The Opening and Closing of Trail Ridge Road

May 17, 2022  |  Estes Park, Colorado

Have you ever wondered why Trail Ridge Road needs to close during the winter, why it takes so long to open in the spring, or why it can close so randomly at other times of year?

Why is Trail Ridge Road Closed?

Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuously paved road in the United States. What this means is that it is not simply a road that goes to the top of a mountain and ends, but rather it is a highway connecting different parts of the state. It provides an important connection between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake and the surrounding areas. Yet despite being a vital link between these communities this road is closed for much of the year.

Approaching Milner Pass from the west on Trail Ridge Road

Many people wonder why Trail Ridge Road must close. Can’t they simply send snowplows up each time it snows? The main challenge with this idea is that it doesn’t consider the high winds that batter this area for months on end. The winds above tree line are often consistently over 50mph and can be more than 100mph. As a result, any snow plowed off the road fills right back in behind the plow. It also would be a very dangerous road to drive in those high winds and blowing snow, as there are many steep drops along the way. This is not a place you would want to get stuck or have your vehicle break down. Also, the costs of such a consistent plowing operation would be significant.

Winter at Forest Canyon Overlook

As a result, Trail Ridge Road closes at some point in mid-October, usually after the first significant snowfall. The road is normally closed at Many Parks Curve on the east and the Colorado River Trail in the west. During this time visitors are free to walk or ski on the road. If you manage to make it all the way up to the tundra, you will soon realize the extreme conditions of this area during the winter period.

The Process of Opening Trail Ridge Road

At some point in April, the National Park Service begins the process of clearing Trail Ridge Road. It is a far bigger job than most people realize. It typically takes about 40 days to reopen the road. There is a lot of snow to be moved. Instead of using your typical snowplow, they must use vehicles that have special snow cutting and throwing equipment, since the deep snow can’t simply be pushed to the side of the road. Cutting a path through the snow is a slow job. Another challenge is that some of the biggest snowfalls of the year occur in April and the first half of May, so they often have to go back and redo sections.

A freshly cut Trail Ridge Road

If you've visited in the summer you may have wondered what the long wooden poles along the road are for. They help plow drivers know where the edges of the road are. These days the park is working to develop a GPS based system that will help the plow drivers know where the edges of the road are within a fraction of an inch. When this system is finalized it will make this dangerous job a little safer.

Heading up towards Forest Canyon Overlook from the east

When the plow drivers coming from east and west finally get the road cleared then they must begin the huge job of trying to clear the large parking lot at the Alpine Visitor Center. The snow here can often be more than 10 feet deep. It is a logistical challenge to move all that snow from the parking lot. They can’t simply push it aside as one would do with an individual snowfall. They must use excavators and other equipment to slowly carry it away.

Trail Ridge Store in the spring

Generally, the National Park Service tries to have Trail Ridge Road open by Memorial Day Weekend in late May. This is completely weather dependent. Some years they have not been able to open until after the first week of June. When the road is finally ready to open, a small ceremony is held with the mayors of Estes Park and Grand Lake meeting one another along with Rocky Mountain National Park’s superintendent and a few other dignitaries.

Steep snowbanks along Trail Ridge Road in mid-May

When the road finally opens for the season visitors are shocked by the huge walls of snow that line sections of the road. Yet after just a couple of weeks those begin to vanish as the tundra comes to life and summer begins in the high country.

Why is Trail Ridge Closed Again?

Even after the road finally opens it still can be closed at times that might surprise you. While the temperature in Denver can be boiling, Trail Ridge Road may close at night. In the spring when the road first opens, the large snowbanks beside the road begin to melt covering the road with water. At night the temperature at this high elevation can drop below freezing turning them into sheets of ice. So, it is not uncommon for the park service to close the road until the ice melts the following morning.

Even in summer Trail Ridge Road can close. Snowstorms in June or August happen from time to time. In late August 2021 a rainstorm turned into a snowstorm coating the road in a thick sheet of ice which then was covered in snow. It caught everyone off guard and resulted in a winter wonderland above tree line. Unfortunately, it also resulted in many vehicles having to be rescued. Later in the day the ice melted, and travel could again resume.

Snowstorm on Trail Ridge Road - August 2021

Trail Ridge Road is an amazing road, but it is also a very tenuous thread between the east and west sides of the Continental Divide. At any time, the weather can make this road impassible in a way that few other roads experience. It is an incredible road to drive, but you should always be aware that traveling this road is entirely up to the whims of the unpredictable mountain weather.

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