by Melissa Edge – With mounting excitement, my family and I hopped aboard a gondola to glide 2,200 feet across the Royal Gorge area of Western Colorado. As we smoothly traveled 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River with amazing views of deep canyon walls, my son had a smile that stretched from ear to ear. We had arrived at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in Canon City on day four of a week-long trip around Western Colorado, a family adventure filled with dinosaurs, hot springs, mining tours, and beautiful red rocks to explore.
Start a trip on the western slope in Grand Junction, home to tons of family activities. Visit Colorado National Monument for views of Grand Junction, Grand Mesa, and the Bookcliffs, hike along a canyon rim along a well-maintained trail near Saddlehorn Visitor Center, located four miles from the Fruita Entrance and near Saddlehorn Campground, a great place to spend the night. Look for big horn sheep, eagles, foxes, and desert cottontails along Rim Rock Drive.
Drive to the community of Fruita and visitDinosaur Journey Museum, a federal fossil repository and home to a 6′ 7″ long femur of the Apatosaurus, possibly the largest dino bone ever found. Peruse the articulated skeletons, robotic dinosaurs, fossils, hands-on activities, and a working paleontology laboratory with your young scientists.
Another fun activity in the Grand Junction area is the Steadfast Steeds Mustang Sanctuary. Tracy Scott, co-founder and president of the sanctuary, will guide you on a tour and share her passion of the wild mustangs. Her vision is to one day see that all wild mustangs are set free of holding facilities and returned to the wild. Learn about why the mustangs are being held in holding facilities, how they are used in rehabilitation programs and the future of these beautiful animals.
Continue traveling along Highway 50/550 toward Ridgway and Ouray and stop for some run around time at Dennis Weaver Memorial Park. This 60- acre public park is also a permanent wildlife preserve along the lush Uncompahgre River, with numerous hiking and mountain biking trails, including a two-mile path along the river. When you’re all hiked out and need to fuel up head over to Taco Del Gnar in Ridgway for their delicious street tacos. I highly recommend a side of Queso Blanco with chips and the Mahi and Korean Short Rib tacos. Once bellies are full, walk around the town of Ouray, also known as “Little Switzerland of America,” named for the quaint village is nestled in the San Juan Mountains. Visit the Bachelor of Syracuse Mine on Gold Hill and take a tour 1,500 feet into the mine.
Definitely allow time to soak in the Ouray Hot Springs. This 1,000,000- gallon, sulfur- free mineral pool is open year round and features three slides, open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Ouray Hot Springs has three different sections of the pool with varying temperatures; hot (102-106 degrees), or two other pools ranging in temperature from 92-98 degrees and 67-80 degrees.
Leaving Ouray, make your way towards Durango, another mountain town popular with outdoor recreation enthusiasts. Visit the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum where many local families and former railroad workers have donated artifacts that explain the history of railroading. If you have time, take the train from Durango to Silverton with a return bus ride back. There are many trip options ranging from four to six hours. Since 1882, this spectacular train ride has meandered through the San Juan Mountains along the Animas River before making a stop in Silverton and returning back to Durango.
Staying in Durango? Check out the Rochester Hotel and Leland House, one of the oldest hotels in Durango. Themed after western movies filmed in the Durango area, the hotel has a storied history dating back to 1892. A full breakfast is included in the nightly rate, and free rental bikes are available for cycling the paved bike path that follows the Animas River through town.
Traveling east along Highway 160, the next landmark to come into view is impressive Chimney Rock National Monument, encompassing 4,726 acres and preserving hundreds of prehistoric sites built by Ancestral Puebloans. Four ancient structures have been excavated and stabilized for public viewing, with self-guided or guided tour options available, each taking visitors to a different section of the park.
The quintessential cowboy town of Pagosa Springs is located 20 miles east of Chimney Rock, site of the deepest hot springs pool in the world as measured in 2013 by the Guinness Book of World Records. Officials were able to log 1,002 feet of depth, and still didn’t reach the bottom of this incredible natural pool. The town of Pagosa Springs capitalizes on this geothermal bonanza to heat sidewalks in the winter, and the Riff Raff Brewing Company utilizes the same water in the brewing process of their beer. Stop by for a Taster Flight, of 4 beer samples, and delicious food.
Pagosa Springs is filled with family activities like biking, hiking, and horseback riding, but it’s the Springs Resort & Spa that hooks most visitors with 25 pools of varying temperatures and access to the river. Pools are open to the public for a fee, but guests of the resort receive complimentary access to the pools and upgraded towels, plush robes, and 24-hour use of the mineral hot springs. Take it from us; there’s nothing like coming back to the hot springs after a long day of hiking to soak your tired and sore muscles.
Just in case you’re in need of even more activity, Rocky Mountain Wildlife Park is only a five-mile drive south of town. The only wildlife park in Colorado, Rocky Mountain has for 28 years provided homes for grizzly bears, mountain lions, elk, goats, wolves, and porcupines. ProTip: Arrive around 4 p.m. during the summer months or 2 p.m. during the winter for feeding time and an exceptional view of the animals.
About 3.5 hours from Pagosa Springs lies Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, just outside of Canon City. This scenic route features cascading waterfalls, a bison herd, and hiking trails. It’s worth noting the burn area as one enters the Royal Gorge area, where on June 11, 2013, 90% of the park was lost to a raging wildfire. Of 52 buildings, 48 were destroyed, but luckily, the bridge providing access stayed intact, and just over a year later, the park reopened with a new visitor center, rides and attractions. Spend the day riding the gondola, 2,200 feet across Royal Gorge and 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River, or, for a few extra dollars, kids 10 years or older they can get an adrenaline rush by zipping across the Royal Gorge on the Zip Line. Visit the newly- added children’s play area, where kids can roam freely among the ropes, nets, and slides at the three-story enclosed playland, including a carousel with beautifully-crafted horses. Plans call for a splash pad with water features, lawn recreation area, picnic area and creek.
History buffs can visit the Plaza Theater and Historical Expo to learn about the brave men who envisioned and built the world’s highest suspension bridge in 1929, then view the Royal Gorge documentary film for additional history and fun facts. Hungry? Pop into Cafe 1230 inside the visitor center for a delicious meal. Executive Chef Beau Green has created a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich called the Whistling Dixie that is full of southern flavor. Partner that sandwich with a craft beer from the full bar, then settle onto the outside patio to dine al fresco with a grand view of the Royal Gorge.
An appropriate final stop on this whirlwind tour is beautiful Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, located 50 miles north of Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. This National Landmark was given to the city of Colorado Springs in 1909 by the children of railroad magnate Charles Elliot Perkins, in fulfillment of his wish that the park was to be kept open and free to the public in perpetuity. Garden of the Gods has 15 miles of scenic hiking trails, numerous rock climbing routes, free nature walks and talks, biking, and fantastic photography. Stop by the visitor center with the kids and pick up a Junior Ranger Handbook to earn a patch or badge from the National Park Service, and brush up on geology, flora and fauna, and history with interactive exhibits. Purchase tickets for the GEO Trekker Movie and travel through the past billion years in 15 minutes, experiencing the age of dinosaurs, ancient sea monsters, and a time lapse of the park via aerial footage.
Finish the trip with a relaxing stay at Hotel Elegante, the second largest hotel in Colorado Springs. This family friendly property has a restaurant, sports bar, indoor-outdoor pool, indoor playground and ice cream parlor. Ice cream is, of course, an outstanding way to polish off a grand adventure.
Disclosure: TourColorado provided trip planning assistance and access to lodging and activities for writer Melissa Edge.
Melissa Edge is gear editor of Outdoor Families Magazine and author of AdventureTykes, a blog dedicated to outdoor experiences with children. She lives in Moab, Utah, with her husband, a professional photographer, son, and two pugs.