Trail Ridge Road Plowing Underway

May 10, 2023  |  Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park

Today, the press was invited for a visit to the top of Trail Ridge Road to watch the National Park Service hard at work clearing the snow with the aim of getting the road opened by Memorial Weekend. Trail Ridge Road is the nation's highest continuously paved road, reaching an elevation of 12,183 feet above sea level (3713 m). Nearly 11 miles of this road is above the elevation at which trees can grow, allowing for expansive views in every direction. This road is closed from mid-October until late-May because of the heavy snow and high winds that this road experiences during the winter. It is not uncommon for this area to have winds in excess of 100mph. This makes it impossible to keep the road plowed in the winter. So, in mid-April the National Park Service begins a plowing operation that often takes about 40 days to complete. How long it takes each year is entirely weather dependent.

At around 9:30am members of Denver TV stations, Colorado newspapers, Nick Molle and Sean Doherty with the Rocky Mountain Channel, and I (Erik Stensland) gathered at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Kyle Patterson, Rocky's Public Affairs Officer, met us and gave us an introduction to the day. She also introduced us to Michael Bernhardt, Rocky's Roads and Fleet Supervisor. He's spent over 20 years working on Trail Ridge Road and for the last few years has been in charge of all the park's roads including the plowing operation on Trail Ridge Road.

We set off together in convoy. Although this morning dawned without clouds, they soon moved in and were getting thicker by the hour. As we headed into the park a light rain began to fall and as we climbed, the fog began to move in. At Many Parks Curve, where the road is currently closed, we were let through to the other side of the gate. Very few have driven this section since the road closed last October. Beginning just after the gate, snowbanks about 2-3 feet tall lined the sides of the road. We saw a few people walking on the road during the first couple of miles, but then we had the road to ourselves. During this time the fog had grown very thick, completely hiding the world beyond the road. As we climbed higher our visibility did not improve.

As we began approaching tree line, just below Ute Crossing, the size of the snowdrifts were considerable, perhaps reaching 12-15 feet high, making it seem like we were in a white tunnel. Even though the tall snowbanks we drove through were impressive, they were not as tall as they can sometimes be. The snowpack this year is close to average. While we had a lot of snow throughout the winter, we haven't had the heavy spring snows that we normally have. One of the things that made this winter different was that we had less wind and this has resulted in the snow being more spread out, resulting in lower snow banks overall.

I apologize for the quality of the included videos. They were made with a phone through the windshield of the car, giving them a greenish tint.

The above video shows Trail Ridge Road from Forest Canyon Overlook heading up towards Rock Cut

Because the fog was so thick, and the snow so deep, it was not easy to tell exactly where we were. Since the world was monochromatic with no views to enjoy on this foggy day, we moved along and didn't stop until we reached the Alpine Visitor Center (AVC). The AVC is the highest visitor center in the United States National Park System, at an elevation of 11,796' (3595 m).

The above video shows the descent from Gore Range Overlook to just before the Alpine Visitor Center

We arrived in thick fog and found the large parking lot to be over half cleared. Clearing the parking lot is a huge job, perhaps as much as half the work of clearing Trail Ridge Road. The snow today was about 8-10 feet deep and so it can't simply be pushed to the side. It has to be thrown multiple times by the equipment in order to get it out of the parking area. We watched through the thick fog as one of these giant machines cut and threw the snow. Because the snow here was so deep, it almost looked like the plow wasn't moving, but we could see the snow pouring out of the pipe at the front of his vehicle. He was going as fast as the machine could handle.

The Trail Ridge Gift Store

Michael Bernhardt (Rocky's Roads and Fleet Supervisor) said that it often takes them a couple of weeks to clear this big parking area. They also clean around the buildings with their equipment, trying to leave a buffer of about 3 feet to avoid damaging them. When the plows eventually finish their work, a trail crew will come up with shovels and clear the remaining snow from the buildings. On this day, we saw that one of the plows got too close and damaged a small protruding section of the Visitor Center. It's was obvious that it is very hard to know where the snow ends and the building begins.

Inspecting minor damage to the Alpine Visitor Center

After a few minutes at the Alpine Visitor Center we continued onward, heading down the mountain in the direction of Poudre Lake. As we descended, the clouds parted and we could then see Specimen Mountain with patches of blue sky above. It is amazing what a difference heading over a mountain pass can make to the weather.

A few miles down the road we reached a plow working to clear the road. He started plowing this road at the Colorado River Trailhead several weeks ago. There are three large snow removal machines that start from the Estes Park side in mid-April and then this plow which starts from the Grand Lake side around the same time. We were able to watch the incredible power of this machine as it cut and then threw the snow about 15 feet. It is a slow process. Watching it work makes it easier to understand why it takes roughly 40 days to clear Trail Ridge Road.

While the plows have made great progress and have nearly finished the main roadway, there is a major storm coming over the next few days which could drop a lot of snow. If that happens, then they need to begin again. As you can see, they can't simply plow the snow to the side of the road as they do with other roads, so they need to use the large equipment to throw it over the very high banks. This is a slow job. Nonetheless, they are working hard and hope to have the road open in time for Memorial Weekend. Whether they succeed or not is entirely dependent on what the weather does between now and then.

These crews probably don't receive a lot of thanks for the long hours and hard work that they do, but they are rewarded with stunning views free of crowds. Perhaps that's why so many of these plow drivers stick with it for decades.

Arnie Johnson has been plowing from the west side for 38 years.

On the way back we stopped briefly at Rock Cut. The clouds parted for a few minutes allowing us to enjoy a little of the views and a curious marmot came out to see who had come to visit her so early in the season.

The clouds briefly parted in the west giving us a view out to the Never Summer Mountains.
A curious marmot kept a careful eye on these camera carrying visitors at Rock Cut.
Looking east on Trail Ridge Road at Rock Cut

Final Note: The road is currently closed to vehicle traffic at Many Parks Curve. Be aware that if you plan to walk or cycle on the road that it is not currently open all the way through. Pedestrians are not allowed in the areas where the plows are working. Look for a sign stating, "No pedestrians beyond this point."

Posted in Reports.