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Driving in Rocky Mountain National Park: 10 Things to Know

Clouds along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain
Quickly changing weather conditions occur year-round in Rocky Mountain National Park, as seen in this photo taken on Trail Ridge Road on July 4, 2021. /author photo

One of the most unique things about Rocky Mountain National Park is that you can drive over its portion of the Continental Divide on a paved highway.  Some of the highest elevations in the country, otherwise reserved for the most seasoned backcountry hiker, can be accessed with ease, no trucks or SUVs needed.  Most of the time that’s true, but during the times when it’s not, there are several things you need to be prepared for.

The roads in Rocky Mountain National Park can be unpredictable.  The time of year doesn’t matter. Most people who visit Rocky Mountain access the Park via Estes Park which takes only minutes and there’s just a slight incline, at first.  But quickly (and somewhat unexpectedly) the roads snake up and over the tops of peaks, back down to subalpine lakes, and then back up again. Paved roads in Rocky Mountain travel as high as 12,000 feet above sea level.  In the mountains, the weather can be turbulent, and road conditions can change quickly. 

There’s no use complaining about how “tourists” drive in Estes Park because frankly, we permanent residents drive just as badly.  I must admit, I purposely do many of the driving goofs that irritate me in other drivers, when I think no one is looking.  Stopping suddenly in the middle of the road because I see an elk, or drifting to the other lane while I’m looking at the scenery are luxuries afforded to me when I visit Rocky Mountain in the off-season, with very few other cars driving in the Park.  But there’s no time – or safe way – to allow myself inattention to the road during high visitation which can fluctuate throughout the year, but peaks in August.  

Trust me, compiling this list of 10 things I know about driving in Rocky Mountain is as much for me as it is for any visitor; serving as a list of checkpoints to be aware of and prepared for.  After decades of driving in and near it, I know how to get the most out of driving in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Keep reading to be prepared for one of the best driving experiences possible, every time you visit!

Map of roads through Rocky Mountain National Park

1. Wildlife

Rocky Mountain National Park is a protected area where no hunting or gathering is allowed.  Thus, elk in the Park behave much differently than they do in town, and they can gather in bigger groups in the Park’s meadows. Moose and mule deer are commonly seen on both sides of the park.  In fact, a plethora of mammals and birds are found in the Park throughout the year and sometimes, they are near – or even on – the road. 

“Elk jams” are very common, with people stopping in the middle of the road, or slowing down to a crawl, in order to see and/or photograph elk. This is something everyone needs to be aware of, in town as well as in the Park.  Rocky Mountain has quite a few pull-outs for this type of viewing, but they quickly fill to capacity. 

My advice?  Keep your eyes open and drive slowly. The speed limit is typically 25-35 mph on most roads in Rocky Mountain for good reason.  Pull completely off the road, in a designated pull-out, or in parking lots while viewing wildlife.

Elk in the middle of the road
A bull elk stops all traffic in its tracks as it crosses a road in Estes Park during autumn. /author photo
Marmot
Marmots are often seen on Old Fall River Road, sometimes right in the middle of the road! / author photo

2. Weather

It can be sunny and warm in Estes Park, but on the top of Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in the country, it can be a blizzard.  Trail Ridge Road connects the east and west sides of Rocky Mountain for a brief period of time every year: generally, from Memorial Day to early October.  Even after it’s been open for the season, Trail Ridge Road can close again for a few days at a time, due to extreme weather.  Up above the trees, the weather moves incredibly fast; often, you can spot a storm rolling in minutes before it hits.

Along Bear Lake Road, which rises in elevation from about 7500 to 9400 feet, weather can change quite quickly, too.  Sudden hailstorms can hit, followed by sunny weather, then by more rain — all in less than an hour. 

Since the weather is unpredictable, the condition of the roads will be, too.  If you find yourself in a storm you weren’t prepared for, the best thing to do is to turn around and go back into town. 

snow storm along road in Rocky Mountain
In late fall (pictured) and during spring, sudden snow storms can put you on icy roads without much warning! / author photo
Watch before driving the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park!

Visit Rocky Mountain with Confidence with
Our Complete Guide to the Trail Ridge Road

Guide includes reservation requirements, driving tips, and things to do along the way.

3. Altitude

Sudden changes in altitude can cause Altitude Sickness for both you and your car!  If your car has not been tuned for the environmental conditions, it can move sluggishly or even stall out.  Especially when driving from sea level to the mountains, get your vehicle tuned for the changing barometric conditions.  If you don’t, you may find yourself stranded in places you don’t want to be!

4. Colorado Traction Law

Several times during the year, Rocky Mountain National Park implements the state’s Traction Law, which dictates the tread depth and/or types of tires your vehicle must have to drive on Colorado roads, including within the Park’s boundaries.  

If you have a vehicle incident that requires rescue from Park staff when this law is in effect, you can be fined if you don’t meet its requirements. The best thing to do is to check road conditions (any time of year!) in Rocky Mountain before you go.

Call the Rocky Mountain information line at 970-586-1206 for the most recent road condition information and check the Park’s website for the status of road closures.

5. A Full Tank of Gas

Once you’ve left Estes Park (or Grand Lake, on the west side) and drive into Rocky Mountain, there are no more gas stations.  If you don’t have a full tank of gas for your drive, you may be forced to leave the Park before you’re ready.  This is especially important during the timed-entry reservation period that runs from Memorial Day weekend to the end of October.  During these times, you won’t be able to get another reservation for the same day if you leave the Park.  The good news is that you can get back into the Park after 2 p.m. for most of Rocky Mountain; for the Bear Lake Corridor, you can return after 6 p.m.

6. Dirt Roads

Along with the many paved roads in Rocky Mountain, there are quite a few dirt ones, too.  Dirt roads in the Wild Basin and Upper Beaver Meadows areas are two examples.  These roads are closed in the winter and when they reopen, potholes and deep ruts can be challenging to drive on.

Old Fall River Road, going one way all the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center is also a dirt road.

While Park employees attempt to keep these roads passable, the sheer number of visitors each summer makes driving on them a bumpy experience.  Try to ride the tops of the ridges and skirt the holes, if you don’t want to get carsick!

7. Paved Roads Travel through All Life Zones

It’s exciting to drive through the various life zones of Rocky Mountain.  The changes as you drive from montane to alpine ecosystems can be easily viewed by car.  This is especially beneficial for those with low or no mobility – yes, you can get up close and personal to the Continental Divide! 

In these environments, you can see how Ponderosa Pine forests give way to lodgepole pine, spruce, and fir as you climb higher, and see an incredible variety of wildflowers, all along the way!  A variety of wildlife prefer certain elevations, like marmots which prefer the sub-alpine and alpine life zones.  Pika and Ptarmigan are mostly seen above treeline, along Trail Ridge Road. 

Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
In Rocky Mountain National Park, you can drive all the way up to the shores of Bear Lake! / author photo
View of trees along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain
Driving on Trail Ridge Road provides a unique view of the changing trees at treeline! /author photo

8. Closures and Construction

One thing about the Rocky Mountain National Park region: there’s always construction going on somewhere.  In Estes Park, you’ll encounter quite a bit of it through the spring of 2025.  The Park itself is still rebuilding after the 2020 historic fires and various entrance, facility, or campground improvements take place each year.

Road and facility closures are also common.  Rocky Mountain is 95% designated wilderness with various areas used by scientists as outdoor laboratories.  Closures for raptor rehabilitation are common, too. Give yourself extra time to get to where you want to go and choose plenty of alternatives to explore in case you’re thwarted by closures or construction.

9.  What to Bring with You

There are several things I keep in my car year-round, to accommodate my sudden urges to take a drive through the Park after work.  These include a warm coat, a raincoat, a warm hat and a sunhat, gloves, walking poles, boots, an extra pair of socks, snowshoes, and microspikes.   I don’t recommend that every visitor outfit themselves this way, especially during summer, but personally I want to be prepared for whatever I’d like to do, no matter what the weather conditions are. 

Things that everyone should bring with them are clothing layers, snacks, water, and a trash bag (to pack out all your waste).

Those who may be more sensitive to the thinner air might consider taking portable oxygen (available in a can at many retail establishments in Estes Park), and electrolyte water to stay very hydrated. 

10. Have Fun and Enjoy the Drive – It’s Worth It!

I hope I haven’t scared you away from driving in Rocky Mountain National Park!  The variety of scenery that greets you via looking out your car window is one of the things that really sets this national park apart from others. 

Rocky Mountain is a special and spiritual place, getting you closer to Mother Nature in a very dramatic way. Everyone should drive through it at least once; I do it at least once per week.

Discover: Four Spectacular Rocky Mountain Road Trips

Related Questions:


1. Is there cell phone reception in Rocky Mountain National Park?

There is little to no cell reception in Rocky Mountain, so if you’re stuck in a vehicle that is temporarily inoperable, it may be hours before help reaches you.

2. Do I need a timed-entry reservation?

If you want to drive on Trail Ridge Road between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., yes, you’ll need a timed-entry reservation. If you are planning a drive up to Bear Lake between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6 p.m., you’ll also need one. But, check out my piece on how to get into RMNP without using the reservation system!

3. Can I take a shuttle into Rocky Mountain National Park?

Yes, you can! There are several options for this, read about them here!

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Rocky Mountain is crowded!

Need a game plan to avoid the crowds? Check out our itinerary

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times.

But that’s not all! Our itinerary includes a free audio guide to listen to while driving with over 3-hours of stories about the park!

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO
ROCKY MOUNTAIN

ROCKY MOUNTAIN TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Rocky Mountain National Park, check out our Rocky Mountain Homepage

THINGS TO DO: There is so much to do including hiking, swimming, taking a tour of the Stanley Hotel, and driving Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing cities nearby including Estes Park

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out about getting into Rocky Mountain without a reservation, if the park is too crowded, and all about altitude sickness

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Rocky Mountain YouTube Playlist

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