Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park
A drive across the Trail Ridge Road is an absolute must-do, a highlight of any visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous motorway in the US, much of which is well above tree line. Eight miles of the highway are above 11,000 feet (3,352.8 meters) with a peak elevation of 12,183 feet (3,713.4 m).
From the numerous pull-outs and observation stations, you can see spectacular views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains, mountain lakes, and far-away valleys. Those who are normally squeamish when driving narrow, winding mountain roads will find the Trail Ridge Road to have a wider roadbed and gentler curves than many such highways.
You should really allow yourself a full day for this drive, especially if you find it necessary to make the return trip. Traffic does not move fast, for this is much scenery, fairly steep grades, occasional wildlife on the road, and in the summer months, very heavy traffic. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous pull-offs but during peak season you will not always find a place to park. There is an Alpine Visitor Center near the highest point on the roadway - a good place for restroom break, a snack, a short climb on Alpine Ridge and a glacier view.
Note - many a family from warmer climates have experienced their first snow ball fight along Trail Ridge Road, even in August.
Trail Ridge Road is one of the great scenic drives in the US National Park system. This 45-mile stretch of asphalt is the highest continuous motorway in the United States with eight miles over 11,000 feet and a peak elevation of 12,183. It is obviously closed in winter and since this is the case, a visit to the park before it closes is a well-timed one. Allow plenty of time for this drive as the views are wonderful with numerous turnouts. If you do not have time for the entire length, make sure to drive to the Alpine Visitor Center where there is a seasonal snackbar and the short Alpine Ridge Trail. Though it was a glorious sunny day when we stopped there in late September of 2008, it was still quite cold. Dress appropriately for temperatures at nearly 12,000 feet!
Highlights include Rock Cut, where the road literally passes through the mountainous terrain. A parking area allows you to backtrack for photos. This is also the trailhead for Tundra Communities nature walk. This half mile trail passes through alpine tundra and if you have never been at this elevation, it is a very interesting terrain. It is a special and very fragile area so please remain on the trail. As a high altitude hiker, I have seen it a lot but if you are not one, this is a great opportunity to experience it with minimal effort. It ends at a memorial for Roger Wolcott Toll, a potential National Park Superintendent who died in an auto accident in nearby New Mexico. Dress warmly, this hike is all over 12,000 feet.
Just beyond Rock Cut is Lava Cliffs, the highest point on Trail Ridge Road at 12,183 feet. This is evidently a great spot at night. The Milky Way is so close you feel like you can touch it.
We did this drive our last day in the park after hiking out from a two-night backcountry trip and it was a nice finale to our stay at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Running between Estes Park and Grand Lake, this road takes visitors through some of the greatest of all mountain scenery. It takes several hours, if you allow for stops. From the photos, you can see that it's well worth it.
Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park's heavily traveled highway to the sky, inspired awe before the first motorist ever traveled it. "It is hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make," predicted Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, in 1931 during the road's construction. "You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions."
Also known as the "All-American Road". Stop at one of the pull outs very near the highest pass in the Park, 12,183 ft. elevation (3,713 m) to view the 360 degree panorama.
This road is closed over the winter months; usually from late September through late May. It's not at all unusual to encounter snow at the top in July. Visitors will most likely require a jacket or sweater on top. Weather in Colorado changes on a dime.
Trail Ridge Road (US route 34) is the primary east-west road through the park. It can get crowded, but the views are magnificent as it climbs up and over the Rocky Mountains. The road crosses the Continental Divide and crests at an altitude of 12,183 feet, making it one of the highest roads in the United States.
This road crosses the park in a general east/west direction. In the summertime, when it is open, you can drive from Estes Park all of the way to Grand Lake. Normally, the park service tries to have this road plowed by Memorial Day. In its upper reaches, it is way above timberline and above 12,000 feet. The highest portion of the road actually is higher than the area where it crosses the Continental Divide. Because of the views and unusual opportunity to reach such a high elevation, this road is popular. It will be slow going on crowded days. If you are staying overnight near the park, I recommend making the drive in the morning when you are most likely to have decent weather. Afternoons often bring thunderstorms. In the summer, it can sometimes snow on Trail Ridge Road. There are many pullouts and hiking opportunities off of the road. There is a visitor center above timberline near the highest portion of the road. Here, you can get some drinks and snacks among other things. Make sure you have plenty of fuel in your car.
If you like to cycle and enjoy a good challenge, here is the place to be. The advise for getting a good start goes double for you. Imagine riding up there and then coasting all of the way back down. Watch the hairpin turns.
Catch Trail Ridge Road in late September and you can possibly see the first snows blanketing the peaks, the bull elk in heated battle for the females, and the aspen changing color in spectacular fashion. Or.... you might find that you get to see none of these things because a snowstorm won't let you get anywhere.
Trail Ridge road travels from Beaver Meadows at the east park entrance to the Kawuneeche Park entrance on the West side. If you are driving from Denver and are planning to spend a day then I suggest driving to the park from Denver via Boulder to Estes Park. From Estes Park drive on Trail Road over the Continental Divide and down to Grand Lake. From Grand Lake go down to Winter Park and over Berthoud Pass to lead you back down to I-40 and onward to Denver.
It's a nice loop. I provide a link to road conditions in Colorado below.
One of the great drives in America. Up, up and up numerous switchbacks until reaching a ten mile long rim that the road follows at 11,000 feet. Many opportunities for hikes along the drive and wildlife viewing is likely. We saw the bighorn sheep from a distance (much too far away for photos.)