If this is your first visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, start with one of the most scenic drives in the country! Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park was dubbed the Highway to The Sky by its builders for good reason. Every twist and turn reveals a breathtaking view! The many mini hikes spidering from the highway let you experience nature of every kind. I’d love to share some of our favorite stops with you!
First a little about Trail Ridge Road
In this one drive you will get a taste for almost everything the park has to offer. As you climb from 7,800 feet to over 12,000 feet you progressively drive through three unique ecosystems:
- The Montane Ecosystem, below 9,000 feet greets you as you enter the park with 150 foot tall ponderosa pines. Wildlife is abundant, with elk often gathering near the road.
- Sub Alpine, 9,000-11,400 feet where the meadows fill with wildflowers during the short summer growing season.
- Alpine, above 11,400 feet where despite the harsh conditions life on the tundra is prolific in the summer months.
Spend your day driving the length of Trail Ridge Road and discover the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road runs 48 miles between Estes Park on the East and Grand Lake in the West. In theory you could run the full length in 1 ½ hours. But why would you? To fully embrace all this drive has to offer you should plan at least 4 hours, preferably much more so you can leisurely gawk at the wonders.
Is Trail Ridge Road a Scary Drive?
Maybe. There are sections with no guardrails and a lot of curves. But not so much if you keep your eye on the road. Which is why the large number of pull offs are a gift to the driver. Stop often and enjoy this beautiful park. We generally found that if one pull off was busy, we could usually find a spot at the next one.
Trail Ridge Road, built in the 1930s, has an incredibly well thought out design to maximize the experience. The wide 2 lane highway takes advantage of long continuous curves to keep the grade between 5-7%. Many of the open curves are designed to provide a wide sweeping view of the valleys and mountains.
When is Trail Ridge Road Open?
The highway is only open from Memorial Day until mid-fall when the new snow begins to make it impassible. Even in July we found snow along the highway. It’s a little crazy to have a snowball fight in shorts!
There will be random times during the open season when Trail Ridge Road will be closed due to snow or ice, surprisingly even in mid summer. If in doubt it’s easy to check the current Trail Ridge Road status by calling 970-586-1222 to hear a recorded message or check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Road Status page. The fall closing date varies each year depending upon the weather.
Stops Along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park
Our first stop is always one of the gateway visitor centers. From Estes Park you can stop at either the Beaver Meadows center on highway 36 or the Fall River center on highway 34. You will find Kawuneeche Visitor Center on the West Side near Grand Lake. In addition to park information, maps and great educational displays you always find very enthusiastic park rangers ready to answer your questions. My favorite question to ask a ranger is “If you only had one day to visit the park what would be the number one thing on YOUR must do list?” It’s amazing how their eyes will light up as they tell you about something in the park that has touched them personally.
Next stop is any one of the many pull offs as you climb higher and higher among the mountains. Photo opportunities abound! Pull out your binoculars or spotting scope and follow the line where trees meet open fields to look for wildlife.
Take a Short Walk and Discover the Tundra
Suddenly you will find yourself above the tree line and here’s where the Alpine Tundra begins.
The Alpine Tundra is so fragile that it takes hundreds of years to recover from a casually created footpath. So no random hiking! Instead, experience the Alpine close up by taking a short walk on one of the developed trails from the pull offs. From East to West try one of these:
- Tundra Communities Trail. From the Rock Cut pull off this is only a ½ mile moderately difficult educational walk into the tundra.
- Alpine Ridge Summit at the Alpine Visitors Center is only .3 miles of moderate difficulty.
- Medicine Bow Curve with an easy 1/2 mile (one way) walk.
- Lake Irene with an easy .7 mile loop around the lake.
Visit the Alpine Visitor Center
The Alpine Visitor’s Center is a must stop. You are near the top of the park here at almost 12,000 feet. The views of mountain peaks and glacier created valleys are amazing. Then wander around the center to learn more about the Alpine Tundra.
Check out the Continental Divide
The first time we crossed the Continental Divide I was confused by Brad’s excitement. He had to get out and get a picture. But once I understood what it was I was in awe that there is a natural line through the Rockies that divides the direction water flows. For anyone as naive as I was on that first trip, all streams and rivers to the West of that line flow into the Pacific Ocean and on the East flow into the Gulf or Atlantic Ocean. Think about it for a minute. You have a fresh spring or melting winter snow and this line identifies where it will end up. (Ok – maybe a little geeky moment!)
Find the start of the Colorado River
Pull off into the Colorado River Trailhead and take a short hike to see the Colorado River in its infancy. It’s hard to believe this gentle little creek turns into a force that cut through rock to create the Grand Canyon. Read about our little adventure with a moose in this area!
Wildlife Viewing on Trail Ridge Road
You are apt to see wildlife almost anywhere along the highway. Bighorn Sheep are often a traffic stopper. On our last trip we arrived on the far West Side of Trail Ridge Road in the early evening and found a huge herd of Elk in the Kawuneeche Valley. Wildlife are often more active in the mornings or evenings so avoiding the crowded mid-day traffic will also increase your chance of a sighting. If you come up on cars stopped along the highway or moving at a crawl you can be certain there is something worth viewing. Slow down for both safety and for your viewing enjoyment!
If you asked me what to do when you only have a day for a Rocky Mountain National Park Adventure I’d urge you to drive the full length of Trail Ridge Road. Not only drive it but get out of your car and take the short walks along the trail so you can fully experience the glory of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
How long does it take to get to Rocky Mountain National Park?
Headed to Colorado for a vacation and want to pop into Rocky Mountain National Park for a day trip? Trail Ridge Road would be an amazing way to spend a day. Here’s an estimate of time to drive from various cities to help you decide if this trip is in the cards for you:
- Loveland to Rocky Mountain National Park – 1 1/2 hours
- Breckenridge to Rocky Mountain National Park – 2 1/2 hours
- Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park – 1 1/2 hours
- Colorado Springs to Rocky Mountain National Park – 2 1/2 hours
- Ft Collins to Rocky Mountain National Park – 1 1/2 hours
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park should be on everyone’s National Park bucket list. Don’t forget to save this article to your Pinterest vacation idea board!
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Originally published May 17, 2018 Updated September 26, 2019