Driving on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is indeed an epic experience. The road affords breathtaking views over the stunning Rocky Mountains! Take a Colorado Rockies tour to over 12,000 feet high, get rewarded with incredible scenery while making amazing memories. This road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States and recognized as scenic byway connecting the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake.
The Trail Ridge Road is a pretty exhilarating drive high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Driving this scenic road, you must get out to explore at each viewpoint to see the spectacular mountain vistas, highland meadows, and spot wildlife. Interpretive information at each location provides valuable insight and interesting facts about the park. There is nothing like being atop a mountain perched on the cliff-side hovering over a lush green valley-the feeling is truly amazing.
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Navigating Timed Entry Permits: Your Guide to Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park
Timed Entry Permit Reservations to enter the park will be available through www.recreation.gov beginning at 8 a.m. MDT on Monday, May 1.
- This round of reservations will be available to enter the park from May 26 through June 30.
- The next release will occur on June 1, for the month of July and any remaining days that have not been booked for June.
- On July 1, reservations will be available for the month of August and any remaining days that have not been booked for July.
- On August 1, reservations will be available for the month of September and any remaining days in August that have not been booked.
- On September 1, reservations will be available for October and any remaining days in September that have not been booked.
High in the Colorado Rockies: Exploring the Majesty of Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is usually open from late May through mid-October, weather permitting. It is closed during the winter months due to heavy snowfall. Trail Ridge Road is notorious for icy conditions because of melting snow in the early spring and late fall. Be prepared to adjust your travel plans during these times. Make sure to always check road conditions before heading out on Trail Ridge Road. Learn more about Trail Ridge Road on the National Park website.
Trail Ridge Road: Staying Informed about Changing Road Conditions
U.S. Highway 34 passes through varied habitats such as montane forests of ponderosa pines, birch and aspen trees, subalpine fir, and spruce habitat to above the tree line alpine tundra. The highest point on Trail Ridge Road is near Fall River Pass 12,183 feet elevation, between Lava Cliffs Overlook and Gore Range Overlook. Driving this road, visitors should be aware that high elevations can cause altitude sickness and that the road is steep and winding in places.
If you have a rental vehicle, I recommend upgrading for driving this National Scenic Byway. We upgraded to a Ford Edge as it handled the twists, steep gradients, and switchbacks fairly well, especially when we did Pike’s Peak later on our trip.
Also, the fact that in many locations there are no guardrails. You can get the most out of your Rocky Mountain high trip if you purchase the $2 pamphlet “Guide to Trail Ridge Road” at one of the many the visitor centers before you start your journey. I always laminate our maps and mark off the stops before we arrive at the parks. Another tip is this road is extremely popular, so I suggest getting an early start. Otherwise, you will dodge cars, sometimes getting stuck behind the slower traffic.
Trail Ridge Road Drive: Essential Tips for Your Rocky Mountain Adventure
Here are some tips for traveling the Trail Ridge Road
- .The Trail Ridge Road is only 48 miles long, but it’s a slow and winding drive. Plan for at least two to three hours to drive the road, and more if you want to stop at viewpoints or take hikes.
- Even in the summer, temperatures at the higher elevations can be chilly. Bring warm layers, including a hat and gloves.
- There are limited services along the Trail Ridge Road, so it’s important to bring water and snacks with you.
- The Trail Ridge Road offers stunning views of the Rocky Mountains, so take your time and enjoy the scenery. There are many pullouts and viewpoints along the road, so be sure to stop and take in the sights.
- Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including elk, bighorn sheep, and marmots. Keep your eyes peeled and be prepared to stop for wildlife sightings.
- The high elevation of the Trail Ridge Road can cause altitude sickness in some people. If you experience symptoms such as headache, nausea, or dizziness, stop and rest or descend to a lower elevation.
Exploring Stop #1 – The Alluvial Fan Trail
This is a beautiful morning place for an early walk. The trail is 0.8 miles (1.3 km) long and is considered an easy hike, suitable for families with children. The trailhead is located at the Endovalley Picnic Area, which can be accessed from the Fall River Road. Visitors can access the parking in either east or west lots. The Alluvial Fan has an elevation of 8610 feet. It is typically accessible from late spring to early fall, depending on weather, and offers a unique opportunity to explore the park’s natural beauty and geology.
The trail led us through a beautiful landscape of mountain meadows, forests, and rocky outcrops. The highlight for us was the alluvial fan itself, a massive pile of boulders and debris left behind by a flood that occurred in 1982. The flood was caused by a dam failure on Lawn Lake, which is at the top of the mountain above the trail.
There are excellent views from the Fall River road of Sheep Lake Valley. We so enjoyed hiking and scrambling over the river rock to get more dramatic views of the falls. Be sure to wear good hiking boots to navigate the rocky boulders. The trail is open year-round, but the best time to visit is in the summer and early fall when the weather is mild and the wildflowers are in bloom.
Unveiling the Past: The Lawn Lake Flood in Rocky Mountain National Park
The catastrophic flood that occurred on July 15, 1982. Reading the informational kiosk helped us understand the circumstances of the catastrophe. The flood was caused by the failure of the Lawn Lake Dam, which had been constructed in 1903 and was owned and operated by the Lawn Lake Lodge and Resort. The dam failure was due to a combination of factors, including the age of the dam, the lack of maintenance and repairs, and heavy rainfall that had caused the water level in the reservoir to rise rapidly. On the day of the flood, a large section of the earthen dam suddenly collapsed, releasing over 30 million cubic feet of water. The thought of that much water rushing down the mountainside in a matter of minutes, seemed unimaginable to us.
The resulting flood destroyed or damaged several homes, cabins, and campgrounds downstream, and caused significant environmental damage. Three people lost their lives in the flood, and the total cost of the damage was estimated to be over $31 million.
Discovering Serenity: Stop #2 – Sheep Lakes Pullout
Just past the Fall River Visitor Center, you will see the pullout for Sheep Lakes. It is at the base of the alluvial falls. Surrounded by green, open meadows, the lakes are against the panorama backdrop of the mountains. The pullout also has interpretive signs and displays that provide educational information about the local wildlife and its habitat.
Bighorn sheep often graze near the pullout in this valley. Thus the name. Park Rangers say they know this area is best for bighorn sheep viewing because of the minerals found in the two ponds. In addition to bighorn sheep, visitors may also see elk, mule deer, coyotes, and a variety of bird species, including golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. We saw a few elk when we arrived, however, they quickly made for the thick woods once they saw us.
The Sheep Lakes Trailhead is relatively easy and takes you through meadows, forests, and along streams and rivers. Although a popular place to see bighorn sheep, we did not see any on this morning. However, I still would recommend making the trip taking the trail if time permits.
NOTE: Feeding or approaching wildlife is prohibited in the park, and visitors should always respect the animals’ space and behavior.
Twists and Turns: Stop #3 – The Hairpin Turn at Still Many Parks Curve Overlook
This is one of the best stops going east to west on Trail Ridge Road. This overlook is on a sharp hairpin curve of the Trail Ridge Road. It is best to park above the hairpin curve. It is easier to see oncoming traffic crossing the road before walking down to the boardwalk. The boardwalk cantilevers over the cliff, giving you the feeling of being suspended in mid-air.
At an elevation of 9640 feet, the lookout offers panoramic views of the park’s mountainous landscape, including several of the park’s peaks and valleys. From this vantage point, you can immerse yourself in the park’s natural beauty. Looking over several prominent mountain peaks, including Long’s Peak, and unsurpassed valley views of Beaver Meadows, Horseshoe Park, Moraine Park, and Estes Park in the distance. An informational placard will point out the names of the prominent mountain peaks. Honestly… everywhere you look from here is just absolutely breathtaking!
Stop #4 – Rainbow Curve Viewpoint High in the Colorado Rockies
For us this was by far the most memorable overlook along the Trail Ridge Road. . It is named for the rainbow-like appearance of the surrounding mountains when viewed in the right lighting conditions. Sitting at an elevation of 10,829 feet, you can see the entire Hidden Valley, including the Alluvial Fan, Sheep Lakes, and Horseshoe Park. It is a little unnerving for those with a fear of heights. Carved by ancient glaciers many years ago, the valley is impressive. The glaciers carved in through, the rock freezing and thawing, shaping the land. There are interpretive signs with information on the different forest ecosystems that exist within the park. The valley is a sub-alpine forest.
Looking down the valley of the damage from the Lawn Lake dam break in 1982, the rubble field is considerable. The sheer force of water moving giant-sized boulders down the mountainside it is easy to take in the entire debris field from this vantage point. The Trail Ridge road continues gaining elevation towards Lava cliffs. Here the landscape transforms dramatically. You are leaving the timberline and now looking at alpine tundra. The flower-covered meadow comprised mostly alpine flowers and low grasses that can survive the harsh winters.
Eagle’s Eye View: Stop #5 – Forest Canyon Overlook
From this viewpoint, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the park’s Forest Canyon, as well as the surrounding mountain peaks and alpine tundra. At an elevation of over 11,700 feet, it is an in demand destination for visitors and photographers. The overlook is accessible by car and there is a parking area and a picnic area nearby. It’s a brilliant spot to enjoy a scenic break and take in the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Above the Clouds: Stop #6 – Rock Cut Overlook
This rock formation is at an elevation of over 12,100 feet, making it one of the highest viewpoints accessible by car in the park. It highlights the unique geology, flora & fauna of the park. Views of the sub-alpine ecosystem that protects vital habitat for elk, bighorn sheep, and microorganisms living in the short grasses/lichens. The overlook is named after the rock cut that was created during the construction of the road, which allowed it to wind its way through the steep terrain of the park. The Big Thompson River carves these mountains as it descends through to the valley below on its trek to Estes Park. Glaciers eroded much of what you see from this viewpoint.
Stop #7 – Lava Cliff-Highest Point on the Trail Ridge Road
Before reaching the Lava Cliffs, you pass through the Rock Cut. They blasted this area to make way for the road. The rock on either side usually remains snow-covered for most of the spring into the early summer. From this lookout, you can see the switchbacks in the distance as the road snakes its way towards the Gore Mountain Range.
This lava wall is at an elevation 12,080 feet. Formed 24 billion years ago from volcanic rifts and uplifting that occurred miles away in the Never Summer Mountains. These lava flows of volcanic rock, etched and carved by glaciers to form the sheer cliff face you see today. They offer a unique and dramatic landscape. In the distance, you can see Desolation Peaks (12,949), Ypsilon Mountain (13,514), Mount Chiquita (13,069), and Mount Chapin (12,454). The ground was still predominantly a winter landscape, lending to fantastic photographs. Sunlight reflecting off snow made the cliff colors more vivid.
The highlight for us were the many yellow-bellied Marmots. We watched as they scurry across the snowbanks, looking for vegetation to nibble in the alpine meadow.
Stop #8-The Alpine Visitor Center Trail a Real Rocky Mountain High!
The center serves as the park’s main visitor center and provides information and resources for visitors, including maps, brochures, and educational exhibits about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife.
Located inside, at the rear of the Alpine Visitors Center, is a restaurant with a snack area. Large windows in the seating area enhance the view of the valley, a great place to have lunch. There are restrooms and a gift shop. At the interpretive desk, consider inquiring about a ranger-led tour. Remember to get your passport stamped here at the visitor’s center desk. We found the staff to be very knowledgeable, giving us tips on what to see from each viewpoint. An interesting fact is the logs on the top of the visitor’s center protect the shingles, stopping them from blowing off in the strong winds. Snow completely buries this area in the winter. The logs provide relief from the snow load.
Back in Time: Exploring the Historic Old Fall River Road Drive
There is a large parking area with plenty of parking. Stepping onto the balcony at the back of the visitor center, you find yourself staring at magnificent 360 degrees views of Mount Chapin, Fall River Canyon, Old Fall River Road, and the green alpine valley that lies below. Engineers built it between 1913 and 1920, and was the first automobile route that allowed visitors to drive from the east side of the park up to the alpine tundra.
It is a narrow, winding dirt road that climbs steeply up a mountainside, and features many switchbacks, tight turns, and stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The road starts at the Old Fall River Road from the Alluvial Fan in Estes Park through to this point (Alpine Visitor Center). It is a one-way road, with traffic allowed to travel uphill only, and is typically open to vehicles from July through September, depending on weather conditions.
Elevate Your Adventure: Tundra Communities Trail above the Alpine Visitor’s Center
This is one of the must-do trails on your Colorado Rockies escape. This trail is a relatively easy and accessible trail, suitable for visitors of all ages and abilities. Sitting at an elevation of 11,796 feet, there are sweeping views that are phenomenal! The air is definitely thinner this high up so be prepared. The trail begins at the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot and is approximately half a mile (0.8 kilometers) long.
Take it slow if you decide to take climb the 1/4 mile trail to the top. The high altitude and wind made it chilly as you gain 300+ feet in elevation. Weather changes are frequent, so be prepared by having a windbreaker and a hat, and something to cover your ears. Long pants are a must in the often windy conditions. We packed some snacks and water before hiking up the trail. Take it slow on the stairs and take deep breaths to lessen the impact of the altitude. The breathtaking views from the Alpine Ridge Overlook, makes the effort so worthwhile. You can still see snow most times of the year. In the early spring, we saw lupine and bluebells alpine wildflowers. You may also spot wildlife such as marmots, pikas, and bighorn sheep.
Stop #9 – Medicine Bow Curve: A Scenic Stop on Trail Ridge Road
Medicine Bow hairpin curve is another overlook at 11,640 feet elevation. On a sharp curve in the road, the viewpoint offers panoramic views of the Never Summer Mountains all the way into Wyoming (35 miles). In the valley below is the Cache Poudre river weaving its way through the valley. From here, the Trail Ridge Road descends into the treeline.
Stop #10 – Milner’s Pass: A Pinnacle Moment at the Continental Divide
As you cross the pass, you’ll cross the continental divide, which is the line that separates the flow of water across the continent. Water on the west side of the divide flows towards the Pacific Ocean, while water on the east side of the divide flows towards the Atlantic Ocean. Milner’s Pass sits at an elevation of 10,758 feet (3,279 meters) above sea level and is one of the highest points on the Continental Divide. The pass is named after Enos Mills’ friend, F. O. Stanley, who helped Mills in his efforts to establish Rocky Mountain National Park.
Poudre Lake & Trails: Exploring Serenity in Rocky Mountain National Park
The key feature at the pass is Poudre Lake, an alpine lake created by meltwater. This lake gets its name from the nearby Cache la Poudre River, which flows through Poudre
Remember to take a photograph standing beside the Continental Divide sign. There are a few hiking trails that begin at the Pass. Want to go for a hike? There’s a nature trail around the Lake and it’s less than one mile! Remember, being at this high elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park, you may encounter snow covering some trails. In the early spring, it may require waterproof footwear.
NOTE: Remember, when choosing a hike, always look at the distance and the elevation. Even a short hike can be really difficult in the mountains.
Stop #11-Panoramic Views at Farview Curve Overlook
The overlook gives panoramic views of the Kawnueeche Valley with the Never Summer Mountain range as a backdrop. They named the range for the Never Summer snowfield, which remains snow-covered even in the height of summer. Their rugged beauty and challenging backcountry terrain make them an integral part of the Rocky Mountains. Arapaho National Forest protects the Never Summer Mountains as part of the Never Summer Wilderness area. The Kawnueeche Valley is home to a range of habitats, including subalpine forests, wetlands, and meadows, which provide a unique and diverse environment for wildlife.
Stop # 12 – Colorado River Trailhead: Exploring the Headwaters
The Colorado River Trailhead is a starting point for outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, rafting, and camping, as well as stunning scenery and wildlife viewing. It begins as a small stream, fed by snowmelt and precipitation in the tall mountain peaks, and eventually grows into one of the most significant rivers in the western United States. Many Native American tribes consider the Colorado River headwaters a sacred site and hold great spiritual and cultural significance. The river from its headwaters to its confluence with the Gulf of California is approximately 1,450 miles long. A short 0.5-mile trail leads to the river views.
Stop # 13 – Hidden Valley Beaver Ponds on Trail Ridge Road
Beaver Ponds Boardwalk is a short 0.2-mile trail to the Hidden Valley Beaver Ponds. This is a series of beaver-constructed ponds home to a diverse range of wildlife, including beaver, waterfowl, and other aquatic animals. The beaver ponds provide a unique and scenic habitat within the park and offer visitors the opportunity to see these fascinating animals in their natural environment.
Step Back in Time: Stop #14 – Holzwarth Historic Site in the Never Summer Mountains
Our next Rocky Mountain high stop was the Horowitz Site, at 8,884 feet. The story goes that Holzwarth (1917) took his family to the upper Colorado River at the foot of the Never Summer Mountains to build his homestead. The Holzwarth Historic Site is a preserved homestead and guest ranch located in the western part of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, United States. The site was originally established in 1917 by the Holzwarth family, who built cabins and operated a guest ranch in the area for over 40 years.
Holzwarth Historic Site Nature Trail, accesses the cabin. It is an easy 0.75-mile hike along a boardwalk over the Colorado River. You can get to the homestead site by taking the path across the flat meadow. Looking at the restored Holzwarth Historic Site cabins makes you realize how challenging it was to survive this isolated location. Watch the open meadow for sightings of the resident elk. Pretty outstanding watching the elk herd, especially the little ones. During the early spring and late fall, be careful momma elk can be quite protective of their calf.
Holzwarth Family Site: A Glimpse into the Past Along Trail Ridge Road
We spent some time exploring the original cabins, barns, and other buildings, as well as viewing exhibits and artifacts that showcase the history of the area and the Holzwarth family. The Holzwarth Historic Site is open to visitors from late May to early October, and ranger-led tours and interpretive programs are available throughout the season. The site is a great place to learn about the history and culture of the area and to enjoy the natural beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Travel Tip: Always stay at least 25 yards (75 feet) away from elk and other animals in our National Park. No photograph is worth getting injured.
Stop #15: Coyote Valley Trailhead along the Colorado River
Here you can walk along the headwaters of the Colorado River with sweeping views of the Never Summer Mountains. One of the most beautiful areas in this Rockies is the vast, unspoiled valley. The trail is level, hard-packed dirt/sand that crosses a small bridge over the Colorado River. It then follows its shoreline through a meadow in the Kawuneeche Valley. Looking for prime waters for trout fishing, this is the place. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to fish today.
Stop #16: Kawuneeche Visitor’s Center: Your Gateway to the Westside of Trail Ridge Road
This is one of the nicer visitor centers on the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. This can be at the beginning (or end, depending on where you start) of Trail Ridge Road on Hwy 34. Open daily in the summer through September, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The theater loops the park film, “Spirit of the Mountains” throughout the day. The park video is very interesting. There are picnic tables, clean restrooms, and a bookstore/gift shop. The Rangers are very friendly and always helpful with trail information and closures. We learned from the rangers that Kawuneeche means “valley of the coyote” in the Arapaho language. The informational displays and exhibits detail the history of the park, with interesting facts on native wildlife, indigenous people, and the Colorado River.
Stop #17: Adams Falls Trail: A Side Trip Adventure
The Trail Road continues to Grand Lake with fewer elevation changes. The area is not as dramatic as Estes Park. We made a side trip to Adams Falls to do the short hike 0.6 miles up to the falls. Download the trail map here. We found the trailhead near the town of Grand Lake. The trail follows the East Inlet Creek and leads to Adams Falls. A beautiful waterfall that is about 55 feet (17 meters) high. You can get wonderful photos from the observation platform above the falls. Hikers of all ages and levels can hike this well-maintained trail.
Note: It is important to note that the trail can be crowded during peak season, so it is recommended to arrive early to avoid the crowds.
The falls are a refreshing reprieve on a hot summer day. You can scramble down the trail that parallels the gorge for better photos. If you continue on the trail past the falls, it rewards you with beautiful streams. A gorgeous meadow with a meandering stream flowing through it and tall mountains in the background. The trailhead map showed further down the path is Spirit Lake. I wish we had time to continue, however, we still have a long drive today. Our next destination is Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab.
Trail Ridge Road: Journey through the Rockies and Uncover Fascinating Facts
- Trail Ridge Road starts at Deer Ridge Junction (Hwy 36 and Hwy 34) on the east side of the park to the Colorado River Trailhead on the western side of the park. Closed from mid-October to June.
- Fall River Pass is the highest point along the Trail Ridge Road with an elevation of 12,180 feet.
- They added the road to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
- Gore Range Overlook: We missed this stop. This overlook provides stunning views of the Gore Range, a mountain range located to the west of Rocky Mountain National Park.
- I would recommend taking a half-day to drive this road. Consider stopping at most scenic overlooks.
- Be prepared for changing weather. In the summer, thunderstorms produce hazardous lighting and it can snow at any time during the year. Always stop at a visitor center for updated trail information and road closures.
Final Thoughts: Epic Drive on the Amazing Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park has many habitats to see the many unique ecosystems of the park. Traveling the Trail Ridge Road is a memorable experience that offers stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and the surrounding landscape. With a little planning and preparation, you can make the most of your trip and enjoy all that this scenic highway has to offer. For us, this was an epic drive on the amazing Trail Ridge Road-High in the Colorado Rockies. Make this a bucket list trip!
What was your experience on the Trail Ridge Road? Did you do any hiking or other activities? Let us know in the comments below, thanks for sharing!