The family float appeared too calm. Rafting through Colorado's Royal Gorge conquering rapids nicknamed Boat Eater and Sledgehammer sounded too intimidating. Our in-between choice, through Bighorn Sheep Canyon, perfectly fit our skills as infrequent paddlers and gave us a taste of the Arkansas River’s exciting rapids and stunning landscape of red rock canyon walls, ponderosa pines, and cottonwood groves.
My husband and I spent two hours in the raft with a family of four and our raft guide McIver, a 16-year guiding veteran and East Coast transplant with a love (and education) of history and the outdoors. We covered about eight miles and had fun paddling through rapids named Shark’s Tooth and Double Dip that got our adrenaline going while not threatening to toss us out. While we didn’t see bighorn sheep on the river this day, McIver weaved together a lesson on the area’s flora and fauna and the history of the river corridor.
There’s a small downtown with shops, restaurants, and the Royal Gorge Route Railroad depot; otherwise most of the attractions are about eight miles west of Cañon City. This is where you’ll find Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, which is celebrating 90 years in 2019, along with Echo Canyon River Expeditions, the largest commercial white water river rafting outfitter in the state and the one we used.
Water flow fluctuates throughout the season, typically mid-May through mid-September, so it’s best to consult with outfitters to see which of their current outings best fits your skills and interest. The Arkansas River starts near Leadville, Colorado, and flows nearly 1,469 miles through four states to its confluence with the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas. The Colorado section makes it one of the most commercially rafted rivers in the United States because of the quality and the variability of the white water.
Nearly a quarter of a million people will raft the river among all commercial operators in Colorado this season. Andy Neinas, who started Echo Canyon River Expeditions in 1978, has expanded his business to offer an all-inclusive experience. At Echo Canyon headquarters, you can rent all the gear you need and have a meal before or after your trip at their 8-Mile Bar and Grill. Across the road, there are eight glamping tents open through October and nine one- and two-bedroom mountain modern cabins open year-round.
“We brought Breckenridge to Fremont County,” Neinas said. “These are luxury with all the amenities.”
Most of the outfitters offer packages for visitors to further experience the Arkansas River corridor. In addition to the 150 raftable miles on central Colorado’s Arkansas River, 102 miles offer gold medal trout fishing. Echo Canyon partners with Royal Gorge Anglers, the oldest fly shop on the river, for guided fly-fishing adventures. There are also opportunities to hike, mountain bike, rock climb, and camp. If you don’t opt for the more challenging Royal Gorge raft trip, you should find another way to see the 1,200-foot-deep, 10-mile-long canyon carved by the river.
Royal Gorge Route Railroad offers two- to two-and-a-half-hour scenic rides daily January through October as well as themed rides year-round. The train takes you beneath the suspension bridge; you can walk across the bridge by visiting the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. While the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is celebrating 90 years in 2019, most of the visitor areas have been rebuilt since a 2013 wildfire destroyed 48 of the 52 structures at the 360-acre site. Built in 1929, the 956-foot-high, 1,260-foot-long bridge is the highest suspension bridge in the United States and survived the fire with only about 100 scorched boards. Admission at the park includes unlimited aerial gondola rides, a film on the park’s history, viewing original artifacts, and a three-story playground for kids. For an extra fee, you can zip-line across the canyon, ride a sky coaster, and go on a controlled mountaineering experience using iron rungs and steel cables.
Walking across the bridge and taking photos while riding the gondola across was fun, but the best views of the bridge were from the Bighorn Mountain Top Lodge, a little-known lodge perched on the edge of the chasm and operated by the park. The 1,500-square-foot lodge (three bedrooms and two bathrooms) is in view of the bridge but goes unnoticed by most visitors. Our favorite spot was in rocking chairs positioned next to large living room windows facing the bridge. We could watch rafters navigate the river 1,000 feet below us and kept an eye on the changing colors of the canyon walls as the sun set.