Visiting Trail Ridge Road

About Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road stretches 48 miles from Estes Park on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park to Grand Lake on the west side. Built in 1932, this scenic byway climbs over 4,000 feet up from Estes Park quickly and winds through amazing mountain landscapes. It is a great destination to visit if you are staying in the area, or even as a Colorado local.

Map of the road from the Federal Highway Administration website

Trail Ridge Road map

The National Park Service has another map on their website that is more detailed and zoomable.

Usually the road opens around Memorial Day after long plowing efforts, but due to the high amount of snow we got in Colorado this year (up to 500% snowpack), and the snow we got in late May, the opening of the road was delayed to June 5.

You can always check the status of the road’s opening on the National Park Service website.

When to Visit

If you are visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during the peak months of June, July, or August I’ve heard from locals that good times to visit are early in the morning, the late afternoon, or around dusk for sunset views. Basically, the road can get very busy through the morning.

When we visited on Saturday, June 8 from about 4 pm to 6:30 pm the road was not too busy and there was enough space to stop off at each of the overlooks.

What to Wear

At the high elevations of Trail Ridge Road, the temperature is at least 10 or 20 degrees colder than in Estes Park. It can get quite windy as well.

From our experience in June, I recommend wearing pants and long sleeves, as well as bringing a micropuff jacket, or at least a windbreaker if you want to spend any time outside taking pictures.

Tips to Help with Altitude Sickness

During their stay in Colorado, both of my parents, who were visiting from the East Coast, experienced different symptoms of altitude sickness. In particular, while visiting Trail Ridge Road, my mom got bad headaches.

Altitude sickness can happen to anyone, regardless of age or physical fitness, and we experienced it when we first moved to Colorado. It took about two months for us to fully acclimatize to the elevation where we live, and we still feel it when we hike at high altitudes.

I thought it might be helpful to give a few pointers we’ve learned about dealing with altitude sickness –

1) Drink lots of water, drinks with electrolytes are even better

2) Consume potassium, and foods containing potassium like bananas

3) Eat carbs

4) Don’t drink alcohol

4) Move slower and take it easy, breathe deeply

5) Take time to adjust to each elevation if you can

If you notice you have bad symptoms of altitude sickness, it’s important to head to a lower elevation as soon as you can.

Sights Along Trail Ridge Road

When we visited Trail Ridge Road on June 8, it was not long after the road had opened to visitors. There was still plenty of snow on the mountains and on the side of the road.

In the picture below, you can see the road climbing up the mountain –

Trail Ridge Road

When we passed by the snowy area, the snow was melting a lot and you could see water pouring off the edge of the hill into the drainage route on the side of the road.

Rainbow Curve

The first major stopping point on Trail Ridge Road, Rainbow Curve, sits at 10,875 ft and features gorgeous views of Horseshoe Park, Alluvial Fan, and the Beaver Ponds. There are plenty of parking spots at this curve, as well as restrooms.

You can see Trail Ridge Road climbing up to the right –

Rainbow Curve

The view to the north from Rainbow Curve –

Rainbow Curve

Sundance Mountain

Along the road you pass by Sundance Mountain, with a summit of 12,466 ft. There is just something about the shape of this mountain, and how the clouds were surrounding it, that I love!

Sundance Mountain

Sundance Mountain, from a little bit further along Trail Ridge Road –

Sundance Mountain

Trail Ridge Road

The road keeps climbing above the treeline, providing interesting and stark views.

Trail Ridge Road

When we visited on June 8 there were still large walls of snow on the sides of the road in some areas.

Trail Ridge Road

The poles to the side of the road you see in these pictures are there to guide the snowplows.

Trail Ridge Road

Just before you reach the visitor center, you pass the highest point on the road at 12,138 ft.

Alpine Visitor Center

We decided to end our journey on Trail Ridge Road at the Alpine Visitor Center, which is about halfway along the road, and takes about an hour to drive to. I’ve heard from my local friends that they often use the visitor center as their turning-back point as well. If you do go all the way along the road to Grand Lake, it is a 2-hour drive in each direction, not counting stops for pictures.

You can see updated views from the visitor center on the online webcam.

When we went, the main building was still mostly buried in snow.

Alpine Visitor Center

The Alpine Visitor Center is open 10:30 am to 4:30 pm when Trail Ridge Road is open. We arrived after 5 pm, so we could not go inside. There are still restrooms that you can use at the parking lot when the visitor center is closed.

Here you can see how tall some of the snow banks were – we’re probably only 1/3 the height!

Alpine Visitor Center

The Return Journey

Going back down Trail Ridge Road was just as spectacular as going up. You can take great photos, even from your car window –

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road

We stopped at one of the more minor overlooks to take pictures –

Trail Ridge Road

Alpine Forget-Me-Not

Alpine Forget-Me-Not

Alpine Forget-Me-Not, or Eritrichium aretiodes, is a native plant and a member of the Borage Family (Boraginaceae). It is a common wildflower that grows in summer in both alpine and subalpine location, particularly in sunny areas, tundra, rock scree, and meadows.

There were many little patches of this flower growing in the wide open grassy areas.

Conclusion

Trail Ridge Road is a spectacular place to see, for locals and visitors alike. If you are crunched for time, or are staying in Estes Park, the Alpine Visitor Center is a good place to turn around. It’s important to take care of yourself at these high elevations – bring the right clothing with you and be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to combat it.

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