Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 16, 2016

Royal Gorge and Bridge: Deeper, Higher

From the earliest stages of planning a trip through every step of their route, travelers face decisions: What to see? What to miss? There’s only so much time, and — although seasoned travelers have confidence they’ll find something of interest any place they visit — we still must choose with some prudence. Is it worth the detour to get to Cawker City, Kansas to see the world’s largest ball of twine? What if you get there and it disappoints? You’ll wish, instead, you’d kept moving along Interstate 70 for Kansas City, without the detour.

Recently I wrote about the Rio Grande Gorge in northern New Mexico, and the dramatic bridge that carries U.S. Route 64 across it. It’s worth driving the 12 miles out of Taos to take a look, if you have an hour to spare.

The world is full of spectacular holes in the ground, some with bridges across them. You can’t see them all. Which ones are worth it? Perhaps you don’t make the Gorge the point of a 2-hour drive from Santa Fe. You have to decide.

In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Arkansas River flows across a 12-mile stretch of granite that has been rising about one foot every 2,500 years, carving a path through it. In the same way, the Colorado River has carved the Grand Canyon through the Mogollon Plateau. The result on the Arkansas is also a canyon: Royal Gorge. A bridge across it represents some impressive engineering.

Royal Gorge bridge Brad Nixon 9953 (640x480)

The map below shows Colorado Springs at the top right, Cañon City at the bottom center, and the location of Royal Gorge on the Arkansas River in the the red circle at lower left .

Royal Gorge map marked

Circled in gold at top center are Cripple Creek and Victor, two old mining towns I previously wrote about: at THIS LINK.

Is Royal Gorge worth the time and effort to reach it? I’ve been there, and I’ll present pros and cons.

Royal Gorge is extraordinarily dramatic. Only 300 feet wide at the top and 1,250 feet deep, it defines vertiginous. The photo below looks directly down onto the river and railroad tracks that run alongside it, from the top of the canyon, nearly a fifth of a mile up:

Royal Gorge Willard Nixon 3860 (604x640)

While not the deepest canyon in Colorado (not even counting the Grand Canyon), that combination of deep and narrow makes it vividly memorable.

In 1929, the nearby town of Cañon City built a suspension bridge across the Gorge. At 955 feet from the bridge deck to the river, it was the highest bridge in the world, a distinction it held until 2001.

Royal Gorge bridge Brad Nixon 9941 (640x480)

As a kid, I remember seeing dramatic photos and promotions: “See Fantastic Royal Gorge!”

Man, I thought. It must have been a great day when they spanned that yawning chasm and the ranchers of south-central Colorado could finally drive their Model Ts across the Arkansas River!

Not so.

It was built specifically as a tourist attraction. In fact, one must go a good deal out of the way to get to Royal Gorge Bridge. Once you’re there, you must pay admission to access the bridge, the view of the gorge from on the bridge and attractions like a tramway, zip line, roller coaster, etc. etc.

Royal Gorge Brad Nixon 9942 (640x480)

A look at the map shows that Route 50 (in yellow), which crosses the entire U.S., was engineered in that area to follow the Arkansas valley, but swerves north around the portion of the river that cuts through the gorge.

Royal Gorge detail map marked

From the outset, the bridge was there to attract tourists dollars. Locals could already get around the gorge. It’s been extremely successful, and Cañon City has benefited to the extent that it has the lowest property taxes in Colorado.

What’s in favor of going to see it? There aren’t many places on earth (outside of China, which has higher bridges now), where you can stand and look down between the gaps in the bridge decking you’re standing on to see the river almost a thousand feet beneath you (an experience not all will seek out).

It’s a riveting sight, as is this view of the Rio Grande Gorge from the bridge.

Rio Grande Mark Nixon 0789 (640x480)

I have nothing against “tourist attractions.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to Disneyland, despite the exorbitant cost.

There are good reasons to visit that portion of Colorado. The Arkansas River, 6th-longest in the U.S., has memorable scenery, excellent fishing, hiking and whitewater rafting.

Arkansas valley Brad Nixon 9933 (640x399)

You can even take a raft trip through the Gorge. If you’re there for any of those reasons, or if — as Dad and I were — you’re en route to the Great Sand Dunes, Durango or elsewhere in the Rockies, consider stopping.

There’s so much to see in Colorado, though, that this might be one of those places that you read about, look at the photos, and decide to go elsewhere. Having been there, I’m glad we made the easy side trip. I’m not certain I can recommend going there solely for that reason.

It’s a choice every traveler faces, every trip, every day. There’s only so much time.

Have you ever made a difficult decision to bypass something? Did you regret it, or were you glad you did? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017. Some photos © Willard Nixon 2017, and Mark Nixon 2017, used by kind permission. Maps by Google.


  1. Two observations:

    1. Yes, Royal Gorge is vertiginous. For that very reason, I would not go there, despite its dramatic appeal. As one who has a severe fear of heights, I found even looking at your photos vertiginous. My knees are still shaking!

    2. I’m really annoyed by a site I bypassed; and I do regret it because I probably will never have the chance to see it in person again. Moreover, the REALLY annoying thing is, it was never a difficult decision to bypass the site. More like just gross negligence. Just forgot to go there. Imagine!

    To add insult to injury, I was reminded of my egregious error a week ago when I watched a special program on Venice, and the site I failed to visit there was featured PROMINENTLY in the program. (Perhaps I can be forgiven for my omission, just a little, by being overwhelmed by so many unique and spectacularly beautiful things during my first visit to Venice in 2000.)

    So, here’s the problem: I like European cafes. I’ve read a lot about them, especially the really famous ones in France and Italy. I’ve been to Le Procope in Paris, the oldest café in the world. Le Procope was founded in 1686 by an Italian, who, like many Italians over the millennia, brought a lot of good things to France.

    There’s another famous café, founded in 1720 by an Italian, and this one’s in Venice: it’s called Florian’s (or Caffe Florian), the oldest café in Italy and second oldest in the world behind Le Procope. I was in Venice for four days in 2000, walked by Florian’s several times, and NEVER WENT IN! WHAT was I thinking??? I still can’t get over it, and have no explanation for being brain dead for four days in Venice. 😦


    • I can’t believe your guides didn’t take you there first. You should fire them. That’s inexcusable.


      • No, les guides are blameless. Without said guides, I would never have visited Venice in the first place. And, we all took the time to thoroughly know and appreciate a few wonderful sites there during those four days in 2000. We walked slowly; we savored the details — details you won’t find in any guidebook, and that I still remember 16 years later, thanks to them.

        “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” is not for me. Seeing 20 things a day is only a blur; you see, learn, and remember nothing. No, take it slowly, see the small details, and remember forever. Thanks, guides. 🙂


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: