Driving Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park


Rocky Mountain National Park’s centerpiece is its high-altitude highway into the sky — the highest continuous road in the United States.  Trail Ridge Road tops out at 12,183 feet.  Colorado has higher roads, including Mount Evans Road, but they’re all one-way highways.  Trail Ridge Road actually takes you over the Continental Divide, and down the other side.

This was the first of two drives over Trail Ridge Road on this trip.  I made a second pass at the pass on Day 7, but the weather was actually worse than it was on Day 6.  (The Drivelapse video at the bottom of the page combines the least-rainy parts of both drives into one video.)

Even though the weather wasn’t great on the east end of Trail Ridge Road, I decided to give it a try.  I hoped that the clouds might break up, once I crested the top of the highway — or perhaps, I would drive through them, and emerge in a sunny, blue sky.  Either way, it was gloomy in Estes Park, so I didn’t have much to lose.

The scenery isn’t fantastic until you reach Rainbow Curve.  This turnout on a hairpin curve provides a view that puts everything in perspective.  Below, you can see the lower end of Trail Ridge Road (on the right), the entire Fall River Valley (in the middle), and Fall River Road (which begins in the lower left corner of the picture).  Estes Park lies just beyond the mountains at the far end of the valley.

The weather was much better in 2005, when I visited Rainbow Curve.

Fall River Road provides an alternative to Trail Ridge Road.  Fall River Road is unpaved, and only one lane — with all traffic heading uphill.  It rejoins Trail Ridge Road at the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass.  Both Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road are closed during winter and spring.  During my visit (in early June) Trail Ridge Road had recently opened, but Fall River Road was still closed by snow.  I did, however, travel Fall River Road in 2005

Trail Ridge Road’s fantastic show of high-mountain peaks begins once you’ve passed Rainbow Curve.

The best views on Trail Ridge Road will be on the driver’s side, looking south and west.  The Big Thompson River forms the valley in between you and the next set of mountains.

The Continental Divide is over there, too!

I had a lot of time to appreciate this view, thanks to construction being done on Trail Ridge Road.  Work crews stopped traffic for about 15 minutes.  As I sat in the rain, I watched my car’s outdoor temperature gauge, which was hovering around 42o (5o C).  I was hoping it would get cold enough to see the drizzle turn into a flurry, but it didn’t happen.

Once the traffic started moving again, I drove along to the Gore Range overlook, which is just beyond the road’s highest point, and just before the Alpine Visitor Center.  While the rain had stopped, and some blue sky was breaking through the clouds, the 42o wind was fierce.  Silly me, I had packed for a summer vacation, not a winter trip.

Click image to see a larger version.

The panorama that awaits at the Gore Range overlook is simply too big to fit in one picture.

Trail Ridge Road, and the Alpine Visitor Center, had only recently been dug out from underneath the winter snow.  The white stuff was still piled up to the roof, and the running-water in the restrooms was still turned off.

Once the snow melts, there’s a nice, short hike that begins at the visitor center.  The Alpine Ridge Trail only climbs 200 feet, but it tops out at an altitude of 12,005 feet, so there isn’t much air up there, and you’ll probably be struggling to catch your breath.  The reward is a great view of Trail Ridge Road, and a mountain panorama that extends into Wyoming, to the north.  Check out the 2005 trip to see it.

After you pass the visitor center, Trail Ridge Road quickly loses altitude.  The road skirts the hillside while giving you a great view of the Continental Divide (including Specimen Mountain — 12,489 feet/3,807 meters).

It seems strange to go downhill to reach the Continental Divide, but Milner Pass is more than 1,400 feet below Trail Ridge Road’s high point.  Because of its relative lack of elevation, the divide isn’t quite as spectacular as you might expect.

The only thing to see here, besides the Continental Divide sign, is Poudre Lake.  During my visit, it was still partially frozen.  The lake marks the beginning of the Cache La Poudre River, which emerges from the mountains near Fort Collins.

Since I was planning a second pass over Trail Ridge Road the following morning, I decided to turn around at the divide, and head back towards my motel in Estes Park.

Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive over Trail Ridge Road (pieced together using my Day 6 and Day 7 drives over the road):

… and the second part, ending in Kremmling, Colorado:

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