There are 10 things that everyone who drives Trail Ridge Road should know before they set out, especially if it’s for the first time.
Trail Ridge Road is the most compelling destination in Rocky Mountain National Park, spanning the Continental Divide in Colorado to connect Rocky Mountain’s gateway communities, Estes Park and Grand Lake. It is a driving tour of various life zones (montane to alpine) as you rise higher in elevation, hosting a plethora of plant and animal life.
I have driven Trail Ridge Road many times in many seasons when it’s open and have snowshoed parts of it when it’s closed; I know people who have biked the entire length of it from Estes Park to Grand Lake and back again. I could probably tell you hundreds of things about this iconic highway, but I’ve whittled it down to 10 things you should know before you go including safety tips, stops along the way, and where the flush toilets are.
1. Rocky Mountain High
Trail Ridge Road reaches an elevation of more than 12,000 feet above sea level, the highest you can drive on a paved highway in this country. It spans 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake, creating a seasonal “shortcut” from the Front Range to the Western Slope of Colorado, but the elevation it reaches can cause some health problems.
Now, it goes without saying that if you’re afraid of heights this might not be the road trip for you. If your acrophobia includes severe dizziness or loss of balance, I’m going to advise that you don’t drive the road.
For example, when my son was just a baby, our family was visiting the interpretive exhibit at the Alpine Visitor Center (APV) when an announcement came over the loudspeakers: someone had driven up Trail Ridge Road but was too afraid to drive back down to Estes Park. Could anyone help by driving the person’s vehicle back down? Unfortunately, we couldn’t help since we were continuing to Grand Lake that day but someone else stepped up.
Altitude sickness can be a concern. This illness can get quite serious, quickly. Check out my previous piece on altitude sickness.
2. Trail Ridge Road is Closed in Winter
Clearing roads that would otherwise be covered by more than 20 feet of snow most of the year is a difficult operation for Rocky Mountain. Park officials aim to get these deep, snow-packed drifts cleared from the roads by Memorial Day weekend; depending on the weather, Trail Ridge Road usually closes sometime in October. Check the status of Trail Ridge Road at the National Park Website.
It’s hard to imagine how much snow accumulates on the Continental Divide in the winter months, but if you travel Trail Ridge Road right after it opens, you can get an idea. There are tall snow berms on either side of the road, and even taller wooden poles that indicate where the edges of the road are.
When the road is closed to vehicles for the season, it becomes a popular snowshoe and skiing trail, accessed from either side of the Divide. In the winter, Rocky Mountain essentially becomes two Parks: the east side and the west side.
On the west side, moisture rolling in from the Pacific Ocean is halted in its progression east by the tall mountains of the Divide, dumping most of its remaining snow in the Kawuneeche Valley. This makes the west side an amazing place to be if you like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, all winter long. On the east side, fierce winds are what you will encounter in the winter, with considerably less snow, especially in a dry year.
To get to the other side of Rocky Mountain when Trail Ridge Road is closed will take considerably more time and effort. From Estes Park to Grand Lake (or vice versa), it’s 48 miles on Trail Ridge Road. When the road is closed, this trip is more than 140 miles.
- Visiting Rocky Mountain and need a game plan? Check out our itinerary.
3. Mountain Weather
Another safety concern on Trail Ridge Road is the rapidly changing weather. Watch the sky very carefully when you’re outside of your car at one of the many pull-outs. If the hair on your arms stands up, get to your car immediately! The tires on your vehicle should ground you, protecting you from lightning.
Snow can be a problem, at any time of the year. The weather can be beautiful at 6,000 feet, but when you get to the top of Colorado’s highest peaks, it can be completely different. Here’s a funny story about my son and me on a road trip to several western national parks. We left the Front Range of Colorado on Memorial Day weekend. It was a beautiful, late spring day with temperatures in the 70s. The plan was to start our trip by crossing the Divide via Trail Ridge Road, which had just opened for the season.
By the time we got to the top of the road, the weather had turned into a raging snowstorm, with blizzard winds creating white-out conditions. I remember my knuckles gripping the steering wheel, watching a man in a light jacket and loafers attempt to get his car – which was sideways on the road- out of traffic when my son started crying from the back seat.
“Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom!” We were still a bit away from any restroom facilities, so there was nothing to do but keep driving until we got to the Alpine Visitor Center (APV). I pulled up next to the vault toilets on the north end of the APV parking lot, jumped out of the car, and opened the back door to get him out of the car seat. The snow was pelting me hard on my bare legs, it felt like being sandblasted.
After the bathroom break, we continued west on Trail Ridge Road. Snow turned into rain and the wind died down as we dropped into the Kawuneeche Valley on the west side of the Park. This all happened while driving less than 50 miles.
Honestly, one of the best things about Trail Ridge Road is its accessibility to the high country, which is not available otherwise for those who have mobility challenges. If you can ride in a car (or a tour bus), you can see Rocky Mountain views that are typically reserved for those who hike for miles up to alpine lakes and mountain tops.
Several pull-outs have handicapped parking spots and/or accessible facilities. Check out Rocky Mountain’s list of accessible sites throughout the Park.
It’s handy to know where the flush toilets are; the best one is at Hidden Valley, one of the first stops along Trail Ridge Road. Hidden Valley is a joy to visit year-round and is the official headquarters for the Junior Ranger program. Other flush toilets along the way would be at any of the Rocky Mountain visitor centers, before and after traveling the length of the Park on Trail Ridge Road, and at the APV (seasonally).
Otherwise, vault toilets are what you will encounter at most pull-out spots along Trail Ridge Road. Honestly, I am not a fan of these glorified porta-potties, although I understand the park has limited plumbing options. I use them when I have to, but I try to make sure I make a stop at Hidden Valley when I’m road-tripping to points west via Trail Ridge Road.
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When you travel Trail Ridge Road, you’re apt to see wildlife that is not commonly seen in the lower elevations of Rocky Mountain. Pikas are small, mouse-like creatures who spend the entire summer gathering greens to sustain them through the winter, they don’t hibernate like marmots do.
Marmots are one of the largest members of the squirrel family. They are often seen at pull-outs along Trail Ridge Road, scrounging for food. It is illegal to feed wild animals in Rocky Mountain, but people have, obviously, since marmots tend to come out when visitors are about, begging for scraps. If you’re caught feeding any animal, you will be issued a steep fine.
Whistles and calls from both marmots and pikas are often heard along Trail Ridge Road.
Ptarmigans are grouse-like birds that have white plumage in the winter; they are often very hard to spot because of their natural camouflage in all seasons.
The larger animals seen along Trail Ridge Road include American elk, Shiras moose, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and even, American black bears! A friend of mine once filmed a black bear romping along on the tundra in mid-summer; however, any type of bear sighting in Rocky Mountain is rare – they are not very prevalent in the Park. You have a better chance of seeing a bear raiding dumpsters in a gateway community!
6. What to Bring With You
When planning a drive on Trail Ridge Road there are several things you don’t want to forget to bring. Here’s a good checklist to follow:
- Warm hat, gloves, and jacket
- Sandals, winter boots, socks (two pairs of socks in case one gets wet)
- Layer your clothes so you can strip down to a t-shirt or bundle up against a blizzard, during every season of the year.
- Sun hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen Remember, you are two miles closer to the sun; the UV rays on top of Trail Ridge Road can be brutal.
- Micro-spikes or snowshoes for traction while walking on icy or snowy trails
- Lots of water, including electrolyte water
- Snacks and/or a packed lunch
- Trash bag (please practice Leave No Trace ethics)
- A camera or smartphone to take pictures
- Patience Don’t try to drive fast on Trail Ridge Road, many times people will stop in the middle of the road to watch an elk or some other animal. Use caution and practice patience.
- Your dog Leashed dogs are allowed on roadways, parking lots, pullouts, and campgrounds within Rocky Mountain. However, they are not allowed on the tundra or any of the hiking trails.
- Check out our recommended gear page for our must-haves when traveling to the parks.
7. Vehicle Requirements
I have driven Trail Ridge Road in a front-wheel drive vehicle, an all-wheel drive truck, a convertible, and even on the back of a motorcycle! When the road is clear and dry, there is no need for a special kind of vehicle. I’ve ridden in a charter bus: the tall ones with huge windows, like a large RV. It felt like we should have been going slower. I wonder if the driver was new to driving on Trail Ridge Road; more likely, I felt a bit queasy from the extended views.
The road is paved for its entire length and well-maintained, as are all the paved roads in Rocky Mountain. However, if traction laws are in effect, you must be driving in an AWD or FWD with good tires. See more on Rocky Mountain’s website.
Make sure you have a full tank of gas! There are no public filling stations within Rocky Mountain National Park.
Some people I’ve encountered have had some issues with their vehicles when driving at high altitudes, especially if their cars are usually operating at or near sea level. According to Jiffy Lube’s blog, your vehicle loses about three percent of its horsepower for every 1,000 feet in elevation gained. While most modern cars are equipped to handle this, if you are concerned this will happen to you visit your mechanic before your trip.
Your car may encounter problems with the type of fuel you use; in Colorado, you can get octane levels in your fuel as low as 85, which is fine for travel to the high country. But be aware that when you return to sea level, your check engine light might come on if your car is accustomed to high-octane fuel; you might need a fuel flush when you get back to lower elevations. Tire pressure decreases with cold and high-altitude driving, so make sure your tires are filled to the psi recommended by your tire brand before setting out.
8. Alpine Visitor Center
The AVC was built in 1966 and sits at 11,796 feet in elevation. It’s not quite the highest spot on the road, but it is the highest visitor center in the National Park System. The Trail Ridge Store & Cafe occupies the larger building while the visitor center – complete with interpretive exhibits – is in the smaller one.
Concessionaires operate the Trail Ridge Store and inside, you will find a café offering small meals and grab-and-go items, authentic Native American artwork, souvenirs, and more. At the visitor center, exhibits about the unique ecosystems above the treeline, wildlife, and an introduction to the Park itself are all available.
The parking lot is as large as it can be but during peak visitation times (even with timed entry in place), it’s hard to find a spot to park. New visitors on this byway will probably want to stop here and check in with themselves and other members of their party: is everyone feeling OK? Does anyone need the restroom? Is anyone hungry? You can find everything you need at the Trail Ridge Store and Café.
Across Trail Ridge Road from the parking lot is the trailhead for the West Ute Trail, which travels along the tundra to end up at Milner Pass, which is further down the west side.
When you reach the Alpine Visitor Center, you have a major decision to make: will you turn around and go back the way you came, or will you travel down the other side of the Divide? I personally recommend traveling the entire length of Trail Ridge Road when it’s open.
9. Tundra Ecosystems
The tundra is a fragile ecosystem; many of the plants growing on the tundra have been alive for hundreds of years and can take as long to recover if they are trampled upon. Thus, Rocky Mountain has specific rules about where you can and cannot walk on the tundra. These regulations are posted in every area where walking on the tundra is expressly prohibited.
The tiny plants and animals that make their home on the tundra have adapted to the extremely harsh weather conditions that are experienced above 11, 500 feet. The variety and colors of alpine wildflowers and their pollinators are impressive when you get down to take a good look at what thrives on the tundra.
The growing season is extremely short for the tundra and the best time to see the wildflowers is late summer: end of July-early September. In my opinion, visiting the tundra often to watch the changing seasons is a special treat; it’s always a different view from Trail Ridge Road.
10. Where to Stop Along Trail Ridge Road
With all the places to explore along Trail Ridge Road, it could easily take you a half-day or more to travel its entire length. Starting on the east from Estes Park and traveling west to Grand Lake, there are several must-see stops along the way.
As I mentioned before, Hidden Valley is your last chance for a flush toilet before you reach the Alpine Visitor Center, but it’s also an amazing destination in Rocky Mountain. Hidden Valley was a ski resort until 1995, complete with ski lifts and runs of varying difficulty.
These days it’s a popular winter recreation area for snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and sledders. It even has an avalanche beacon training park so backcountry travelers can practice their skills.
In the summer, they host a wonderful Junior Ranger Program where families can check out backpacks that include a magnifying glass, soil thermometer, and other tools to help them explore and learn about the area.
|Must-See Stops Along |
Trail Ridge Road
|Hidden Valley||Facilities, popular winter recreation area, |
Junior Ranger Program
|Many Parks Curve||Boardwalk with views of Moraine Park, Upper Beaver |
Meadows, and Horseshoe Park.
|Rainbow Curve||Overlook of West Horseshoe Park and Alluvial Fan|
|Forest Canyon Overlook||Overlook of Forest Canyon; marmots|
|Rock Cut||Tundra Communities trailhead|
|Lava Cliffs||Volcanic rock|
|Gore Canyon Overlook||View of Never Summer Mountains|
|Alpine Visitor Center||Food, souvenirs, Native American artwork, exhibits, |
West Ute trailhead, facilities
|Medicine Bow Curve||Views of Northern Rocky Mountain National Park|
|Farview Curve||Views of Kawuneeche Valley|
|Colorado River Trailhead||Several hikes, picnic areas, fishing|
|Coyote Valley Trail||Handicap Accessible path along the Colorado River|
|East Troublesome Fire||Scars in landscape from wildfire in 2020|
|Kawuneeche Visitor Center||Souvenirs, information, facilities, picnic areas, |
Next comes Many Parks Curve and its long boardwalk that overlooks Moraine Park, Upper Beaver Meadows, and a portion of Horseshoe Park. Be careful as you come up on this curve and slow down a bit – the parking lot is just beyond the curve and people need to walk across Trail Ridge Road to get to the boardwalk.
Rainbow Curve has a stunning overlook of West Horseshoe Park and the Alluvial Fan.
Driving further up, you will start to notice that the trees are getting shorter and are sporting branches only on one side, the leeward side. These hearty trees have evolved to grow and thrive near treeline in extreme weather; many of these trees are hundreds of years old.
Forest Canyon Overlook is one of the first pullouts created by the National Park Service when they built Trail Ridge Road. This pullout usually has a plethora of marmots, including babies in early summer. I recommend a stop here to look down into Forest Canyon, with many alpine lakes dotting the view.
Next, you’ll come to Rock Cut, where it is evident workers blasted through the rock while building the road. This pull-out is where the Tundra Communities Trail starts, an amazing short hike with interpretive signs along the way, explaining the various communities that survive and thrive at these high elevations.
Near the highest point on Trail Ridge Road is the Lava Cliffs feature. Glacial movements revealed this section of volcanic rock, which originated in the Never Summer Mountains 28 million years ago!
The final overlook along Trail Ridge Road is the Gore Canyon Overlook, with stunning views of the Never Summer Mountains to the west. After this overlook, you’ll reach the Alpine Visitor Center.
Now begins the descent into the west side of Rocky Mountain; as you start to drop, there is a pull-out at Medicine Bow Curve that offers interesting views of the wilderness of northern Rocky Mountain National Park and Forest Service land beyond that.
When you stop at Farview Curve, look down into the Kawuneeche Valley. The west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park can be found at the far end of this valley, but before you leave the park to go into Grand Lake, you’ll come across several other interesting spots to stop.
The Colorado River Trailhead is a popular starting spot for several hikes, picnic facilities, and fishing opportunities. These headwaters of the mighty Colorado River are not much more than a stream here, swelling as it travels west and south to provide rafting opportunities near Kremmling before it goes on to provide water for the drought-stricken western states.
The Coyote Valley Trail is a handicapped-accessible path along the Colorado River with interpretive signs explaining how the valley was formed and who its original inhabitants were. On this trail, you are apt to see a lot of wildlife and wildflowers!
As you continue your drive south through the Kawuneeche Valley, you will begin to see the scars from Colorado’s second-largest wildfire: the East Troublesome Fire of October 2020. Fire-created winds of more than 130 mph bent trees in its path and razed entire hillsides. This devastating wildfire jumped the Divide (unprecedented in Rocky Mountain’s history) to burn into the east side of the Park. While fire is devastating, it also clears away dead trees and brush for new growth to take over. The scars from this wildfire will mark the Kawuneeche Valley for decades to come.
Finally, you will reach the Kawuneeche Visitor Center near the west entrance of Rocky Mountain which is the perfect spot for another rest stop.
I hope you enjoy your driving tour of Rocky Mountain via Trail Ridge Road!
- Are RVs allowed on Trail Ridge Road? While I couldn’t find any express regulation on vehicle length, it would be helpful to consider the road’s width and winding nature. Trail Ridge Road is a two-lane, two-direction 48-mile section of Highway 34 (paved continuously) that is known as the American Byway, Trail Ridge Road. The average width is 22 feet and the tightest turn radius is 100′ on open curves and 200′ on blind curves. Since there are so many sizes of RVs out there, I would check your owner’s manual. But, it’s a highway and I have seen many RVs driving on it.
- Which direction is best? Honestly, it doesn’t matter which way you drive Trail Ridge Road when it’s open, but my preference, and the most popular way to drive it, is from Estes Park (east side) to Grand Lake (west side). The biggest reasons for this are because I live in Estes Park, and most people access Rocky Mountain from the Front Range of Colorado. I always go both ways in a day, unless I’m staying over in Grand Lake. But I’m sure if I lived in Grand Lake, my favorite way would be west to east!
- What time of day is best to travel Trail Ridge Road? Hands down, early morning and late afternoon are the best times for views from Trail Ridge Road. Sunrises and sunsets on the Continental Divide are spectacular! Mid-day is a bit tough, 12,000 feet above sea level on a cloudless day is very harsh and your photos will probably be overexposed.
- Do I need a reservation to travel Trail Ridge Road? Rocky Mountain National Park’s policy on visitor use management has, in the past, required timed-entry reservations (with two-hour windows) to travel Trail Ridge Road during peak visitation hours. However, Rocky Mountain’s policies on visitor use management are being refined into a permanent plan, scheduled to be in place by the summer of 2024. You can view information on the various plans on the Rocky Mountain National Park Website. You can also read my article on Getting into Rocky Mountain National Park Without a Reservation for some helpful tips.
- Is Trail Ridge Road a loop? Trail Ridge Road is a through highway; you’ll need to turn around and go back the way you came to get to where you’re staying. This can easily be done within a day (it’s less than 50 miles), even with stops. My advice would be to plan on traveling the length of Trail Ridge Road and back during one entire day of your stay; there are many hiking, picnic, and fishing opportunities along the way!
What Else Do I Need to 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.
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