Royal Gorge

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Royal Gorge
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Long-axis length 6 miles (9.7 km)
Width 50 feet (15 m) (base)
300 feet (91 m) (top)
Depth 1,250 feet (380 m)
Type canyon
Watercourses Arkansas River

The Royal Gorge (also Grand Canyon of the Arkansas) is a canyon on the Arkansas River near Cañon City, Colorado. It begins at the mouth of Grape Creek a mile upstream from downtown Canon City and continues upstream for approximately ten kilometers. With a width of 50 feet (15 m) at its base and a few hundred feet at its top, and a depth of 1,250 feet (380 m) in places, the canyon is a narrow, steep gorge through the granite of Fremont Peak. It is one of the deepest canyons in Colorado.

Natural history

The wall of Royal Gorge
A view of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad
File:Royal Gorge Bridge.jpg
A view of the Royal Gorge Bridge, from below

The path of the Arkansas River was already set when the granite uplift that would eventually form the Rocky Mountains began. About 3 million years ago as the mountains began to rise from the surrounding plains, the Arkansas River – then only a small rivulet – began to wear away at the stone it flowed across. Scientists estimate that the mountains surrounding the canyon rose at a rate of approximately one foot every 2500 years. Over the millennia, this small stream grew, cutting a deep channel for itself through the surrounding granite. The gorge's peculiar shape, contrasted to broad canyons such as the Grand Canyon, can be attributed to this long, direct erosion through hard rock.[1]

Early history and European settlement

Before European settlement, Native Americans of the Ute people wintered in Royal Gorge for its protection from wind and relatively mild climate. The Comanche, Kiowa, Sioux, and Cheyenne used Royal Gorge on buffalo hunting expeditions as an access point to mountain meadow regions such as South Park Basin. Colorado's Rocky Mountain region fell under Spanish claims, and conquistador expeditions of the 17th century or fur traders may have seen Royal Gorge in their traversal of the area. The first recorded instance of a European arrival, however, is the Pike expedition of 1806. Zebulon Pike's group built a crude shelter in the gorge and explored the area, descending on horseback over the frozen Arkansas River.[2]

Nearby Cañon City was founded in 1860 to exploit possible mineral deposits in the area.[3] Discovery of silver and lead near Leadville in 1877 prompted a race to build rail access to the area.[4] Royal Gorge was a bottleneck along the Arkansas too narrow for both the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to pass through, and there was no other reasonable access to the South Park area. Both railroads thus took to fighting the "Royal Gorge Railroad War", two years of essentially low-level guerrilla warfare between the two companies. Federal intervention prompted the so-called "Treaty of Boston" to end the struggle. The D&RGW completed its line and leased it for use by the Santa Fe.[5]

In the 1890s Royal Gorge was used as a passenger route for transcontinental rail travel. As many as four trains per day went through the gorge, though in time the establishment of alternate routes through the mountains made the Royal Gorge fall from favor for transcontinental use, and passenger train service on the main line was discontinued in 1967. A sightseeing train now follows the route through the gorge.

Modern history

On May 7, 1879 the first excursion train traveled through the Royal Gorge after years of court battles between the Denver & Rio Grande and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF or Santa Fe) railroads.

The Royal Gorge Route Railroad now operates excursion trains through the Royal Gorge throughout the year. The train travels 12-miles through the canyon from Cañon City, Colorado to Parkdale and return.[6]

In 1929 Cañon City authorized the building of the Royal Gorge Bridge, which at 955 feet (291 m) above the river held the record of highest bridge in the world from 1929 to 2001. The bridge forms the kernel of Royal Gorge Park, a theme park owned and run by the city.

In 1955, portions of the film Big House, U.S.A. starring Broderick Crawford, Ralph Meeker, Lon Chaney, Jr., William Talman, Charles Bronson and Felicia Farr (credited as Randy Farr) were filmed in Royal Gorge Park and Cañon City.[7]

In the summer months, whitewater rafting is a very popular activity in the Royal Gorge. Tourists travel from around the world to tackle the Class IV rapids of the Arkansas River and enjoy the scenery of the gorge. Named rapids in the Royal Gorge include Sunshine Falls, Sledgehammer, Wallslammer, Corkscrew, the Narrows, Boateater and Soda Pop Rock. River recreation in the royal gorge is regulated by Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) and daily user fees are required to launch at all of the recreation sites upstream of the Royal Gorge. There are many commercial rafting companies which are licensed by AHRA to run the Royal Gorge and summer weekends can see hundreds of rafts packing the river.

Base jumping, bungee jumping, and rock climbing are generally not permitted at the Royal Gorge; however, during special events such as the "Go Fast Games" these sports have been temporarily allowed. However, it is only allowed with the consent of the land owners.

On June 11, 2013, a wildfire broke out in the Royal Gorge Park of Canon city that ultimately destroyed 48 of 52 buildings in the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park.[8]



  1. Gregory, Lee (1996). Colorado Scenic Guide. Boulder: Johnson Books. ISBN 1-55566-144-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. The American Military on the Frontier, by James P. Tate, copyright 2002, The Minerva Group, Inc.
  3. Encarta article about Canon City.
  4. United States Reports, Supreme Court: Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Supreme Court of the United States (October Term, 1878), by William T. Otto, published 1879, from Harvard University]
  5. A Builder of the West: The Life of General William Jackson Palmer, by John Stirling Fisher and Chase Mellen, copyright 1981, by Ayer Publishing.
  6. Osterwald, Doris (2003). Rails Thru the Gorge. Hugo: Western Guideways, Ltd. ISBN 0-931788-15-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Stafford, Jeff. "Articles link". Retrieved November 9, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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