Cool off on the Arkansas River

Larry Borowsky

"Don't you dare pick up a hitchhiker," my passenger implored as we crested the final rise above the Arkansas River Valley. A reasonable request: We were, after all, entering an area that proudly calls itself the "Corrections Capital of the World." Cañon City, which flanks the Arkansas at the mouth of the famous Royal Gorge, has been warehousing felons since 1871, when the Colorado Territorial Prison was built here. Its downstream neighbor, Florence, has a dozen or so county, state, and federal penal facilities, housing nearly 10,000 cell dwellers.

Hollywood immortalized the local industry in the 1948 jailbreak flick Cañon City, with real-life warden Roy Best cast as himself. That hardscrabble character personified the region for many years afterward―a perfect match for the surrounding scrub-sage gulches and stern purple peaks.

But these two riverside towns have begun staging a breakout of their own in recent years. Razor wire and gray walls no longer set the tone here, as they did in the past. The last few years have brought a new sense of hospitality and a greater emphasis on recreation and tourism. Cañon City and Florence are coming to symbolize freedom rather than confinement, serving as gateways to a ruggedly beautiful playground.

This land of red rocks and gray summits is tied together by a ribbon of cascading water: the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, better known as the Royal Gorge. Once considered impassable and later coveted by railroad builders as the portal to the Rocky Mountains, the gorge is now a recreational industry unto itself. The majestic Royal Gorge Bridge flies from rim to rim, suspended more than 1,000 feet above the chasm floor; down below, the diesel trains of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad carry passengers upstream on the old railroad tracks. And in summer, thousands of rafters and kayakers shoot the gorge's class IV rapids.

Florence and Cañon City both boast well-preserved redbrick downtowns, and restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, art galleries, and boutiques are beginning to move in. Old warden Best might not approve, but these gateways to rafting, hiking, and mountain biking are good bases for exploring the Arkansas River country.

Unless you hitchhike.

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