April Ski Tour of Trail Ridge Road

April 14, 2023  |  Trail Ridge Road

On April 7th I put on my backcountry skis and headed up Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. I've been waiting to do this for a while, but there seem to only be a few days each year when conditions are right. The park needs to have a big snow which is not followed by high winds, so that most of the tundra remains covered. It is also important for avalanche conditions to not be an issue, primarily for the journey back down Fall River Road.

I left the Hidden Valley Snow Play Area at around 10am and headed up the mountain, crossing over Trail Ridge Road, and continuing up the old ski run known as Upper Main Slope. After about an hour of skiing and 2,000' of elevation gain I reached the tundra. I continued northwest until I connected with Trail Ridge Road next to the trailhead at Ute Crossing.

Ute Crossing on Trail Ridge Road

As usual, the wind was blowing pretty hard, but it was a warm day. The snow was actually starting to melt on the edges of Trail Ridge Road. I then followed Trail Ridge Road up to Forest Canyon Overlook and then continued on towards Rock Cut. Here the snow was fairly deep.

Trail Ridge Road between Forest Canyon Overlook and Rock Cut

From here I skiied up to the Toll Memorial which is at the end of the Tundra Communities Trail. This is a gentle paved trail which begins at Rock Cut on Trail Ridge Road. Obviously, there was no trail to be seen on this day as snow covered everything. The views out towards the Never Summer Mountains were inspiring and they seemed to really be living up to their name.

View from the Tundra Communities Trail looking out towards the Never Summer Mountains

From this same place there was a very good view out towards Lava Cliffs. This is the direction I would continue to travel. If you look carefully at the photo below you will see the edge of Trail Ridge Road on the left side of the photo.

The view towards Lava Cliffs

Although it looked very snowy and like a nice descent, there were a lot of rocks sticking out in this section and I had to be very careful as I made my way down and then back up the other side. Once I reached Lava Cliffs I was able to marvel at the large snow cornices that had developed here as a result of the high winds.

This is the view from the parking area at Lava Cliffs. Notice the information sign in the snow.
Just past Lava Cliffs the road heads into the sky

From here, it wasn't long before I reached the higest point of Trail Ridge Road. I've always wanted to stop there as I like the perspective, but there is no pull over. Fortunately, today I could stop in the middle of the road and take as much time as I wanted.

View from the high point of Trail Ridge Road

Along this stretch I marvled as formations in the snow created by the howling winds. I also saw many areas of tundra that had begun to melt. A thin coat of clear ice covered many of these areas seeming to protect the plants below from the howling winds, while also letting in sunlight. I'd never seen that before.

I then skied down to the Alpine Visitor Center and found it to look much as it often does at this time of year. I would say that the snowpack looks just slightly above average.

Entrance to the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot
The Alpine Visitor Center (AVC) at Rocky Mountain National Park, covered in deep snow
The Trail Ridge Gift Store

It is very clear why it takes the National Park Service so long to open Trail Ridge Road. While it is a huge job clearing the road itslef, clearing this large parking lot is a mamoth undertaking. They can't simply push the snow to the side, but need to carry it away.

From here, I skied up the hill on the north side of the parking lot to get a good perspective of the Alpine Visitor Center and its surroundings.

Looking down on the Alpine Visitor Center in April
There was no paved trail to be seen on this day
Looking across at the mountains behind the visitor center

From here, I skied down Old Fall River Road. This road is prone to avalanches and so I had to choose my day carefully, watching the avalanche forecast put out by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and also being sure to be thoughtful along the way. As I skied down, I came across at least four avalanche slides across the road, one of them appeared to be fairly recent.

Heading down Old Fall River Road

Heading down Old Fall River Road on skis was a bit more work than it might appear. Because the rate of descent is quite gentle and the snow was soft, it meant I had to work to get down the mountain. I only was able to let gravity take me as I got closer to the bottom. There was snow all the way down past Chasm Falls and then about 0.25 miles from the end of the dirt road the snow ended. There I took my skis off and walked the rest of the way back to the Alluvial Fan where I had left a vehicle.

All in all it was an 18 mile trip with about 5,600' of elevation gain. It was such a beautiful spring day in the mountains.

Erik Stensland

Posted in Reports.