The first time we drove up Trail Ridge Road during a visit to Northern Colorado in 1984, I was awed. The panoramic views of mountains were awe-inspiring; the steep drop-offs were literally breath taking for me. I had some height issues and balked at going back down the east side of the mountain to Greeley, CO where we were staying. We took a long and scenic detour down the west side of Trail Ridge Road and through Grand Lake and then through Granby, where we got on US Highway 40 and finally down Colorado Route 14 through Poudre Canyon, a place we got to know well when we moved to the area 10 years later. This detour added about four hours to what would have been a two-hour trip. But what an adventure we had.
Trail Ridge Road, aka US Highway 34, is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. It goes through the magnificent Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a seasonal road, unplowed once the snows start. It usually opens to the top around Memorial Day Weekend and stays open into September or October, depending when the first serious snow fall. In the winter, it’s usually kept open as far as the scenic Many Parks Curve, a great viewing area. We’ve walked out to where the road closes to marvel at the snow. Some winters, the drifts are over 40 feet; winter wind speeds can exceed 150mph higher farther up the road. It’s probably not a place you’d want to be even if the road was open. In high drift areas, there are snow markers at the side of the road so the snowplows can find it when they begin plowing in spring.
The eastern gateway Estes Park is famous, among other things, for the Stanley Hotel where Stephen King wrote The Shining. The west gateway is in the much smaller town of Grand Lake. Between these two points lies pristine mountain terrain inhabited by elk, big horn sheep, moose and more. The road goes through three distinct ecosystems. First you encounter montane forests and grasslands, then sub-alpine conditions where you’ll see stands of Engelmann Spruce. Last, as you go above 11.500 feet, you’ll discover alpine and Arctic tundra conditions. Most people go up and back down on the east side, some do the round-trip and others go through to the other side and on to western Colorado. The east side has the more spectacular views and there’s a bit more to do.
The highest point on the road, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, at 12,183 feet above sea level, is unmarked. The road dips after that and then climbs to the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,798 feet above sea level. Stop and have a snack, use the rest room or buy souvenirs at the gift shop. Going down the west side of Trail Ridge toward Grand Lake, you’ll cross the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. This is the site of the headwaters of both the Colorado River which flows west and the Cache la Poudre River which flows east.
We moved to Fort Collins, Colorado in 1996 and lived there for almost eight years. One of our favorite things to do when we had down time was to head for Estes Park and often into Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a place to hike, to view elk bugling in season, to get a bit of peace and quiet and to look at the views. Sometimes we took the trip across Trail Ridge Road to Grand Lake and even beyond. I saw my first moose in a meadow on the west side of the park. It was at the end of a long quest and was really exciting, though in truth, it was far away and I could barely see it with binoculars.
One of the most memorable trips was when my husband Steve was driving tour buses. He had a group of senior citizens from a local church group. As we went through the Knife’s Edge, a narrow strip of road with drop offs on both sides he said, “I’m really scared so I’m going to close my eyes. Let me know when we get to the other side” He has a dark, quirky sense of humor. There was a bit of a collective gasp from some of the passengers. I had to chime in with a “He’s kidding!” The memory still makes me smile.
We also used to hike on trails in the Moraine Park, Bear Lake and Beaver Creek areas on the east side of Trail Ridge. Sometimes we’d bring a picnic lunch and hang out in an alpine meadow and appreciate the peacefulness and the view. When we first explored the park and drove Trial Ridge Road, there were year-round snowfields. It was fun to walk on snow in shorts in summer. There’s something very contrary about it. Sadly, because of climate changes, these days, you can’t count on seeing them. Most years they melt away.
Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road have a place in my heart. You can spend a day (or part of it) driving through the park and checking out easily accessible areas or opt for a multiday experience. You can make your base in one of the anchor towns, in one of the many campgrounds inside the park or in the backcountry areas. However you do it I recommend making Trial Ridge Road part of your Colorado itinerary.
A few key stopping points on Trail Ridge Road are:
Beaver meadow on your left is a great viewing place for elk and other wildlife.
Horseshoe Park is a great spot to see big horn sheep and other wild life, especially in late May and June. A little up the road from here you’ll cross a creek. The Alluvial Fan, a wall of rocks created by rushing waters after a dam break in a reservoir in July 1982, is visible to the north form here. You can park and explore the area.
Many Parks Curve, where Trail Ridge Road closes after the significant snowfall, offers spectacular eastern views and a bit of bird watching. You may spot Steller's jays, Clark's nutcrackers and magpies.
Rainbow Curve at 10,833 feet above sea level also offers mountain views and is names for the rainbows that can be seen after thunderstorms, which are common on summer afternoons.
From the Forest Canyon Overlook you can see Long’s Peak, the tallest peak in the park to the southeast and the peaks at the Continental Divide to the west.
At the Rock Cut parking area (12,113 feet above sea level) you can access the Tundra World Nature Trail. The half-hour walk will take you past about 200 species of alpine plants and through a habitat that supports pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep.
Medicine Bow Curve at 11,644 offers views of the Cache la Poudre River, whose headwaters are down the road a bit at the Continental Divide. If you look northwest, you’ll see the Medicine Bow Mountains.
At Milner Pass (10,762 feet) you’ll be on the Continental Divide. This is the line that governs where water flows. From Colorado, anything west of here flows to the Pacific and east eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
From Farview Curve at10,124 feet, you can see the beginning of the Colorado River on its way to the Grand Canyon and then California. You’ll also get views of the Never Summer Mountains.
Stop at Holzwarth Trout Lodge Historic Site where a short trail takes you to an early-20th-century homestead that was first a working cattle ranch and later a dude ranch before it became incorporated into the park.
Both Estes Park and Grand Lake offer places to stay and dine. It’s also a convenient trip from anywhere on the Front Range from Denver north to Fort Collins.
Author’s note: The road to Bear Lake will have construction during 2012. Expect delays.
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