Nearly 15 months after a wildfire destroyed all but four of its 52 structures, the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park will reopen Saturday with a new visitors center, a miniature one-mile railroad and expectations that a second reconstructon phase will be ready in November.
The 85-year-old bridge was only slightly damaged in the June 2013 fire, but it's been closed since Aug. 11 to allow construction workers to complete the new 14,000-square-foot visitors center and finish work on parking lots and landscaping, said Mike Bandera, vice president and general manager of the 360-acre Cañon City attraction. The reopening marks the completion of the first phase of the $23 million rebuilding project, all paid by insurance.
The visitors center remains "a question mark" for Saturday's opening, he said, but it could be ready if its fire suppression system gets the OK from local officials by Friday.
The reopened park employs about 70 but will expand to 90 in November, when another phase opens, and to 130 during the peak of the summer tourism season, Bandera said.
The park reopened in March, but just for weekends and holidays for guided tours across the bridge and rides on the Royal Rush Skycoaster, a popular attraction that wasn't damaged during the fire. The Skycoaster allows up to three people to swing on a cable 1,300 feet over the gorge.
"We're very pleased that the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park is reopening, especially to help round out the season for Labor Day weekend," Chelsy Offutt, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Tuesday in an email statement.
She said the park "is a tremendous draw, and also helps generate traffic for other offerings in the Royal Gorge region whether it's rafters, jeep tours, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad or even the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey."
The new visitors center includes an observation deck, a 4,000-square-foot gift shop, and a 215-seat cafe.
The park's Silver Rock Railway and waterclock also will reopen Saturday. The 3,218-acre fire damaged the train's tracks and destroyed its caboose as well as the waterclock that had been featured at the park's entrance for 30 years.
Other phases of the rebuilding project are scheduled for completion over the next two years, but Bandera said there are no plans to rebuild the Western Wapiti Wildlife Park, and its 60 elk, bighorn sheep and white buffalo have been sold.
Bandera is calling Saturday's reopening a "soft" opening; a formal opening is planned in May.
The park will be open daily with hours subject to seasonal changes. Go to www.royalgorgebridge.com for detailed information.