Great National Park Drives: Trail Ridge Road
Today Park Chasers is sharing another installment in our series on epic drives within the National Park Service. Each year, thousands of Americans embark on road trips and driving adventures to national parks. This series showcases the roads and scenic drives you don’t want to miss on your next #parkchasing visit. Check out our previous posts and today’s feature on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Thousands of people will flock to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado in the coming weeks for the annual fall tradition of Elk Fest. Held in the gateway town of Estes Park, the weekend festival highlights the unique mating season of elk that peaks this time of year.
During our Fall 2016 visit to Rocky, to be honest we spent most of our time watching elk. Our trip was 5 days of chilly mornings and evenings on the side of the road with our binoculars. But during the warmer middle of the day, we did take some time to hike and drive one of the most scenic routes in the entire national park service: Trail Ridge Road.
Related Post: 3 Best Places to See Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
About Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road (Colorado State Highway 34) cuts across Rocky Mountain National Park west to east in the northern third of the park. As the only route across the middle of the park, most visitors to Rocky spend at least some time on the road. We started on the east side of the park near Moraine Park Campground and traveled west towards Milner Pass and Timber Creek.
Construction of the road began in 1929 and was completed in 1932. However, the route that is today Trail Ridge Road was used for many generations of Native Americans who lived and hunted in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park.
At approximately 48 miles long, the road reaches some of the highest points in the park. With good reason, the road also holds the designation of Beaver Meadow National Scenic Byway. The scenery along the route is breathtaking. And not just figuratively. Sometimes because of the elevation, we were literally out of breath!
Travel Conditions on Trail Ridge Road
Before you depart on any Trail Ridge Road trip, be sure to check for road conditions at a ranger station or online. Because of the higher elevations along the road, the driving conditions deteriorate quickly in poor weather. Frequently, snow closes the road for the winter by late September. The road typically opens sometime in mid-to-late May.
During our visit, the road was closed the first morning because of ice. It opened again for a few warmer days during the middle of our trip and then was closed for the season by the end of the week we were there. We checked in at the visitor’s center when we arrived at the park and adjusted our hiking plans to make sure we could see as much of the road as possible.
Related Posts: The Best Fall Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
Stops along the Drive
The park service recommends about a half a day to travel the length of Trail Ridge Road. This includes the minimum time for stopping. Park Chasers recommends allowing at least that long to see and hike along the route.
Some stops you won’t want to miss:
- From Estes Park, just off the start of Trail Ridge Road is the park’s main visitor’s center, Beaver Meadows.
- At the top of the road, you’ll find the Alpine Visitor’s Center. Alpine’s claim to fame is the highest elevation visitor’s center in all the National Park Service. It’s a good spot to pull off the road and use the restrooms. From the parking lot, the Alpine Ridge Trail is a short out-and-back hike that gives visitors a sense of what hiking in altitude is like.
- At Milner Pass, the famous Continental Divide Trail crosses Trail Ridge Road. There is a signpost in the parking area which sits on the shore of a picture-perfect subalpine lake called Poudre Lake. Milner Pass is a less-crowded spot for lunch than Alpine Visitor’s Center. Also, the hike to Mount Ida that departs from here is one of our favorites in the park.
- Just past Fairview Curve the road turns and begins to run north to south. You’ll pass the Colorado River Trailhead and the Timber Creek area, another one of the larger campgrounds in the park.
- The Holzwarth Historic Site is open June through September. The cabin and homestead of the Holzwarth family were built in 1917 and is operated in the summer by park service staff. Experience what it would be like to be a full-time resident in the high Rockies.
- At the other end of Trail Ridge Road, you’ll find Kawuneeche Visitor’s Center and the Grand Lake Entrance Station. The valley here has served as hunting grounds for Native Americans long before the area became Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a popular place to see elk all times of the year.