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Post-fire, the Royal Gorge Bridge shows off new toys, gourmet grub

Such great heights



I'm not afraid of heights. But my girlfriend is. Just like my dad, who on a visit to the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park years ago, refused to venture out very far on the bridge — and hell if he was going to peer over a rail.

God, I love that old wuss. But she, on the other hand — well, somehow I haven't been able to let her off so easily. In fact, maybe I've said something to the effect that, you know, if she really wants to prove her affections for me, she'll accompany me on this zipline.

So here we are, about to shoot 2,400 feet across the Gorge, 1,230 feet above the Arkansas River. She's wearing this tough-gal face, a mix of nervous smiles and pure dread. That "Help me, I've been peer-pressured" look. You could also call it love, or at least devotion, or something like that.

I mean, really, what's the big deal? It's only the second-highest zipline in the world. Plus, they've got these damn-near-full-upper-body harnesses that make you feel like you're wearing the planet's most secure adult diaper. You aren't going anywhere. Well, unless that line snaps or a stray bolt of lighting zaps you to pieces. But, hey, the friendly staff who's monitoring the weather by the minute just reopened all the rides because it's been 15 minutes since a bolt hit within 10 miles. Reassuring, right?

So the metal safety gate slides open in front of us, kinda like a chute at the rodeo. And a slow momentum begins to grow as we descend past the last stretch of rim rock and above that great beyond.

Oh, wow. We're really up there. That river looks tiny from here. This is ... FUN!

And it keeps going, that visitor center on the north side of the bridge growing larger and larger as we approach it, she about 30 yards behind me on her line, because she weighs less. Me, shooting pictures of her as best I can over my shoulder, hoping for an embarrassing face.

Finally, we both slam into a series of springs at the end that slow us so rapidly that we momentarily shoot back toward the canyon and swing back in our seats for one terrifyingly fun final glance.

She's smiling, and surprisingly still talking to me. I think she secretly had a blast. But I won't push my luck. No, wait — of course I will.

"Let's go to the Skycoaster next!"

This is all happening at the grand reopening celebration of the park, held a couple of Fridays ago, where the media and area friends and family of the venue have taken in some speechifying and back-patting at a drizzly ceremony before being set loose with an all-access day pass.

Amid the huge, happy crowd is general manager and Royal Gorge Company of Colorado vice president Mike Bandera. He's all smiles, gray goatee and rosy cheeks under a black cowboy hat that matches a dark, puffy windbreaker. And he's practically impossible to talk to over the crowd noise and constant interruptions, so I call him later to learn more about the significance of this day.

You probably recall that after starting on June 11, 2013 — the same day as the Black Forest Fire — the Royal Gorge Fire devastated the area, "leveling out 48 of the 52 structures in the park," in Bandera's words. Thankfully, the park's main attraction, the bridge, suffered no structural damage to its steel. Only 125 wooden boards on the bridge's south end received enough of a char to require replacing. (Nor did that decade-old Skycoaster I'll soon be telling you about receive any damage.)

But still, a $30 million insurance claim didn't allow for enough money to reopen the incline railway that takes guests from rim to river and back. Bandera hopes it will be back within two years, along with new additions such as bridge lighting (for light shows and the like) by Christmas of this year. A 5,000-to-6,000-seat amphitheater is expected around Summer 2016, to perhaps rival Red Rocks as a dramatic backdrop: a stage backed by a dramatic gorge and lighted bridge view.

The park itself reopened last Labor Day, but a new gondola came online just two months ago — it's a more peaceful but still scenic method for crossing the great gap — and the zipline opened April 1 (imagine the jokes in line that day ...), along with the kids' mini train and performance theater, which hosts magic and acrobatic shows and the like.

And even more recently, Café 1230 opened as the visitor center's fancy new food hub. Bandera and crew had sought bids during the closure and ended up wooed by Service System Associates in visits to Denver venues and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

"The quality of their food was far and above anything else we saw," he says. "And certainly far and above theme park food around the country."

Enter executive chef Beau Green, formerly of Denver kitchens and our zoo. He's been a winner at the Colorado Springs Chorale's Chef's Gala and a guy who helped make a mark at SSA via the zoo's Grizzly Grill.

"It was kind of a new concept for venues like these," he explains. "We wanted to bring good food to people who were expecting otherwise from these venues. It was a very successful model. Across the country, we've built this same way."

At the Gorge, that means a sweet central kitchen that showed its chops at the grand reopening with a festive and overall delightful party spread that included whiskey-and-Coke-braised short ribs; poutine with a 60-hour gravy and house-smoked mozzarella; buttermilk-fried-chicken sliders with Palisade peach mustard (a tribute, Green says, to his former co-worker Bobby Couch, now of Green Line Grill); and prickly pear iced shortbread cookies. Eddyline Brewery beers flow on tap.

Across the bridge, Green's crew runs an 850-pound Southern Pride smoker, dishing items like a half-rack of thickly barked, dry-rubbed ribs for $13.95 that can feed two who've already been grazing a bit. You can smell the goodness from the Skycoaster, which I may as well unpack for you now, even if it's an oldie attraction at the park.

You get harnessed into these large Snuggie-like setups that lean you forward into a flying position, akin to hang gliding. Cables pull you and up to two friends more than 100 feet high, and then drop you so that you free-fall at over 50 mph into a giant pendulum swing. It sends you out once again over the gorge for a killer view and way more adrenaline than the zipline.

She screamed. Loud. A lot. Like, practically the whole time. In my ear. I didn't care, because hey — holy shit, I'm zipping through the air like a happy fool. ("Who's mamma's little sugar glider? That's right, I am!") Still, she did it, and yes, I was impressed. Amazingly, she was rather composed and chilled-out not long after as we lingered just outside of the park on our way home, at the White Water Bar & Grill.

If you haven't entirely gorged yourself at the park (see how I did that?), do plan a drink and/or meal at White Water. It's on the north side of U.S. Highway 50 just before the gorge turnoff, on what's locally called Eight Mile Hill on account of it being that far west of Cañon City.

Owner Ty Seufer also operates the adjacent Royal Gorge Rafting & Zipline Tours. The rafting covers a 10-mile Royal Gorge route complete with Class 4 rapids and looming 1,000-foot cliffs. As for his ziplines, 20 of them cover a total of 2½ miles, including a 55-mph section, making for an impressive three-hour tour. Another day, I say.

But in the 10-year-old bar, only open mid-April through late September, New Belgium Brewing dominates the taps and a sweeping patio and sandpit entice you past the charming timber dining room, out a large bay door. Seufer serves steaks and a fantastic — like, Pueblo-stomping — Slopper, using beef from a local herd. And yes that's a fancy arugula salad, in a rural bar, and it's great.

Margaritas? Oh, why not. It's been a long day. Especially for her. Though on the whole, it flew by, just like we did, harnessed to those gossamer cables above the deep divide.

Whether you're testing your nerve alone or your relationship, too, those thin lines won't let you down. At least not too fast, and certainly not too low.

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