Colorado's Gorges Cast a Shifting Spell of Color and Light
Colorado’s canyons bring to mind the visual exuberance—and variety—of collage art. Some are located in the mountains, others on arid prairies. Some are gouged thousands of feet below the surrounding landscape; others are quite shallow. They are diverse yet singularly fascinating. In a state renowned for its 14,000-foot peaks, some of the greatest visual and natural rewards can be found by venturing into the ravines.
Castlewood Canyon State Park
Located in a region of pine trees and verdant prairie, Castlewood Canyon is a relatively modest geological feature. It has its share of sheer cliffs, but most of them measure less than a couple hundred feet. The canyon’s appeal lies in its intriguing history as much as its geology. In 1889, a dam was constructed in Castlewood Canyon to store water for irrigation. Composed primarily of soft stone hewn from the surrounding landscape, the structure leaked from the time it was filled.
Although the engineer assured the public that the dam “will never, in the life of any person now living or in generations to come, break to an extent that will do any great damage,” disaster struck on August 3, 1933. After two days of exceptionally heavy rainfall, the dam failed, sending a massive wall of water downstream toward Denver. Due to the heroic efforts of the dam caretaker and a tireless telephone operator, warnings spread quickly. Only two people were killed, although property damage was extensive.
Today, visitors can make a short, one-mile hike to view the evocative remnants of the dam. Other hiking trails lead along the rim and through the bottom of the canyon. The trails are great for birders. On a recent visit, I logged more than a dozen species, including turkey vulture, yellow warbler, mountain bluebird, lazuli bunting, broad-tailed hummingbird, canyon wren, and red-tailed hawk. Near Franktown, east of Castle Rock
Royal Gorge Bridge & Park
The highest suspension bridge in the United States doesn’t support automobile travel. Its span soars 956 feet above the Arkansas River in central Colorado. Only pedestrians cross its 1,260 feet of wooden planks. Visitors to Royal Gorge Bridge & Park gaze down at stunning views of the river and the stony cliffs of the canyon. The bridge was built as a tourist attraction by nearby Canon City in 1929. RV parking is available near the Visitor’s Center.
Along with the bridge, visitors can enjoy gondola rides across the canyon and zip-lining. There’s also a visitor’s center, which showcases the park’s absorbing history. One of the newest attractions is the Via Ferrata, including a miniature suspension bridge and a system of steel rungs and cables. Adventurous visitors don climbing harnesses and follow a guide up the course on the walls of the towering cliffs above the river, providing a mountaineering experience while safely secured to the cables.
Whitewater rafting is popular on the river in Royal Gorge. Hiking trails along the rim of the canyon offer prime photo opportunities and the chance of sighting wildlife such as mule deer and many species of birds. Mountain biking in the area is another growing attraction. West of Canon City
Colorado National Monument
Colorado National Monument encompasses 20,500 acres of desert-like landscape chiseled with colorful, towering cliffs, slot canyons, and intriguing rock formations. Although arid, its gritty neighborhood of piñon pine and juniper trees nurtures dozens of delightful wildlife species, from tiny lizards to soaring eagles to bighorn sheep rams with massive, curling horns.
Access to the monument (a unit of the National Park Service) is found primarily along 23-mile Rimrock Drive, which winds through the landscape on an east-west orientation. Without stops, it takes 45 minutes to one hour to complete the drive, an excursion almost invariably shared with hardy cyclists tacking its inclines and winding curves. But you will be stopping along a route rich with vistas. Pull-outs along Rim Rock Drive beckon with outstanding views and photo ops. An 80-site campground that can accommodate up to 40-foot RVs (no hookups) is located in the monument near the Visitor’s Center.
Hiking trails vary in distance and terrain, offering a path for every ability level. The 4.2-mile (round-trip) Lower Monument Trail (located adjacent to Highway 340, about two miles east of the west entrance) is consistently rated among the top treks for its magnificent views and the excellent possibility of spotting bighorn sheep. Hikers are advised to carry plenty of water and start early in the morning to avoid midday heat. West of Grand Junction
It’s easy to zip right through Glenwood Canyon on Interstate 70, casually admiring its wall that sometimes towers 1,300 feet above the Colorado River, without stopping to appreciate its outstanding recreational possibilities. A walking and biking path parallels the river through the canyon, accessed from three rest areas that include restrooms, picnic areas, water fountains, and interpretive displays. The Grizzly Creek rest area is the jumping-off point for a hiking or fishing outing up the eponymous creek in a pretty little side canyon. Rafting and kayaking on the Colorado River are popular.
A scenic 28-mile drive from Glenwood Springs brings the traveler to Rifle Falls State Park. The park offers fishing, hiking, views of its beautiful namesake waterfalls, and camping. Mountain biking in the park and on trails in the surrounding national forest is another popular activity. Near Glenwood Springs, Bighorn Sheep Canyon Area rafting companies—such as Echo Canyon River Expeditions—often use Bighorn Sheep Canyon as a “warm-up” for inexperienced rafters looking to tackle the massive waters of Royal Gorge. Rafters on the Arkansas River in the canyon might see the namesake bighorn sheep or spy raptors soaring overhead.
Anglers also find action here. There are plenty of places with public access, and although some segments are too swift for wading, mellower sections of water can also be found. Rainbow and brown trout are the favored species, with fish growing to large sizes in this productive section of the river. The fishing is so good that the Colorado Parks & Wildlife agency designates it as “Gold Medal” trout water.
Historic small towns, coupled with the area’s mining and railroad tradition, are located along and near the canyon. Campgrounds are plentiful, from primitive to full service. East of Salida
The wonder of Seven Falls has lured visitors since 1883 when pioneering folks were charged a ten-cent toll to access a road into the private park. Seven waterfalls on South Cheyenne Creek are the main tourist feature. But before European settlers “discovered” the grand arroyo, native Ute tribes utilized South Cheyenne Canyon to trap bison for slaughter.
Today, the park is known as one of the most scenic areas in the region. It’s primarily a walking destination where visitors hike just less than a mile along a paved walkway to ascend 224 steps to the top of the Falls. From there, several hiking trails fan out to other viewing points above the canyon. A tram also provides access, but it’s limited to persons unable to make the walk. Along with the wonder of the waterfalls, the park offers outstanding vistas toward the foothills and plains around Colorado Springs.
In 2016 a zipline tour was added for thrill-seekers desiring an aerial view of the canyon. The “Fins Course” tour contains five ziplines and two amazing rope bridges. Zipline number four takes riders completely across the canyon. The park also contains two gift shops and a restaurant. An admission fee is required. Southwest of Colorado Springs