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The Royal Gorge (also Grand Canyon of the Arkansas) is a canyon on the Arkansas Rivermarker near Cañon Citymarker, Coloradomarker. With a width of at its base and a few hundred feet at its top, and a depth of in places, the 10-mile-long canyon is a narrow, steep gorge through the granite of Fremont Peak. It is one of the deepest canyons in Colorado.

Natural history

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 Canyonmarker, can be attributed to this long, direct erosion through hard rock.

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 Spanishmarker 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.

Nearby Cañon Citymarker was founded in 1860 to exploit possible mineral deposits in the area. Discovery of silver and lead near Leadvillemarker in 1877 prompted a race to build rail access to the area. 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 Western Railroad to pass through, and there was no other reasonable access to the South Park area. Both railroad crews 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 fighting. The D&RGW completed its line and leased it for use by the Santa Fe.

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

A view of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad
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 Canon City, Colorado to Parkdale and return.

In 1929 Cañon City authorized the building of the Royal Gorge Bridgemarker, which at above the river is the highest suspension bridge over water in the world. The bridge forms the kernel of Royal Gorge Park, a theme park owned and run by the city.

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.
A view of the Royal Gorge Bridge, from below
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.


Image:HangingBridge.jpg|Hanging Bridge, from Royal Gorge Route Railroad in the Royal GorgeImage:Royal Gorge Bridge across.jpg|Royal gorge bridge, from leftbank of Arkansas riverImage:Rare white bison.jpg|White bison in Royal Gorge animal parkImage:Royal Gorge Road sign.jpg|A Royal Gorge road sign near Cañon Citymarker, Colorado.


  1. The American Military on the Frontier, by James P. Tate, copyright 2002, The Minerva Group, Inc.
  2. Encarta article about Canon City.
  3. 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]
  4. A Builder of the West: The Life of General William Jackson Palmer, by John Stirling Fisher and Chase Mellen, copyright 1981, by Ayer Publishing.

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