Trail Ridge Road (or US highway 34) is a 48 mile stretch of road running over the Rocky Mountains connecting Grand Lake and Estes Park Colorado. Since its inception in the early 1930’s the road has been enticing those brave enough to drive up the winding path with magnificent views and the chance to explore the tundra enviroment.
I stumbled upon Trail Ridge Road during my solo trip to Colorado earlier this spring. This was the perfect break from hiking on a beautiful sunny day. Over 11 miles of Trail Ridge Road is above the tree line meaning little things like aspen and pine trees don’t block the views. I started the trail on the Estes Park side and given the favorable road conditions, I ventured the entire length into Grand Lake. After a short lunch I drove the entire road back to Estes Park.
There is no shortage of amazing views on Trail Ridge Road. Every few miles or so there was a pull off, parking lot, or point of interest to accommodate travelers. These frequent stops allow the drive to experience the amazing views but stay focused on the road while driving. The wide open and scenic views are a nature photographers playground. A few stops I highly recommend include:
- Rainbow Curve- amazing views of multiple peeks and a beautiful lake
- Forest Canyon
- Rock Cut
- Lava Cut
- Gore Range
- Alpine Visitor Center
- Milner Pass (Continental Divide)
- Farview Curve.
There are several trails of varying length along Trail Ridge Road. When planning your hiking adventure, consider the elevation, temperature, and snow levels. Admittedly I did not venture out on too many of these trails. A few of the trails that came recommended include:
- Ute Trail
- Forest Canyon
- Tundra Communities Trailhead
- Colorado River Trailhead
- Holzworth Historic Site
- Coyote Valley Trailhead
If you choose to hike these trails it is imperative you stay on the marked trail- especially in the tundra zones. Frequent foot traffic can cause damage to the fragile eco-system. Additionally by staying on the path, should you need rescue or assistance of some sort, the professionals will be able to find you easier.
Alpine Visitor Center
When coming from the east, just pass the highest point on the road, is The Alpine Visitor Center. Alpine Visitor center is open 10:30am-4:30pm daily, weather depending. The official visitor center is staffed by National Park Service personal. Visitors can read a bit about life in the tundra area, do a bit of shopping, and check out the view from inside or a special viewing platform. When I was there in late May the outdoor viewing platform was closed but they had a section of window cleared off to highlight the impressive views.
Next door to the visitor center is a privately run shop that features a small cafe and extensive shopping opportunities. Along with the normal mass-produced tourist swag the shop had a wide range of local and one of a kind art pieces. If you are looking for a souvenir of your journey, I defiantly recommend checking these shops out. I found the merchandise to be fairly priced but the cafe was another story. I defiantly would not recommend eating a full meal here as the food was high priced and your average concession stand type items.
Fun Fact: All the electricity for the visitor center, adjacent shopping building and bathroom structure is supplied via generators on site. Daily, water and waste is transported up and down the road as there are no sewer systems at this elevation.
A note about the bathrooms facilities: While the visitor center does have indoor bathrooms, they looked to be closed. Travelers use a separate building with drop toilets similar to those found at most trail heads and rest stops in the park. If the line is super long or they are in poor condition, consider waiting until you next stop along the road.
Grand Lake is a small town that is a blast from the past. Complete with a wooden boardwalk, magnificent views of the lake, and small shops this little town is worth a quick stop. Grand Lake does have some cabins and resorts for anyone who wants to spend the night.
I stopped into Sagebrush BBQ for lunch and grabbed a cheeseburger. This bar was a mix of locals and tourist creating the perfect environment. Check out Sagebrush BBQ on Trip Advisor for more info. ALLERGY WARNING: Sagebrush does serve circus peanuts (the kind you crack out of the shell).
A Few Things To Note
Trail Ridge Road is inside Rocky Mountain National Park so to travelers will need to pay the park entry fee. If your looking for other adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park, check out these 7 Hikes you can’t miss.
The full length of the road is only open from Late May to Mid October. Portions of the road may be accessible out side of those times depending on snow fall and road conditions.
This is not the kind of trip you save for a rainy day. While the road is well maintained, it is steep, curvy, and the weather conditions can change quickly making it hard to navigate. Any time you see a park ranger, ask for an update on the road conditions. Often the rangers will hear of changes before the average traveler.
On average, it is 20-30 degrees (fahrenheit) colder at the summit then in Estes Park or Grand Lake. I defiantly recommend layers including full length pants, coat, hat and boots that can get wet if you want to explore the trails and rest stops.
For those looking for even more of an adventure, Old Fall River Road is a one way dirt road that is open from Early July to September and ends at the Alpine Visitor Center. Old Fall River Road runs sort of parallel to Trail Ridge Road. Besides Chasm Falls, on the map it doesn’t look to be much along the way.
Your Turn: Have you visited Trail Ridge Road?