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SOFT ADVENTURE IN COLORADO
By Lauren Kramer
For Travel Writers' Tales

We'd come to Colorado looking for some soft adventure - the kind that everyone in the family could enjoy with minimal risk of injury. We found it just two hours from Denver in Cañon City and Colorado Springs, two towns that contain a playground of canyons, mountains and rivers nestled in the embrace of the magnificent Rockies. With its craggy mountains and gently undulating hills, the state offers lots of opportunity for visitors to explore its nooks and crevices on land, on water and by bike. Here's our top picks for a getaway in Denver's 'back yard.'

Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, Canon City: Boasting one of the world's highest suspension bridges, Royal Gorge is a great introduction to Colorado's impressive geological landscape. The steep, granite rock faces that line both sides of the Arkansas River stretch 956 feet from top to bottom, offering inspiring views of Pike's Peak Mountain and the Sangre De Cristo range. The park has a variety of options for experiencing those views, including my son's favorite choice, the Royal Rush Skycoaster, a roller-coaster type swing best suited for those looking for an adrenaline rush. Others prefer the relative calm of the incline railway, wherein visitors descend to the river along a railway, encased in a cage-like structure that passes within touching distance of the dramatic colors and contours of the gorge's granite.

Raft the Arkansas River, Canon City: Taking kids river rafting can be challenging but the Arkansas River's calmer whitewater makes it a safer option than many other rivers. We geared up at Echo Canyon River Expeditions and headed out to Bighorn Sheep Canyon for some Class II and a handful of Class III rapids. The ride was a pleasant drift downstream with just a few splashy channels and just a handful of the adrenaline pumping rapids. The relaxing ride downstream gave us a chance to appreciate the beauty of the gorge with its amber and brown granite, and to listen to stories about the bootlegger who used to make moonshine not far from the water's edge and whose still remains rusting where he left it.

Bike from Pike's Peak, Colorado Springs: The bald-faced peak of Pike's Peak Mountain raises its head from as far as Cañon City, and though you can drive or take the train up and down, you get a better appreciation of its contours, its beauty and its five distinct ecological zones by biking down its curving perimeter. At the mountain's base the weather was hot but by the time we'd driven to the top, where the air is much thinner, we were ready for sweaters and gloves. Donning helmets we angled our bikes downhill and followed Harvey Heasten, a spritely 72-year-old bike guide with Challenge Unlimited for the 20-mile ride. In many places the road is remarkably steep and we clutched the brakes to control the speed of our descent around switchbacks and hairpin turns.

There were frequent stops along the way to admire the Cheyenne Canyon, Colorado's eastern plains and Wild Dog Mountain, much of it still black and burned from the summer wildfires. Moving between alpine, montana, foothills and prairie Eco zones, there was lots of variation in flora and fauna along the way, including statuesque bighorn sheep that gazed at us from the sheer mountain slopes.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs: If the name of this unusual, 1,300-acre garden isn't enough to pique your interest, the unusual upended towers of rock that characterize this garden certainly will. Once a cultural crossroads for different Indian tribes, the towers in God's Garden were once giant sand dunes formed by water emerging through the ancestral Rocky Mountains, 280 million years ago. Pocked with holes formed by erosion, these blood-red rock formations and the semi-desert that surrounds them are home to falcons, mountain lion, bears, rattlesnakes and coyotes among other species. Take a hike along one of the paths, check out the informational movie in the Visitors' Center and look out for autographed rocks, some containing the signatures of gold miners that date back to the turn of the century.

IF YOU GO

" Tickets to the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park cost $60 per person for entrance plus access to the rides (open March through October). Info: www.royalgorgebridge.com (888) 333-5597

" The bike ride down Pikes Peak takes 2-3 hours and costs $105, including a light breakfast and lunch. Info: www.bikithikit.com ; (800) 798-5954.

" A half-day rafting excursion down the Arkansas River costs $44 for kids and $54 for adults. Info: www.raftecho.com ; (800) 497-0644.

" Admission to the Garden of the Gods is free. Info: www.gardenofgods.com ; (719) 634-6666.

Photos: As attributed below.

1.Exploring the spectacular rocky monoliths at the Garden of the Gods is a glorious way to see Colorado's natural beauty. Photo courtesy Garden of the Gods

2.The Royal Gorge Bridge & Park has a variety of family activities including an aerial tram, a wildlife park and a petting zoo. Photo courtesy Royal Gorge

3.A relaxing drift down the Arkansas River is a fun family experience with lots of opportunities to dip in the water and get a reprieve from the hot sun. Photo courtesy Echo Canyon River Expeditions

4. Look out for the bighorn sheep at the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, where a fenced enclosure gives visitors a chance to see their elusive, dignified animals up close. Photo credit: Royal Gorge Bridge & Park

5. Garden of Gods: Sunset is an exquisite time of day to take out your camera at the Garden of the Gods, when the rocks are illuminated by the setting sun. Photo credit: Colorado Tourism

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