Trail Ridge Road is an 11 miles-long (17.7 km) high highway that covers an area of 48 miles (77.2 km) between Estes Park and Grand Lake. This is the one and only road that crosses Rocky Mountain National Park. Believe it or not, many visitors have come to regard Trail Ridge Road as one of the best highways in the known world. Whether it is for its wildlife or alpine views, driving across this highway is arguably a must for anyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.
Estes Park starts here
Considering that the highway allows you to reach altitudes over several thousand feet in a matter of minutes, you should be prepared for the experience of seeing rapid and drastic changes in vegetation and temperature. The road reaches as much as 12,183 feet (3,713 km), something that cannot be said by many highways in the world. In many ways, the clime in the alpine zone resembles that found in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic area.
Given the differences that exist in vegetation and temperature depending on the altitude at which you are located when driving on Trail Ridge Road, you will obviously notice some differences in the wildlife as well, that is, if you spend enough time in each area that can be accessed by the road. Of course, the season of travel will also have a major influence on what you will be able to see, especially when it comes to vegetation. For instance, wildflowers are to be seen for a few weeks during each summer, something which should be taken into consideration by all flower lovers.
It is worth mentioning that it is located in an area where the sun has plenty of access and, consequently, the road doesn’t have as much snow accumulation compared to other roads that provide access to similar wild areas. More sun means the park service can generally open in May and only close in October. This is somewhat interesting (not to exaggerate with the interesting thing) in that it shows the central role that the road plays in the park and how different things would be without it. It is even more interesting (again, not to exaggerate) for travelers who are anxious to visit one of the famous parks from the Rockies during the months when access is difficult or impossible.
It is said that the best views are to be found above the tree line, as trees mask some of the views that you would otherwise have (but don’t use this as an excuse to stop carrying about deforestation). The tundra area, known by the fancy name of Trail to the Sky, gives you views of several valleys and peaks, for which you would most likely regret if you don’t take the camera (or at least the smartphone). Some of the viewpoints that virtually everyone notice are Hidden Valley (good for seeing chipmunks), Mummy Range, Many Parks Curve, Grand Lake and Rainbow Curve (good for seeing the Great Plains). Continuing west, the road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass.
A chipmunk having a good time
The Mummy Range
Somewhere near Grand Lake
Trail Ridge Road gives access to the Alpine Visitor Center, which is located at an altitude of 11,796 feet (3,595 m) and is opened between 10:30 am and 4:30 pm daily between late May and middle October. The center is worth visiting for the information it provides about the tundra, as well as for asking for help if necessary (let’s hope it won’t be), and even buying souvenirs.
Hopefully this brief review of Trail Ridge Road has been helpful in giving you an insight on what you might see there and may even convince you to schedule a trip or at least continue your investigation about the place before actually taking any more radical decisions. Even if you want to visit the park only to drive this road, you should not forget you are in a place where help is not readily available and are surrounded by an environment which you might find spectacular but in specific instances also quite hostile. For this reason, it is highly recommended to drive the road well equipped with everything you might need in case there is a problem, even if you are not planning to leave your car for a long period of time.
See Trail Ridge Road and surroundings in 3D with FatMap. Find hiking trails and plan your next trekking day.
Use Google Maps to find any address. Street View or photos available for key locations.