It would be easy to object to the rampant commercialism of Royal Gorge (719/275-7507 or 888/333-5597, $25), owned and operated by Cañon City, but if you don’t mind seeing impressive works of humankind amid a stupendous show of nature’s prowess, I heartily recommend a visit. The gorge itself is unforgettable, its sheer red granite cliffs dropping over 1,000 ft (305 m) straight down to the Arkansas River. The experience is enhanced by a barrage of civil engineering feats, including aerial trams, incline railroads, and an impossibly delicate suspension bridge, all enabling visitors to experience the area in diverse ways. You can look down from the rim, dangle from a gondola on your way across to the other side, and from there follow a short nature trail that offers good views of Pike’s Peak. Walk back across the wooden planks of the bridge—the highest in the world, feeling uncomfortably like a rickety old seaside pier.
One of the last remaining Wild West towns in the lower 48 states, Cañon City (pop. 16,750) is carved out of the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains. Over a mile (1.6 km) high and surrounded by a ring of 14,000-ft (4,267-m) peaks, Cañon City’s short Main Street, a block north of US-50, is lined by workaday gun shops, bookshops, and saloons. But the local economy prospers not so much from tourism as from prisons—a dozen in all, including a notorious federal maximum-security “supermax” penitentiary. Built in the 1990s, the top-security supermax prison has held some 500 of the nation’s most notorious inmates, including numerous organized crime kingpins and terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph; the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski; and Al Qaeda “Shoe Bomber” Richard Reid.
Despite the notoriety of its many prisons, Cañon City’s main attraction is the surrounding scenery, particularly the views along Skyline Drive, accessible from just west of town. It’s a nearly 3-mi (4.8-km), one-way drive across the top of an 800-ft (244-m) hill, as close to riding a roller coaster as you’re ever likely to get while inside a passenger car. Royal Gorge to the west is another major draw, and Cañon City makes a good base for explorations, with a few moderately priced motels. The best place for cheap food and drink is The Owl Cigar Store (626 Main St., 719/275-9946), a combo soda fountain, diner, and pool hall at the heart of the lively Main Street business district just north of US-50.