visit the Museum of Colorado Prisons, where you can see how the criminal half lived in decades past. It’s next door to the Colorado State Penitentiary.
If you’re in the mood for something more refined, several local museums spotlight the area’s history and artists, while the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey offers award-winning vintages for tasting and for purchase.
Or you can just haul out the old fishin’ pole and drop a line in the Arkansas River.
If you have time, take the drive north from town on County Road 69 to remote Red Canyon for a jaw-dropping bit of scenery. The rugged red sandstone outcroppings may remind you of Red Rocks in Denver or Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
For a weekend getaway, lodging in town ranges from cute bed-and-breakfast inns, such as Jewel of the Canyons, to popular chain motels.
Cañon City celebrates its annual Music & Blossom Festival and the Fremont Art Guild’s annual Spring Craft Fair around the first of May each year. There’s often a Mountain Man Rendezvous over Labor Day weekend. And Buckskin Joe is transformed into a Town of Terror each October.
If You Go
Cañon City Chamber of Commerce
Linda DuVal is a freelance writer who lives in Colorado Springs.