Highway to the Sky
Trail Ridge Road is North America’s highest, continuous paved road. Opened to the public in 1932, the road follows an old Ute Indian trail through thick forests, across tundra decorated with glorious flowers, and brings the traveler eye-level with snow-covered mountain peaks.
Though well maintained, Trail Ridge Road has many curves and switchbacks and is often narrow, with few guardrails or shoulders. Speed limits rarely exceed 30mph.
Opening Trail Ridge Road in the Spring
Beginning in April, it takes snowplows up to six weeks to carve through 30ft-high drifts to clear the road, often leaving towering walls of snow next to the pavement. The road is usually open late-May through mid-October, depending on the weather. Elk, bighorn sheep, and the occasional marmot often cross the road. Stay alert.
With the goal of opening the road by Memorial Day each year, clearing winter and spring snows is a monumental effort that begins in April. Crews begin to plow from both the west and east side, eventually meeting at the Alpine Visitor Center. It takes snowplows up to six weeks to carve through 30ft-high drifts to clear.
In the spring when the road is still being plowed, it is the perfect time for bikers and hikers to go without having to deal with the hassle of vehicle traffic. However, it is important to keep in mind that conditions may still be a bit tricky and that users should be prepared for high wind gusts and rapid weather changes.
For the most up-to-date information about road conditions and closures, you can call 970-586-1222.
On the alpine tundra at the top of Trail Ridge Road it is windy and 20-30 degrees colder than Estes Park. Bring a warm jacket, hat, and gloves.
The Alpine Visitor Center
This is a must stop. At 11,796ft above sea level, it is the highest visitor center in the entire national park system. Its large picture windows offer spectacular views of Fall River Canyon, Old Fall River Road, and Mt. Chapin. Trail Ridge Store next door has souvenirs, food, and restrooms
Trail Ridge Road covers 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake, so allow at least three hours for the trip. Traffic can move slowly and wildlife can be on the road. Drive with care.
Rangers and park volunteers often stop traffic in Horseshoe Park to allow Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to cross the road and drink from Sheep Lakes, where they find vital minerals in the mud. Parking is prohibited along the road, but there is a large parking lot to view the wildlife.
Historic stone-wall turnouts provide ample space to stop and take in the views. Many Parks Curve offers expansive vistas of Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, Deer Mountain, Mt. Meeker, and Longs Peak, the sole 14er in Rocky. Other must stops for incredible views are turnouts at Rainbow Curve, Forest Canyon, and Rock Cut.
Stop at Rock Cut to stretch your legs. Take a half-mile walk on Tundra Communities Trail for a close-up view of the many tiny alpine plants and flowers that hug the ground. Despite a growing season that may last just 40 days, flowers bathe the lush green tundra with red, yellow, blue, white, and pink blooms. Take a side trail to the fascinating Mushroom Rocks. The trail climbs to 12,319ft and ends at Toll Memorial, dedicated to Roger Toll, RMNP’s superintendent from 1921 to 1929. Stay on the trail; heavy footprints damage the fragile tundra that may take 10 years to recover.
Test your legs and lungs on the recently refurbished Alpine Ridge Trail (Huffers Hill), a short, steep trek that starts at the Alpine Visitor Center and climbs 200ft in three-tenths of a mile. The trail tops out at more than 12,000ft and offers spectacular 360-degree views.
From the Alpine Visitor Center travel west to Milner Pass and the Continental Divide. Water on the east side drains into the Platte River, which flows to the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and to the Gulf of Mexico. The water on the west side flows down the Colorado River to California.
At Farview Curve, that timid stream winding across the Kawuneeche Valley is the Colorado River. Yes, THE Colorado River. From here it starts a 1,450-mile journey through mountain canyons and three major deserts on its way to California. Moose and elk often graze along the river. Stop in Grand Lake for lunch before your trip back. Drive carefully as animals are often right next to the road.
Most people visit RMNP in summer and on fall weekends, so expect congestion on roads, in parking areas, and on popular trails. The busiest times in Rocky are between 10am and 3pm. By mid-morning, parking areas are often full, so tour and hike early or late in the day. nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/trail_ridge_road.htm