We Coloradans don’t fear much—especially when it comes to outdoor adventure. But even experienced rock climbers might feel some acrophobia while tackling our state’s gravity-defying via ferratas. These exhilarating climbing routes utilize iron hardware—think rungs, bars, pins, and ladders—to traverse mountainous terrain that would otherwise be inaccessible to all but experienced rock climbers.

Once limited to the Alps, these routes, whose name comes from an Italian phrase meaning “iron roads,” date back to World War I, when troops installed fixed lines and ladders so they could more easily access Europe’s high (and tactically advantageous) mountain terrain. After the hostilities ceased, local mountaineering groups took over the task of installing and maintaining permanent routes, which have since developed into major tourist attractions.

The hallmark of any via ferrata is a fixed system of protection to guard climbers who at times have nothing but a slim metal rung separating them from hundreds of feet of thin air. This usually consists of thick, waist-high cables that connect participants to the rock face via a via ferrata lanyard—a special shock-absorbing, Y-shaped piece of equipment that is hitched to each person’s harness. Each arm of the lanyard has a D-shaped metal ring (carabiner) clipped off to its end. As you move, one of the two carabiners is always secured to the cable to catch you should you fall, although you may still drop a short distance and/or swing if you do stumble (cue the heart palpitations).

With the opening of a new via ferrata system in Royal Gorge Bridge & Park this summer, our state now boasts five of these European-style routes. Take a trip this summer and experience rock climbing in a new (and nerve-wracking) way.

Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, Canon City

Royal Gorge is known for its bridge that offers 360-degree views of Colorado, with mountain ranges, cliffs, and the back of Pikes Peak in the distance, and the Arkansas River rushing below through the bottom of the gorge. Now, visitors can enjoy a new sight, thanks to a via ferrata made up of six small routes on the south side of the gorge. The guided tours start by hiking down the side of the gorge to the bottom of the routes, which begin 400 to 600 feet below the top of the gorge. Rather than traveling strictly side to side, the routes travel upward along the granite and gneiss rock, so you finish at the top of the gorge. Be sure to pause along the way, because the sights of Colorado from the gorge wall aren’t the same as the views from the bridge. And keep your eyes out for mountain goats, moss growing along the rocks, and birds soaring at the same heights that you’re climbing.

Cost: $135 for the Revelation Tour, which includes four easy to moderate routes and takes 2-3 hours; $165 for the Royal Tour, which includes all six routes and takes 4-5 hours. Private tours are available for $375 (one person) or $376 (two people).
Details: Participants must be at least 12 years old and weigh between 88 and 264 pounds.

Cave of the Winds Mountain Park, Manitou Springs

Located a few miles west of Colorado Springs in Cave of the Winds Mountain Park, this adventure begins with a hike up to the route’s start, takes about two hours to complete and features a half-mile via ferrata that includes an airy traverse, a vertical climb up an overhang, and a balance beam crossing. But what really makes this experience stand out is the conclusion—participants are returned to the route’s beginning via two ziplines.

Cost: $99 per person
Details: Participants must be at least 12 years old, at least 48 inches tall, and weigh between 90 and 260 pounds. Kids under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

Mount Evans Via Ferrata, Idaho Springs

The Mount Evans Via Ferrata near Idaho Springs—managed by Arkansas Valley Adventures (AVA)—soars to more than 300 feet above ground, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding scenery, including Chicago Creek below and the famed fourteener looming nearby. The three-hour guided tour includes dangling suspension bridges, several ziplines, and a 70-foot rappel, as well as a 50-foot free fall. Yep, you’re going to have to muster some courage to simply step off a suspension bridge. But don’t worry, an auto-belay system will catch you.

Cost: $119 per person for the via ferrata or $189+ when combined with a half-day rafting trip
Details: Participants need to be at least 12 years old and can weigh no more than 250 pounds.

Granite Via Ferrata, Buena Vista

Also operated by AVA, the Granite Via Ferrata is located a few miles north of Buena Vista. The adventure begins with two ziplines that take you to the beginning of the via ferrata’s course. The route, which traverses steep granite cliffs high above the Arkansas River, is more exposed than the one in Idaho Springs and includes climbing, rappelling, and several suspension bridges, as well as a heart-stopping free fall.

Cost: $119 per person for the via ferrata
Details: Participants need to be at least 12 years old and can weigh no more than 250 pounds.

Telluride Via Ferrata, Telluride

Although the Telluride Via Ferrata is open to the public, it is not a commercial operation, which means that any experienced climber (emphasis here on experienced) can tackle it without a guide. The route, which traverses steep cliffs more than 600 feet above the forest, is a serious, all-day outing. The Telluride Mountain Club, which maintains the route, urges climbers to hire professional local guides who are not only familiar with the via ferrata but can also provide all the gear necessary to safely complete it. For those who are brave enough to tackle this one-of-a-kind adventure, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of 365-foot-high Bridal Veil Falls and the spectacular box canyon in which the town is nestled.

Cost: Prices for local guides vary
Details: The route is not suitable for children

Additional reporting by Meredith Sell.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.