Saturday, November 21, 2020

Ultimate Guide to Trail Ridge Road

The tallest paved road in the United States is Trail Ridge Road, located in Rocky Mountain National Park. It covers 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake and reaches a peak at 12,183 feet. You’ll drive above the treeline into a rocky, alpine landscape that is decorated with wildflowers. There’s also wildlife to see and a visitor’s center. Driving Trail Ridge Road is a must-do if you are visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. When I did this scenic drive, we started in Estes Park and turned around at the Alpine Visitor Center. Here’s my guide.

Drive Time: 2-4 hours depending on stops and traffic

How to Check Trail Ridge Road Conditions

At such high altitude, weather conditions can change by the minute. You can check the Rocky Mountain National Park website for road conditions. The most up to date information is available via the hotline (970 586-1222), which you can call at any time. 

The best time of year to drive Trail Ridge Road is between Memorial Day and Mid-October. Start as soon as you can in the morning to avoid traffic. The road closes completely for the winter, as it is unsafe to drive. It has also been known to close earlier if conditions are too icy.

What to Pack to Drive Trail Ridge Road

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Warm Jacket (for high elevations)
  • Water
  • Snacks

Must-See Stops on Trail Ridge Road

Hidden Valley Snow Play Area

9,240 ft above sea level
6.8 miles from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center

This picnic and snow play area is gorgeous any time of the year. It is a popular winter spot for sledding and tubing. From 1941 to 1992, there was actually a ski lift installed. There’s also a warming hut with heated restrooms. In the summer, there is a creek and several picnic areas around the path at Hidden Valley. When Trail Ridge Road closes during winter, you can still access Hidden Valley, but you cannot drive any further west.

Many Parks Curve

9,640 feet above sea level
8.3 miles from Beaver Meadows Visitor Center

This overlook offers panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park. Longs Peak and Deer Mountain are visible. The name, Many Parks, refers to the lowland meadows below. There are two small parking lots connected by a path. The parking lot at the bottom is used for visitors travelling downhill and vice versa. These are designated as so because of the visibility around the curve. This overlook is definitely popular but worth the stop. 

Rainbow Curve

10,829 feet above sea level
12.1 miles from Beaver Creek Visitor Center

You may start to notice a difference in trees and plants as you approach the Rainbow Curve overlook as it is at an altitude of over 10,000 feet. There’s a relatively large parking lot for this popular stop on Trail Ridge Road. There’s a stone wall lining the parking lot and restrooms as well. From this overlook, you can see several mountains and plenty of alpine landscape. 

Forest Canyon Overlook

11,716 feet above sea level
16.8 miles from Beaver Creek Visitor Center

At this point, you have travelled above the treeline and the landscape begins to look a little more barren. There is a larger parking lot at this stop. Forest Canyon Overlook features a short, paved path to the main lookout point. Informational signs explain the glacier erosion that you can see below. We saw marmots and elk at this Forest Canyon Overlook. There is a spectacular view of several peaks and the alpine forest of Rocky Mountain National Park.

   

Wildlife to See on Trail Ridge Road

  • Moose (low elevations)
  • Mule Deer
  • Elk
  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Mountain Goats
  • Pika
  • Marmots

Rock Cut Overlook

12,050 feet above sea level
18.8 miles from Beaver Creek Visitor Center

Rock Cut Overlook is the highest point on Trail Ridge Road. This stop features a 1.1 mile out and back trail. While it is technically an easy trail, if you are not used to the elevation it feels more difficult. We got out to stretch our legs and could definitely feel the altitude, so we didn’t walk the trail further up. There are plenty of wildflowers and signage identifying them if you want an excuse to stop. It is common to see elk and marmots here as well as the occasional bighorn sheep.

Lava Cliffs

12,000 feet above sea level
20.9 miles from Beaver Creek Visitor Center

Surprisingly, at some of the highest points on Trail Ridge Road, you won’t find snowy mountains. Lava Cliffs formed around 28 million years ago after glaciers moved and cut open the hillside. Lava flow traveled from the Never Summer Range and created the Lava Cliffs you can see today. It is definitely a unique formation and another stunning view.

Alpine Visitor Center

11,796 feet above sea level
23 miles from Beaver Creek Visitor Center

Located about halfway between Estes Park and Grand Lake is the Alpine Visitor Center. We visited in July of 2020, when there were COVID-19 restrictions in place, so we weren’t able to see any of the exhibits but we did stop by the gift shop. There is also Alpine Ridge Trail, which is 0.5 miles out and back at high elevation. The parking lot is big but it does fill up at peak times, so plan accordingly.

Trail Ridge Road is lined with overlooks featuring incredible views of landscapes and wildlife. Make sure to set aside half a day to fully experience this scenic drive at Rocky Mountain National Park and pack some warm layers for high elevations. Trail Ridge Road is a must-see when you visit Rocky Mountain National Park!

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