Do you know what’s the difference between a gorge and a canyon? A canyon is wider than it’s deep, like the Grand Canyon, which is almost two kilometers deep but still at least six kilometers wide. Compare this to Royal Gorge in Colorado, which despite it’s nickname Grand Canyon of the Arkansas is actually a gorge: up to 400 meters deep and only 15 meters across! One thing’s sure, though. No matter the name, Royal Gorge is breathtaking.
What makes this gorge close to Cañon City really special are the railway tracks that run through it. Nowadays scenic passenger trains run through it, but more than a century ago when it was being built, it wasn’t tourists that the railroad companies were after but something more precious: silver. The Rocky Mountains were gripped by a silver rush, and Royal Gorge was one of the few viable routes for train tracks, which meant that not only were tracks built in the gorge, but two railroad companies were fighting over them – literally. In June 1879, the men from Denver & Rio Grande railroad company attacked the men of Santa Fe railroad company with rifles, and Santa Fe’s men responded with the help of a cannon “borrowed” from the army. It’s not sure whether anybody died, but this forced the federal courts to step in, and the tracks were finally completed the next year.
Besides silver, the trains also carried passengers of the past century through the gorge, but midway through the century, travel habits started changing thanks to air traffic. When finally in 1967 US Post Office withdrew its contract to transport mail via the Royal Gorge Route, passenger traffic finally came to an end. Not that this kept tourists out of the gorge, because 1929 had seen another wonder built in its vicinity…
Royal Gorge Bridge was not just any bridge but the highest bridge in the world! It kept its record from 1929 all the way to 2001, when it was surpassed by a Chinese bridge, but that didn’t diminish its grandeur – nor its pointlessness. The thing with this bridge is that it doesn’t lead anywhere, never has, and it was only built to lure in tourists, with which it was doing a very good job. Even now, it’s one of Colorado’s most popular attractions, and it’s surrounded by a theme park bearing its name.
Beginning of September was pleasantly warm, but we still kept mostly indoors through our train ride. That was because we’d gotten seats in the Vista Dome cars, which had fantastic views of the gorge thanks to its rounded windows – a big step up from how it was in 1999 when passenger service was first restarted.
First passengers on the newly opened Royal Gorge Route were transported with old vintage cars, just a couple of them per ride, and service was limited to what drinks were found in the conductor’s cooler. As the route got more popular, more cars were added (most of them still with a vintage vibe), and the owners focused their investment efforts on dining on the train.
We took the 3.30pm train – late lunch, early dinner – so Iiro ordered The Big Boy sandwich, and I got a bison burger. Besides a train enthusiast, the owner of the Route is also a big foodie, and the menu had a local emphasis. The bison in my burger had roamed the prairie near Henderson, Colorado – just a couple hours North, near Denver – and Iiro’s Black Angus had grown up in North-East Colorado’s Sterling. The vegetables, too, were mostly local, and overall the lunch was the best food I’ve ever had on a train!
Royal Gorge Route takes around two hours and it’s a there-and-back through the gorge. If you don’t want to spend the whole time inside, you certainly don’t have to. We got out in the beginning to breath some fresh air at the open air carriages. And here’s a sign of excellent service: when our lunch was ready, the waiter found us and informed about it.
We were told to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife during the trip: big horn sheep, black bears, even mountain lions… but this time, we didn’t see any. Instead, we spent the time following efforts of white water rafters coming down the river. All of them seemed to make it though the rapids alright, and we also saw a group that was camping for the night…
This was definitely the most relaxing part of our long weekend, and I can fully recommend it to just about anybody! Just book early, if you’re going between Memorial and Labor Day, because the trains can be sold out during high season.
Sponsored by Royal Gorge Route