Trail Ridge Road is one of the most spectacular drives in the United States, taking you to an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level where you'll see mountains stretching out into the distance to your north, south, and west. It is a drive that will leave you breathless in more ways than one!
Trail Ridge Road Scenic Drive in Rocky Mountain National Park
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. It leads from Estes Park from the east side to Grand Lake on the west side of the Continental Divide. Eight miles (12.9 km) are through the alpine tundra where it is too cold for trees to grow reaching a height of 12,183 feet above sea level (3713 m). This road is truly magnificent with views in every direction and provides the visitor with a taste of life high in the mountains.
Because it is located so high in the mountains, it is impossible to keep the road open in the winter. It is closed from the first major snowstorm in October until late May and sometimes even early June. It takes the park about 40 days of work to reopen the roads in the spring and sometimes spring snowstorms can slow this process down. Learn about the challenge of keeping Trail Ridge Road open.
Not everyone will feel comfortable driving on this road as there are several areas with steep drop offs and many twists and turns. Be sure to choose a driver who will be comfortable with the exposure and the switchbacks. Also be sure to bring some warmer clothing for your time above tree line. It may be 20 degrees (7°C) cooler up up on the tundra than in the lower elevations near Estes Park or Grand Lake.
You should plan for this to be a full-day event and try to leave by 8am. It will take 2-3 hours to get to Grand Lake where you’ll want to spend some time before returning to Estes Park. Without stops and without much traffic, the road can be driven in about 1.5 hours each way but believe me you’ll want to take your time. Just remember to pull over in designated parking areas if you want to stop so as not to block traffic. Under no circumstances should you park on the delicate tundra. If there is no official parking spot available, drive on further until you find one.
Beaver Meadows to the Alpine Visitor Center
The journey begins at the Beaver Meadows Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Reset your odometer to track distances and viewpoints along the way. Our journey will take us all the way to Grand Lake.
Drive westward from the entrance station and the road will soon begin to ascend, leaving Beaver Meadows below. At 2.4 miles (3.9 km) there is a nice pullover on the left side of the road with views over the meadow and out towards Longs Peak. It is worth a stop if there is space, as it is breathtaking. You’ll be able to see some of the fire damage on the hills from the 2020 East Troublesome Fire.
Continue upward and past Deer Ridge Junction. The road will soon descend slightly and pass by a couple of small meadows on the left. Keep your eyes open for wildlife as this is a favorite place for elk to hang out.
At 5.0 miles (8 km) there are several parking spots on the right. These give you access to Beaver Boardwalk, a 0.1 mile (160 m) wooden boardwalk out to a marshy area where you can listen to the birds and once in a rare while spot a moose.
At 5.6 miles (9 km) you’ll pass the turn for Hidden Valley. This used to be a ski area until 1990. These days it is used as for sledding and also for backcountry skiing. In the summer it is the location of the Junior Ranger Headquarters. You’ll find some of the few flush toilets in the park here.
At 7.3 miles (11.8 km) you arrive Many Parks Curve. This is an open viewpoint over Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park with spectacular views of Longs Peak and Deer Mountain. If you want to enjoy the view, first drive past it and then park at the parking lot on the right-hand side of the road.
The road will then continue to wind through the trees for several miles. At 10.2 miles (16.4 km) there will be an opening in the trees. Look up the hillside. This is an old ski run that fills with flowers during the summer.
At 11.3 miles (18.2 km) you’ll reach Rainbow Curve. Stop here to enjoy views over Horseshoe Park. There are also vault toilets at this spot. Look out over the scene below and notice the way that Fall River winds back and forth through Horseshoe Park, hence its name. You can also see the Alluvial Fan from here and the damage caused by the two major floods that hit it in 1982 and 2012. Behind are the mountains of the Mummy Range.
From here the road will feel a little more challenging if you have a fear of heights. It now leaves the trees and make its way to the alpine tundra. You may even begin to see snow on the sides of the road if you are here by late June or early July.
At 13.3 miles (21.4 km) you are above tree line and in the tundra. Here, the views begin opening up on the left and you can see down into Forest Canyon. If you look back, there is a nice view of Longs Peak towering above it all.
At 14.3 miles (23 km) you’ll arrive at Forest Canyon Overlook parking area. Here there is a short trail that leads you out into the tundra, but even if you stay in the parking lot, the views are wonderful. It may be rather cool outside. Take a few moments to bend down and look at the delicate grasses and plants growing in the tundra, as well as the variety of flowers during late June and July. Most of these have a growing season of just 40-60 days, so please don’t step on these fragile plants.
At 16.2 miles (26.1 km) you’ll reach Rock Cut. Notice as you arrive the way the road builders had to cut their way through the rocks to build the road. There are several parking spots on both sides of the road. From here you can look down into Forest Canyon, across to the Gorge Lakes, west to the Never Summer Mountains or back to the southeast to see Longs Peak. Just below the road you’ll often find marmots sunning themselves, pika hard at work, or even bighorn sheep relaxing in the shade. There is also a 1.1 mile (1.8 km) round-trip paved trail leading through the tundra which you can find on the north side of the road. You will definitely feel the effects of elevation as you walk. Be sure to stop and read the signage as you go. It’s also a good opportunity to catch your breath.
During the next stretch of road, it is likely that you will come across herds of elk enjoying the lush green alpine vegetation. Be sure to find a pull over rather than stopping in the road. This is a state highway and stopping in the road is not permitted. Always be respectful of the law and other drivers and find a designated pullover. Never drive onto the tundra, even a little!
At 18.4 miles (29.6 km) there is another parking area at the Lava Cliffs. The exposed rock in front of you is the result of volcanic ash that deposited here long ago and has eroded, revealing this cliff.
Just after Lava Cliffs you’ll climb to the highest point of this journey 12,183’. Here the road feels pretty narrow, but you’re on the inside going this direction so it shouldn’t feel too uncomfortable. However, be prepared for cars coming from the opposite direction that may drive on or over the center line to avoid being too close to the drop-off.
At 19.5 miles (31.4 km), pull into the parking lot on your left. This is the Gore Range Overlook. It provides some of the best views in Rocky Mountain National Park. If you look off to the west, you’ll see the Never Summer Mountains. Below them you’ll see alpine tarns (ponds) dotted across the tundra. To the far east on a clear day, you can see the Gore Range in the distance. If you walk to the east side of the parking lot, you’ll get a great view of Longs Peak with its blocky top looking down over Forest Canyon. If you look straight down from the end of the sidewalk, you’ll see a small little tarn below you. All throughout Rocky Mountain National Park, hidden from sight, are little scenes like this - small lakes and tarns that are almost never visited, where animals come and go and life moves as a quiet and peaceful pace.
At 20.3 miles (32.7 km) you’ll turn right into the Alpine Visitor Center. You’ll notice that there are two buildings. The one with the interesting beams sticking out of the roof is the actual Alpine Visitor Center. The other is the Trail Ridge Store. Stop at the visitor center and see if there are any ranger programs. Enjoy the educational exhibits. Buy a gift from the park store. Take in the expansive view from the back side. Then visit the Trail Ridge Store for a coffee and snack. Toilets can be found on the north end of the visitor center or on the far side of the parking lot.
Alpine Visitor Center to Grand Lake
Before continuing, reset your odometer. When you leave the parking lot, turn right to continue our journey to Grand Lake. In just 0.4 miles (.6 km) you’ll reach Medicine Bow Curve. The Medicine Bow Mountains are in Wyoming and on a clear day you can see them in the distance.
At 4.3 miles (6.9 km) from the Alpine Visitor Center, on the left is Poudre Lake and a parking area for Milner Pass. If you can find a parking place, you may want to stop here. The Continental Divide passes right through this spot. That means that streams on one side of this pass will make their way to the Atlantic Ocean while streams on the other side will make their way to the Pacific Ocean. You’ll also find a few small trails that lead you through this high mountain forest and down by the lake. There are often large bull elk that hang around at the north end of the lake.
At 4.8 miles (7.7 km) is the turn for Lake Irene. This is a delightful little picnic area that has a small lake below it. It is a very short walk down to the lake. It is surrounded by forest, so there are no big views here.
At 6.5 miles (10.5 km) you’ll reach Farview Curve. It’s worth stopping here as it provides a view over the Kawuneeche Valley and a more up-close view of the Never Summer Mountains.
Next, you’ll wind your way down through numerous switchbacks on your way to the valley. There are 5 hairpin turns and you’ll see that each of them is numbered.
At 10.5 miles (16.9 km) you reach the valley floor and pass the Colorado River Trailhead. This trail can lead you for many miles up to the very source of the mighty Colorado River.
Just beyond this the view of the valley opens, and it’s time to start looking for moose or other wildlife. Again, just remember to pull completely off the road to view them but not onto the vegetation.
At 11.2 miles and 11.7 miles (18 and 18.8 km) there are pullovers on the right side of the road where you can look down on beaver ponds where moose might be grazing. Be sure to be quiet as the moose will often leave if they are disturbed.
Next, you’ll pass Timber Creek Campground. This area as well as much of the west side lost much of the forest to the mountain pine beetle. The beetle has devastated many of the forests of North America over the last couple of decades, in part due to the warming temperatures.
At 12.8 miles (20.6 km) is the turn into the Holzwarth Historic Site. Here you’ll find toilets and picnic areas. The main reason for visiting this site is to see what life was like on this ranch back in the early 1900s’. There is one building that you can look into right next to the parking lot. If you have time consider following the path 1.1 miles (1.8 km) round trip through the meadow, over the Colorado River, and to the main part of the ranch where you’ll find a number of historic buildings and rangers to educate you about them.
At 14.7 miles (23.7 km) is the turn for the Coyote Valley Trailhead. This parking area is too tight for large vehicles so only stop here if you are in an average-sized car. This area has a wheelchair accessible path through the meadows and along the Colorado River as well as numerous picnic areas.
As you continue onward you will soon enter the burn area from the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. This fire began near the town of Kremmling, Colorado and in the space of a few hours it raced 25 miles (40.2 km) to this area, pushed by 70mph winds (31 m/s). Then, within 24 hours, it roared through the national park and all the way to the Beaver Meadows Entrance on the east side. Over 400 homes were lost, and large sections of the national park were burned. As you drive through this area notice how the trees are bent over from the intense heat and high winds.
You’ll soon arrive at the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Continue onward to the delightful little town of Grand Lake and enjoy some time by the water’s edge. This is also a great place to grab a bite to eat before heading back to Estes Park.