How is a trail system on some of the most beautiful and iconic land in Southern Colorado even possible? In an era of wild-west land-grabbing and rapid development, how did the area around the Royal Gorge remain largely untouched? As it turns out, the land at the Park was thoughtfully preserved by one particular visionary, and it has been owned by the City of Cañon City for over 100 years.
For well over a century, visitors from all over Colorado and the country have been visiting the "Grand Canyon of the Arkansas". It has always been beautiful, but the gorge and surrounding areas have not always been accessible. In the early 1800's, visitors to the area were relegated to the bottom of the Gorge, and were not treated to the sweeping vistas and glorious views that we can see from Fremont Peak and the rim today. It was simply to difficult of a journey for most people to make. In fact, in the late 1800's, it was over a full day's journey from downtown Cañon City just to get to the rim of the Royal Gorge. Most travelers simply rode the train or walked up a defunct rail line to access the deep canyon.
At the turn of the century, the founding fathers of Cañon City realized what a financial asset the Gorge could be to the residents of the area. One particular resident, Mr. Guy U. Hardy, took a special interest in the area. Hardy was the original publisher of the Cañon City Record (later called the Cañon City Daily Record), and took it upon himself to secure the land surrounding the Gorge. He didn't want it for himself, however, he wanted the City to own it. With his own time and money, he drafted a bill and left for Washington D.C., where he was able to convince Congress to cede the land to Cañon City. The bill passed and reads (in part):
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled, That there is hereby granted to the city of Cañon City, all lands now belonging to the United States of America located in sections...along and on either side of the Arkansas River...and containing thereon a certain canon designated as the Royal Gorge; the said lands to be held by the said city solely for park purposes and for the use and benefit of the public.." - Public Bill No. 222; June 11, 1906
Convicts from the local penitentiary built a road up to the newly acquired land, but most vehicles of the day could not climb the steep grade. The land remained mostly untouched until 1927 when an enterprising Texan - Lon P. Piper - was granted permission to build a bridge (you may have heard of it) across the chasm. The City leased him a small portion of the park for annual rent of $1,000. The attractions and amusement park - and the agreement with The Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Company - remains today. The company is an active member of the community and is known to sponsor, assist with, and participate in a number of events.
At one point, a group even petitioned to have the Royal Gorge admitted into the National Park system. The bill eventually failed, but evidences the community's pride in their park.
"The Royal Gorge Park Association was organized in Pueblo in September, 1939 for the purpose of attaining national recognition of the Royal Gorge area and advancing development of the recreational resources there. […] A U.S. Weather Bureau report showed that the facility could be a year round proposition since the mean temperature there is fifty-four degrees and it is protected from excessive cold by the natural flow of air. […] Although the sponsors of the memorial were unsuccessful in their attempts to make the Royal Gorge part of a national park, they did draw attention to the area." (Campbell, 183)
In the years following, attempts were made to create attractions for tourists, but the city was unable to "meet the recognized need for drives, trails, and picnic places in its two mile wide and four mile long park" (Campbell, 183). In recent years, the City has added campgrounds, overlooks, restrooms, and improved roads in the areas. In 2014, FAR helped complete the 1.7-mile Canyon Rim Trail - the first recorded public trail in the Royal Gorge Park (outside of the leased area).
It was through the generosity, foresight, and good will of Guy U. Hardy and the citizens of Cañon City that the eight square miles (four long and two wide) surrounding the majestic Royal Gorge belongs to the citizenry. Were it not for him, the land would most likely have been sold in sections to private owners, thus making a trail system virtually impossible.
* Campbell, Rosemae Wells. 'From Trappers to Tourists', 1972.
** Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections