‘Like you’re on top of the world’: A southern Colorado drive of peace and peril

Tribune Content Agency

CANON CITY, Colo. — A man from Louisiana didn’t know what he’d find on his cross-country drive through Colorado.

He had some ideas — Pikes Peak, Vail — but this was a proper adventure, and a proper adventure afforded time and space for surprises.

“No destination really,” Bob Roddie said during a stop one recent afternoon. “Just going where the road takes me.”

En route to the Royal Gorge, the road took him and his Nissan Armada off U.S. 50 to a narrow strip sneaking up a rocky, slender ridge.

Roddie didn’t know what he’d find. But he was glad he found Skyline Drive.

“This is insane,” he said. “I love this.”

A proper adventure afforded a panorama such as this: the craggy mouth of the gorge to the west, the town to the east, a big sky above and colorful mountains and hogbacks all around.

And, of course, a proper adventure afforded a thrill.

That’s the slim, 2.6-mile stretch of pavement straddling this ridge top, straddling drop-offs of almost 500 feet on either side.

“Insane,” one might call Skyline Drive, as Roddie did. Indeed, for some, “it’s a place to test your nerves,” said a local regular, Laurie Haak.

For her, it’s a place to find the opposite of adrenaline. She finds peace up here.

“You feel like you’re on top of the world,” Haak said. “There’s a big highway going past you (below) and a city on the other side, but you just feel really removed from all of that when you’re up there.”

She tends to drive her Subaru up here with camera in hand. She’s captured sunsets and sunrises, solar and lunar phenomenons, storms rolling over the plains out east. She’s made pictures up here inside and above the clouds.

Haak likes to show pictures to unaware outsiders — outsiders aware of the much more photographed attraction around.

Like the Royal Gorge, Skyline Drive “is one of the defining features of Cañon City,” Haak said. “So it’s a lot of fun to be able to portray that to other people and show just how special it is.”

Between billboards for the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, Royal Gorge Route Railroad and others for rafting and fishing — not to mention the area’s booming mountain bike scene — Skyline Drive often is missed, said Rex Brady. It’s sometimes the case for locals, too, said the city’s parks and open space director.

“When you live here for a long time, you kind of take things for granted,” he said. “But that vista and everything you can see, and the wonder of the construction, that 60 inmates built this thing … it’s pretty amazing.”

Brady traces Skyline Drive’s history to 1905. Cañon City’s Territorial Prison provided the hard, perilous labor, reportedly knocking off 10 days of inmates’ sentences for every 30 days worked.

Read The Cañon City Daily Record a year later: “Skyline Drive is about the most popular thing that ever happened.”

At first, traffic was limited to horse and buggies. It wasn’t long before vehicles were welcomed and the one-way designation established. In the 1930s, drivers would enter through an arch of multicolored stone received by the country’s 48 states at the time, before Alaska and Hawaii.

New York’s governor hesitated to contribute, according to recent history compiled by local Steve Kaverman. The governor worried about “a private concern for private profit,” he wrote to Cañon City’s Chamber of Commerce.

“Skyline Drive is possibly one of the most unique scenic drives that can be imagined,” the chamber secretary wrote back, adding it represented “no private gain by anyone.” The drive, he wrote, “is one of the few free attractions in Colorful Colorado and it is our purpose to maintain it as such for the benefit of the traveling public.”

A benefit not far past the entry arch: bulging footprints on the sandstone, left by dinosaurs on a once-muddy floor more than 60 million years ago. After decades of driving by, it wasn’t until 1999 when the tracks were discovered.

They were easily missed. You miss things when you’re moving too fast, Haak said.

Her suggestion for first-timers on Skyline Drive: “Go slow. Take your time and enjoy.”

That’s what Roddie was doing on his cross-country drive through the state. There was a poignant reason for it.

“My wife died three months ago,” he said. “We always said we’d just get in the car and go see the country. We never did do that.”

He could feel her with him still, he said. “I’ve been talking to her a lot on this trip.”

He didn’t know what he’d find pulling off the highway. Atop Skyline Drive, he found a bench under the shade of a juniper tree — a perfect view, a perfect place to talk.


To tour Skyline Drive, continue on U.S. 50 through Cañon City toward the Royal Gorge. Signs point to the entrance for Skyline Drive on the east side of the highway, behind a fly shop.

The one-way, narrow road is not recommended for those afraid of heights. Drivers should be aware of hikers and cyclists. People on foot and bike can access from Hogback Open Space, which borders the base of the road on the east end.