As the drive continues, it never strays far from the Arkansas River, which has widened and become tamer after its escape from Browns Canyon. Farther along, switch onto Rte. 291 and follow the river to Salida, a small town backed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Sightseers can tour its historic district, soak in hot springs, or stroll through Riverside Park.
Thanks to the surrounding mountains, which drain the passing clouds of most of their moisture, portions of this area are said to be high desert. The riverbanks remain lush with grasses, cottonwoods, and willows, but as you depart Salida on Rte. 50, the region becomes decidedly more arid. Rabbitbrush, piñons, and junipers are scattered across dry valleys. Two additional plant species also show up on the scene: oak brush and cholla cactus, whose pink flowers appear in spring.
11. Five Points Recreation Site
Just east of Cotopaxi the roadway dips into Bighorn Sheep Canyon, an aptly named locale where visitors can spot bighorn sheep. An interpretive facility at Five Points Recreation Site explains the habits of these creatures, which prove their mountain-climbing skills as they roam the jagged canyon walls. Although the animals can be difficult to make out—their brownish coats blend into the surroundings—distinctive white patches on their rumps give them away.
12. Royal Gorge
This gorge, carved over eons by the Arkansas River, has walls—regally colored in an array of reds—that plummet more than 1,000 feet to the riverbank. An aerial tramway and the world’s highest suspension bridge both span the abyss, offering vertigo-inducing views deep into the chasm. For yet another perspective, ride the incline railway to the gorge’s faraway floor. In a thrilling descent the cars inch down a 45-degree slope to the swirling rapids of the Arkansas River. As you look up from the bottom, the towering walls obscure all but a sliver of sky.
13. Canon City
Farther east the drive snakes over the crest of the Dakota Hogback via the Skyline Drive, then descends to Canon City. One of its first mayors, a poet named Joaquin Miller, wanted to dub the rowdy mining camp Oreodelphia, a highfalutin’ name that the miners insisted they could neither spell nor pronounce. “The place is a canyon,” they said, “and it’s goin’ to be called Canon City.”
The town is host to one of Colorado’s major penitentiaries, besides other attractions better worth stopping for. A hint of its past still exists in the town’s historic district, complete with museums, and visitors can also drive by the ornate mansions built by early mining magnates.
Take time to ride the scenic railroad through Royal Gorge. Its trestles span clefts, and its tracks cling to ledges with a view of the Arkansas River far below.
14. Fort Carson Military Reservation
Rte. 115 follows the river southeast to Florence, where the downtown district has become a mecca for antique lovers, then branches northeast through rolling hills studded with junipers, piñons, and sagebrush. At Fort Carson, an army installation off limits to the public, some 130,000 acres provide diverse habitat for wildlife. Elk, pronghorns, and mule deer roam the grasslands; songbirds fill the cottonwood groves; and grebes, mallards, and other waterbirds nest in the wetlands. Raptors—golden eagles, prairie falcons, and hawks—can also be spotted from the road.
The drive nears its completion with a dramatic flair as the roller-coaster loop twists on its self to make a winding descent from the foothills. The views take in Colorado Springs and the sun-soaked plains stretching east.