A Jurassic Vacation: Here’s what to do in Royal Gorge, Colorado’s dinosaur and wine hub

By Caramie Petrowsky
Special to the Daily
Check out Skyline Drive in Canon City for panoramic views of the area. The road atop a razorback ridgeline was built by local prison labor in 1903. Watch for the dinosaur tracks visible along the ridge line
Caramie Petrowsky | Special to the Daily

Driving through Canon City, one might just notice the, um, correctional feel. Until we took our family to visit over Father’s Day weekend, I had no idea the area is home to the “world’s largest graveyard of dinosaur bones,” something our volunteer guide – a retired local paleontologist, no less – at the Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center shared. It’s worth digging a little deeper to experience the family-friendly adventures waiting. Here are five reasons to pack up the kids and head for the Royal Gorge Region:

1. Walk where dinosaurs walked, and touch their bones.

Hunting for float, fragments of dinosaur bones eroded out of the ground, on the Marsh-Felch Dinosaur Quarry Trail in the Garden Park Fossil Area near Canon City.
Caramie Petrowsky | Special to the Daily

Six miles north of Canon City, you’ll find the Garden Park Fossil Area, a National Natural Landmark where fossil hunters began excavating dinosaur bones in the 1870s. In total, six new species of dinosaurs were discovered in the area, including the first complete Allosaurus. The area is most famous for the 1937 discovery of the Kessler Stegosaurus, which is named after a local history teacher who discovered it. The fossil now lives at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

On the morning we visited the area, we hiked the Marsh-Felch Dinosaur Quarry Trail with our guide for the morning, Andrew Smith, a paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management. Weaving through pinon-juniper and scrub oak, Smith explained the excavations in the area – bones from 65 individual dinosaurs were recovered from the Marsh-Felch quarry alone – and pointed out notable flora and fauna along the way.

The highlight came when he squatted down and plucked an inch-long dark colored piece of fossilized dinosaur bone, called float, out of the dust. Float is a fragment of dinosaur bone eroded out of the ground that helps paleontologists determine where to dig for bigger specimens. Pointing out the unique pattern that indicates bone, Andrew performed the stick test— touching it to his tongue where it firmly stuck thanks to small holes in the bone, capillaries, which cause suction. Soon our 2- and 5-year-old were picking up float, triumphantly proclaiming, “Found one!” !” Remember, collecting vertebrate fossils from public lands is illegal; it’s OK to take a look, just be sure to place it back where you found it as we did.

Be sure to read the fascinating interpretive signs along the trail to learn about the area’s excavations and the Bone Wars, when two famous paleontologists’ rivalry played out in Garden Park in the late 19th century.

Support Local Journalism

After hiking at Garden Park, head back to Canon City to explore the Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center, the perfect place to learn more about the Great Dinosaur Rush and the important role Garden Park played. Plus, it’s free.

2. Stand, glide, zip or walk nearly 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River.

Known as the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas, the Royal Gorge is a must-visit. The Royal Gorge Park & Bridge features the world’s highest suspension bridge, which you can walk across as well as a slew of fun attractions.
Eve Nagode | Special to the Daily

The Royal Gorge Park & Bridge is home to the world’s highest suspension bridge. And whether you walk across the bridge or glide on the aerial gondola that traverses the Gorge – or both – you’re sure to get all the tingles. Plan to spend at least a few hours exploring the 360-acre park. Start by riding the gondola (do this first in case weather rolls in) before strolling back across the bridge. Our little ones also loved exploring the new Playland and riding the classic carousel. Tweens and teens would likely dig riding the Cloudscraper ZipRider, North America’s highest zipline that allows you to soar 1,200 feet above the Arkansas. And we couldn’t help but gawk at the Royal Rush Skycoaster where screams filled the air each time it dropped visitors in a 50-mile-per-hour freefall.

3. Solidify the youngsters’ love of dinos.

The Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience features two ropes courses, one for junior guests as well as a three-story course for the more adventurous.
Special to the Daily

What with 16 life-sized, skinned, moving dinosaurs visible from the road, it’s hard to drive by the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience without your children clamoring to stop. The dinosaurs along the Dinosaurs Wild Walk are animatronic and move when you approach. Seeing dinos “in the flesh” was the perfect complement to the myriad dinosaur bones we’d experienced during the weekend as well as inside The Dino Experience. At the outdoor Kids’ Dig area, little ones can scoop away gravel to unearth faux T-Rex bones. Inside, they can see the real thing, including recently unearthed fossils in the Paleo Laboratory, run by the local nonprofit Garden Park Paleontological Society.

4. Not everything is for kids: some of Colorado’s best wine is made here.

The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey has won more than 100 accolades and medals for its impressive lineup. Visit the Tasting Room, open daily on the serene ground of Canon City’s former Abbey.
Special to the Daily

Visit The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey to discover your new favorite Colorado wine. That’s what we did when we visited the winery, which nabbed “2018 Winery of the Year” from the Colorado Association of Viticulture and Enology. The picturesque Abbey itself has been around since 1924; monks started the winery in the early 2000s before the monastery went bankrupt.

Now, Larry Oddo owns it and Winemaker Jeff Stultz oversees production of 10,000 cases of wine a year. Standouts included the exceptional Colorado Merlot; Revelation, a Bordeaux-style blend that’s aged for nearly two years; and the fruity Wild Canon Harvest, a community wine made from 30-60 different types of grapes brought in from local neighbors.

Assistant winemaker Matt Colon pegged The Norton as his favorite during our tour of the impressive production facility, and we agreed. Made with a cold-hearty hybrid grape sourced from nearby prison-run vineyards, the Norton is unlike any wine I’ve ever sampled. Try it, along with the rest of the impressive lineup, of which most are complimentary to sample, in the Tasting Room, open daily. Opt for a decadent VIP wine and cheese tasting for $30/person.

5. See dinosaur tracks while driving one of Colorado’s most unique roads.

Enter the one-way paved Skyline Drive, about 2 miles long, from Highway 50 on the western edge of Canon City and prepare for a steep, hair-raising trek on the high razorback ridge overlooking the Arkansas River Valley. Pull over to check out dinosaur tracks embedded in the cliff face, which were discovered in 1999 by a paleontology student from the University of Colorado who was driving the road.

Former Vail Daily Arts & Entertainment Editor Caramie Petrowsky is a freelance travel writer and public relations professional who lives in Denver with her husband and their two children. 

Support Local Journalism