Red Rocks, Rafting & Railways: Our Colorado Springs Road Trip

Colorado is easily one of my favorite states, replete with views you just won’t find here on the East Coast. So naturally as I began to plan out last summer’s epic three-week road trip, I knew that Colorado had to be front and center.

We flew to Denver in mid-June, picked up a rental minivan and made our way 90 minutes south along I-25 to Colorado Springs. I literally have no idea how I managed. Our plane was delayed so we didn’t arrive into Denver until after 10 pm local time, and long story short, we (as in me plus four kids) didn’t reach our hotel until nearly 1:30 am (i.e., 3:30 am ET).

Naturally, I’d booked our first activity for the next day so early it would require us to leave the hotel at 8:15 am. That was not happening. Note to self, do not plan an activity for any time before noon the day after an evening arrival. You’d honestly think that I would know that. Duh.

But, back to Colorado Springs. I would go back in a heartbeat. We stayed at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort, which I would have loved to have spent more time exploring both with and without the kids. It’s huge with a fun kids camp, a kiddie pool with a splash pad, a heated resort pool at the main lodge and a 35-acre lake with complimentary boat rentals.

Even better, there are at least three restaurants at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, so you really never need to leave. Ever. The first morning we sat outside for breakfast at the Mountain View Restaurant. As expected, the mountain views were fantastic. Later we ate outside at Elevations. If someone wanted to cook for me every day while I enjoyed the views, that would work.

So, aside from eating and enjoying the mountain views, here’s a quick at what else we did while in the Colorado Springs area that I would completely recommend.

United States Air Force Academy

I wasn’t originally planning to visit the U.S. Air Force Academy, but I’m so glad that I did, if only for the 21-minute film on a year in the life of a cadet. Once you watch the film, walk along the one-third mile paved nature trail to the Cadet Chapel. From there, wander about the Honor Court for selfies with various statues and aircraft memorials.

Garden of the Gods

If you do one thing in Colorado Springs, it should be to visit the Garden of the Gods. It’s a free nature park that rivals even our most popular national parks. Pick up a Junior Ranger activity guide ($2/each) and join one of the naturalist-led walks that depart at 10 am and 2 pm daily. Make time for interactive exhibits and hiking trails, like the Siamese Twins Trail.

U.S. Olympic Training Center

Another must-go place in Colorado Springs is the 35-acre U.S. Olympic Training Center. It’s one of three campuses across the country created for athletes and it is amazing. Tours run every 30 minutes from 9 am to 4:30 pm. I was truly awed by all the facility can do to help athletes prepare, including simulating humidity, oxygen and altitude levels of the locations of their games. WOW.

Red Rock Canyon Open Space

I love hiking. I still can’t figure out why I didn’t enjoy hiking as a kid, so now I just try to push my new-found love on my kids (who are usually not as enamored with the activity). Red Rock Canyon Open Space is a fabulous place to go hiking in Colorado Springs. If you go with kids, try the Hogback Trail or Mesa Greenlee Trail. Both are around three miles round-trip.

Old Colorado City

A fun place to walk around in Colorado Springs is Old Colorado City. Even better, it’s just a stoplight away from Red Rock Canyon Open Space, so it’s a great place to stop for lunch, pop into cute shops and browse art galleries. We ate lunch at Front Range Barbeque. It’s been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on Food Network and it is dee-licious.

Broadmoor Seven Falls

Broadmoor Seven Falls is a cool place to go if you like to climb steps, as in 227 steps to the top of one of the waterfalls (at 6,000+ feet elevation). Okay, there’s an elevator too, but you won’t get the same views as you do climbing to the top. My advice is to climb to the top, hike the short trails at the top, then come back down for dinner at Restaurant 1858 at the base of the falls.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Taking the Pikes Peak Cog Railway all the way to the top of Pikes Peak (elevation 14,115 feet) was a real highlight for me while in Colorado Springs. Bring a jacket because it is cold at the top and you’ll want to walk all around at the summit because the views are outstanding (there was even snow at the top, in late-June). Get a world-famous donut before you come down.

Manitou Cliff Dwellings

I’ll be honest, we literally arrived at Manitou Cliff Dwellings as a summer storm was rolling in, so we didn’t get much time to explore. However, since it’s a stone’s throw from Pikes Peak, I’d say it’s worth a visit. The real-life Native American cliff structures were fun to explore. There’s also a museum so you can learn even more about local tribes.

Okay, so that’s Colorado Springs, but there’s also a lesser-known area called Canon City that’s about an hour southwest of Colorado Springs. I had literally never heard of Canon City, but it’s worth a visit on its own for hiking and rafting.

First things first, where to stay. We stayed just outside the historic area in Royal Gorge Cabins. Here you’ll find first-class amenities in every cabin, each with delightful patios just right for watching the sun set at the end of the day.

Royal Gorge Cabins are across the street from Echo Canyon River Expeditions, a top-notch whitewater rafting outfitter, and 8 Mile Bar & Grill, a tasty restaurant adjacent to Echo Canyon River Expeditions that’s the perfect spot to grab some grub after your whitewater adventure. Here’s what I recommend that you do while in Canon City.

Royal Gorge Route Railroad

Experience the scenic wonders of the Colorado Rockies as you make your way along the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Book a seat in the Vista Dome car for mountain views and stay for lunch to enjoy on-board meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients, like grass-fed buffalo burgers and basil chicken panini. No box lunch train car fare here.

Echo Canyon River Expeditions

Make it a day by pairing a train ride on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad with a rafting adventure along the Arkansas River with Echo Canyon River Expeditions. Their popular Raft and Rail package starts with a two-hour morning train ride, then finishes up in the afternoon with a mild family float or more adventurous white water rafting through Bighorn Sheep Canyon.

Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience

Just down the road from Royal Gorge Cabins is the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience. Kids will love the hands-on displays and dinosaur fossils. You’ll also want to walk around the grounds outside to check out the animatronic dinosaurs. There’s also a multi-story ropes course. It’s good for a few hours of rain-or-shine fun.

Royal Gorge Bridge & Park

On our second (and final) day in Canon City, it got cold, like in the low-50s and there was rain, so we did not make it to Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. However, if the weather was pleasant, we definitely would have gone to ride the aerial gondolas and walk across the highest suspension bridge in the United States. It just means I’ll have to go back to Canon City one day. 

Skyline Drive

Take the 2.6 mile Skyline Drive across a razorback ridge in Canon City. Toward the top, there’s an interpretive display, including dinosaur tracks embedded on the cliff face. From the summit, you can see all of Canon City, as well as the surrounding mountains. Another nearby option is to hike part of Tunnel Drive (3.8 miles out-and-back).

Disclaimer: My kids and I were hosted by the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau. However, I was not compensated for this article and all opinions expressed here are my own.