October 8, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE By Cormac McCrimmon | Photo by Oliver Kraft
In the heart of ‘Prison Valley,’ the blue light of a Cañon City Walmart welcomes travelers. Despite its proximity to Colorado Springs, Cañon City — 45 miles southwest of Colorado College — is an oft-forgotten weekend destination.
The 16 nearby prison complexes, including ADX Florence — the only supermax in the United States — abundant Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camping space, and desert grunge charm creates a hard-to-replicate atmosphere.
If you’re willing to endure the sound of late-night BLM target shooters and El Chapo as your weekend neighbor, Cañon City will surely scratch your travel itch. The banana-belt climate, ample public lands and up-and-coming downtown make Cañon City a hotspot for climbing, mountain biking and river adventures alike.
Family Style Meal at Juniper Valley Ranch, 6 p.m.
Juniper Valley doesn’t work hard to make itself known. Its chicken speaks for itself. Since 1951, the small adobe restaurant has served some of the finest fried fare on the Front Range. All guests choose between skillet fried chicken, baked ham or country-fried steak. Meals are served family-style with an array of buttery sides. Homemade pies are available whole or by the slice.
Juniper Valley makes the perfect pit stop on your way to Cañon City. Call ahead to reserve a table. Reservations required. 719-576-0741 ($23.25 per person)
Hot springs soak, 8 p.m.
Dakota Hot Springs is far from a luxury spa experience. The single pool more closely resembles the work of a desert-rat with a spare backhoe than a functional business. Uncovered metal pipes rise from the middle of the steaming water. If you dare to visit, wait until after sunset. The darkness will better obscure the pool’s shabbiness and wrinkly nudists.
Despite an array of horrifying Trip Advisor reviews, Dakota Hot Springs delivers a no-frills experience to adventurous travelers. Day rates are cheap, they welcome outside booze and guests can camp for a slight upcharge. Reservations required. ($15 per person day rate, $25 camping fee per couple)
Caffeinate at The Bean Peadler Coffee Shop, 9 a.m.
Make your way to Cañon City’s historic downtown. The Bean Peadler is a coffee shop connected to Red Canyon Cycles bike shop. Grab an espresso, pastry or spare tube for your bike. The Bean Peadler offers a glimpse into a more prosperous future for Cañon City. The walkable downtown area is full of boutique shops and new businesses catering to the town’s growing tourist market.
Climbing at Shelf Road, 10 a.m.
If caffeine isn’t your drug of choice, climbing at Shelf Road may offer the jolt of adrenaline you need. Drive 30 minutes north of town and discover a world-renowned sport climbing paradise. Shelf road offers hundreds of bolted climbs ranging in difficulty from 5.7 to 5.14. Warm, sunny weather, nearby camping and short approaches make Shelf the perfect place to climb with your friends.
The Bank and Cactus Cliff areas offer an array of easier climbs. Go with someone who can show you the ropes, or take classes through CC Outdoor Education to learn how to climb outside.
Non-climbers will enjoy walking or biking along the narrow Shelf Road, which offers terrific views of wrap-around limestone rock formations. Camping is available at the Bank or Sand Gulch Campgrounds. ($7 per campsite)
Patio drinks, 2 p.m.
After earning your pump at Shelf Road, it’s time to grab a drink at the World’s End Brewing Company. The local brewery offers 23 beers on tap — each with an apocalyptic themed name —appetizers and grilled food. On sunny days, the patio is packed with climbers and people returning from whitewater trips.
Royal Gorge Bridge, 3 p.m.
A visit to Cañon City is incomplete without visiting the Royal Gorge Bridge. Completed in 1929, the Royal Gorge Bridge is among the tallest suspension bridges in the world. Peer over the edge and gaze at boaters on the Arkansas River.
If vertigo doesn’t take your breath away, the steep prices to walk across the bridge surely will. Adrenaline junkies will enjoy the Skycoaster (a swing that thrusts its victims over the canyon wall) or zipline. If you want to dodge the crowds or avoid paying to enjoy the gorge, a network of short trails along the North Rim offers a similar view. ($24 adult admission)
Pizza Madness, 6 p.m.
A mural depicting an acid trip decorates the large dining room at Pizza Madness. The restaurant’s atmosphere carries much the same energy. Locals share pitchers of beer, kids beg for quarters to feed arcade games, and cooks fling dough in the open kitchen. Cheap pies offer a greasy cure for hanger, hangovers, and heatstroke.
Desert mountain biking, 9 a.m.
Located on the way to Shelf Road, the new Oil Well Flats trail system is an up-and-coming desert mountain biking paradise. It’s easy to imagine Cañon City becoming the next Fruita, Colo. Although total trail mileage is limited, Oil Well Flats offers a number of semi-technical and flowy rides. It’s possible to connect several trails into a 14-mile loop. Dispersed camping is available near the trailhead.
Arkansas River Walk, 1:30 p.m.
Even after the rafting season has died down, it’s still possible to enjoy the Arkansas River from town. Bring a book or stroll along the seven-mile path that offers various connections to town. In the summer, Big Horn Canyon — west of Cañon City — or the Royal Gorge, make for fantastic river trips. For a more mellow experience consider playing in the nearby Florence, Colo. whitewater park.
Sunset at Skyline Drive, 6:30 p.m.
Before you head back to Colorado Springs, enjoy one last sunset on Skyline Drive. Inmates from the local prison constructed the 2.5-mile road above town in 1905. Pull over to enjoy a panoramic view of the foothills and Sangre de Cristo mountains.