My prime rib arrived halfway through the “gourmet lunch train,” an afternoon out-and-back ride on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Black-clad servers floated through the narrow aisle of the Vista Dome car, balancing platters as the stark Arkansas River landscape chugged outside the curved windows. I sliced into my steak and took a sip of wine, a civilized moment in the middle of so much rugged earth out there.
We'd boarded the train in Cañon City, Colorado, then traveled up the Arkansas , admiring its 1,000-foot shear walls, carved by the river.
You don't hear much about the greater Royal Gorge Region, named for the 10-mile-long canyon at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. But it's a fantastic place to vacation. Based in Cañon City, two hours south of Denver, the area offers beautiful views of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains (the southernmost subrange of the Rockies) and all kinds of fun.
You can float down the river, walk across the Royal Gorge Bridge, visit a winery, bone up on the Mesozoic era at the Dinosaur Experience or browse a massive rock shop.
You'll want to visit Cañon City, a small town of about 16,500 people that straddles the Arkansas River just as it exits the canyon and the southern gateway into the Pikes Peak region. While still pleasantly low-key, it's an increasingly popular stop along U.S. Route 50.
Things to do
Royal Gorge Route Railroad offers six classes of service, including a three-course Gourmet Lunch Train, a five-course Wine Dinner Train, an “Ales on Rails” beer tasting series, and Murder Mystery Dinner Trains (Fridays and Saturdays). Trains run daily from Cañon City beginning at 12:30 p.m. Tickets start at $49 (888-724-5748).
Echo Canyon River Expeditions is a rafting company, campground and adventure resort located nine miles west of Cañon City. It offers many trips, including calm river floats and white-water rafting, plus several packages with the Royal Gorge Route Railroad (800-755-3246).
Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is a 360-acre amusement park and historic site in Cañon City, with many activities, including a chance to walk across the famed bridge. It's the tallest bridge in the United States, built in less than six months during the summer of 1929. The amusement park was rebuilt to the tune of $30 million after a 2013 wildfire wiped out nearly every structure except the bridge; entrance is $27 for adults, $22 for children (888-333-5597).
Garden Park Fossil Area, a National Natural Landmark, is a great spot for hiking and exploring, including a short trail overlooking the famous Marsh Quarry where scientists in the late 19th century found dinosaur fossils of the Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus genuses(719-269-8500).
The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey has a tasting room open daily. You can just swing by or reserve your spot on a VIP wine- and cheese-tasting in the park or tasting room terrace for $30 per person (719-276-5191).