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If you thought the journey to Rocky Mountain National Park was beautiful, just wait until you experience Trail Ridge Road. Completed in 1933, Trail Ridge Road spans the park from east to west, and links the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. The road winds past countless 12,000-foot peaks, high-alpine tundra, and some of Rocky Mountain National Park’s best views.
The above time lapse video goes 43 miles from the northeast entrance of the park to the west entrance. This high alpine road is only open from Memorial Day through mid October because of weather, so even though the video was taken on June 1, 2014, you can still see a lot of snow. Some early June nights can have temperatures below freezing, so be prepared for night road closings.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. Known appropriately as the Highway to the Sky, it crosses the continental divide at a whopping 12,183 feet. Colorado has also designated Trail Ridge Road as a scenic and historic byway.
The History of Trail Ridge Road
Watch the video below by CBS Denver on the history of the road, the recent finish of road construction in 2011, and the ancient road that came before the pavement.
Driving Trail Ridge
Most Park visitors choose to drive Trail Ridge Road, pulling over periodically to take advantage of countless turnouts and sweeping views along the way. The drive is fairly relaxing since the two-lane highway never reaches grades above 7 percent and has only a few hairpin turns.
If you plan on driving, heed our advice and start early. Tour buses, RV’s, and other drivers usually pack the road around 10 or 11 a.m. and an early start can mean enjoying the scenery at your own pace, while also photographing stunning sunrises and grazing wildlife.
To access Trail Ridge Road, start from either Estes Park on the eastern side of the Park, or Grand Lake to the west. The road quickly ascends 4,000-feet breaking tree line and emerging into open tundra resembling a baron moonscape of rock and jagged peaks.
Some of the most popular turnouts along the way includes: Many Parks Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Medicine Bow Curve.
Alpine Visitor Center sits close to the halfway mark, and is a perfect place to grab a cup of hot chocolate and soak in the views.
Drive Time: 1.5 to 4 hours depending on traffic and stops at overlooks.
Biking Trail Ridge
While most visitors decide to experience Trail Ridge Road by car, a small majority decide to hop on their bikes and ascend at a much slower pace. The ride is one of the most spectacular in Colorado, and since the grade never exceeds 7 percent the ascent is relatively gradual.
Take it from us and start early: We usually hit the road around 8 a.m. Our route typically is an out-and-back with a stop at Alpine Visitor Center. Early in the morning it’s not uncommon to see mule deer, moose, elk, and other wildlife grazing in open meadows as you warm up the legs spinning through Beaver Meadows.
Since the ride crests at 12,000-feet, make sure you’ve got an extra jacket or arm and leg warmers due to the fact the temperature is usually quite a bit cooler up high.
As you ride don’t forget to check out Many Parks Curve and Rainbow Curve. The views are spectacular and it’s a perfect place to catch your breath and take a bathroom break.
As you continue to ascend keep an eye out for building afternoon storms, which can be life threatening above tree line. Upon reaching Alpine Visitor Center grab a much deserved snickers bar and soak in the views. Then it’s all-out pandemonium as you plunge back down the 5,000-feet you just climbed.
Chad Gibbons filmed his decent on Trail Ridge Road on May 18, 2014, one-week before the road opened to traffic. Watch his thrilling ride.