Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the great scenic roads in the United States. It covers 48 miles of US 34 between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake and reaches a high point of 12,183 feet. The change in scenery is dramatic, going from pine forests to barren tundra and back to forests. With several places to stop and admire the scenery along the way, Trail Ridge Road is an excellent way to spend at least a full day in the park.
If you decide to travel along Trail Ridge Road, expect a lot of traffic and limited parking in some areas. It’s the most popular activity in the entire park. Another thing to expect is some serious temperature changes. We went from short sleeves to sweatshirts in a matter of minutes. For those who would like to get out of the car and stretch their legs, there are some great trails located at points along the road, along with places to stop with restrooms and picnic tables. The road is closed at Many Parks Curve heading west and the Colorado River Trailhead heading east, usually from after Labor Day to around Memorial Day.
I’ll explain all of the stops we made during our drive, from east to west:
Our first stop was Many Parks Curve, which offered sweeping views of the green meadows below. It’s called Many Parks Curve, because, first of all it’s located on a curve in the road. Many Parks refers to the French word “parques”, which means “enclosures”. French-speaking trappers called the meadows “parks”, and there are many of them that can be seen from this point.
Next was Rainbow Curve. Here, we were able to see Horseshoe Park and Hidden Valley.
Soon after, we were above the tree line and into the tundra. The next stop was Forest Canyon Overlook, where we were able to see the stark contrast between the forest and tundra.
Some unexpected visitors along the way made us stop the car right after leaving Forest Canyon Overlook. A herd of bighorn sheep were passing through the area and grazing on the tundra grasses. It created a huge traffic jam and just about everyone stopped and took photos.
Rock Cut was the next point of interest. This is just one of the many points where workers building the road between 1929 and 1933 had to blast through solid rock along the path of Trail Ridge Road. We drove through the cut and made our next stop at Tundra Communities Trailhead.
It may look like a wasteland, but the tundra landscape is full of life. The mile long round trip Tundra Communities trail has interpretive panels along the way that explain how living organisms thrive in such harsh conditions.
There are also interesting rock formations, Mushroom Rocks, which were formed from magma eroded by water and acids created by lichens that grow on the rocks.
Across the road from the Tundra Communities Trailhead there are excellent views of the forest, an alpine lake, and some glaciers dotting the landscape.
Lava Cliffs are the next stop heading west. Here, dark rock cliffs created by a violent explosion about 28 million years ago stick out from the rest of the scenery. Parts of remaining glaciers can also be seen.
After passing the highest point on the road at 12,183 feet, there is a pullout from where you can see the Gore Range. It was named for Sir St. George Gore, an Irish aristocrat. He went on a hunting expedition there led by legendary mountain man Jim Bridger in 1854. The Gore Range is almost complete wilderness.
Heading west, Trail Ridge Road curves down the mountain around tight hairpin turns until it reaches the Colorado River Trailhead. This trail will take you to the humble birthplace of the mighty Colorado River. There’s also the Timber Lake Trailhead a bit further up the road, and past the Timber Creek campground on the right is the Holzwarth Historic Site. Read about it here.
The rest of the road heads south past some trailheads to the Grand Lake Entrance Station and finally to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. You can continue to the town of Grand Lake from there.