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Rebirth of the Royal Gorge

A devastating fire roared through the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park just two years ago. It destroyed 48 of the attraction’s 52 buildings, melted the incline to the bottom of the canyon, and closed down the popular Colorado tourist destination.

Some might have called it quits. 

But not Harry Hargrave, president, nor Mike Bandera, general manager. 

“It took a lot of hard work, but it’s back,” Bandera says. 

The bridge was first built at the unlikeliest of times, in 1929, during the start of the Great Depression. Although the 2013 fire was the most destructive event in its history, the renewed park is fully open for business.

“I think it’s better than ever,” Bandera says.

The historic bridge itself, an engineering marvel perched 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River, escaped the worst wrath of the blaze – only about 100 boards were charred. The infrastructure remained sound.

Nearly everything else had to be rebuilt.

Two years and $3 million later, a spanking new visitor’s center greets guests and offers a 220-seat restaurant with a sunny observation deck where you can sit, relax, enjoy a drink and admire the scenery. 

The Mini-Train is back, along with a rebuilt Plaza Theater and a children’s playground complete with a carousel and a water pad – with jets of water soaking kids who want to get wet. A 30-foot-tall climbing structure, with nets and slides, is in the works. All are included in the park’s admission. 

On the south side of the bridge is a new barbecue restaurant. And a new trolley shuttles folks across the bridge if they’re too timid to walk. (Hint: It’s not that scary unless you’re really afraid of heights.)

For an extra fee, try the Royal Gorge Cloudscraper zip-line or ride on one of six shiny new red gondolas carrying passengers back and forth across the chasm. Also, for the brave, is the Royal Gorge Skycoaster, where passengers get flung out over the vertigo-inducing drop on something that feels like a slingshot.

Not yet restored, but also in the works, is a new way to descend from the rim to the floor of the canyon along the Arkansas River. And next year, the park likely will add a 6,000-seat amphitheater where guests can attend concerts and other outdoor events. In December, look for the bridge to be lit up like … well, a Christmas tree.

 “I think we’ve taken the facility to five-star status,” Bandera says. “Everything is state-of-the-art.”

In the theater, visitors can see and hear the story of the attraction, including footage that records the fire’s deadly impact. 

The park is the No. 1 attraction in Southern Colorado, Bandera says, with an average of more than 300,000 visitors a year. 

“We’re on track for that already this year,” he says. “We might even hit 330,000.”

At the rededication ceremony in May, Beth Fisher, granddaughter of George Cole, the bridge’s designer and builder, recalled that after the fire, scouring the ashes, they found the original dedication plaque for the bridge. 

“It had a rainbow burned into it,” she says. “I think that was a sign.”