Road Trips

Trail Ridge Road: Take the "All-American" High Road

Filed Under: Colorado, Family

In a state that's chock-a-block with superlatives, the Trail Ridge Rd. -- also known by its less romantic numeric moniker, US Highway 34 -- is a Colorado classic.

Open to visitors from late May through mid-October (it takes an average of 42 days to plow snow off the road before opening), the 48-mile route between Estes Park to the east and the town of Grand Lake to the west, takes in some of the finest scenery in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Eleven miles of the route travel above the treeline; and those of us not quite up to scaling the mountains can ride on the coattails of the highest continually paved highway in the United States.

The route has been dubbed an All-American Road -- a designation bestowed by the US Department of Transportation defining Trail Ridge Rd. as a unique roadway that is considered a tourist destination in its own right.
A quick glance at the saltwater taffy shops and throngs of souvenir-foraging tourists mobbing Estes Park on a summer day is all the testament you need to realize that this road was discovered long before you got here.

It dates to 1932 to be precise, and was opened as an easier driving alternative to the nearby Fall River Rd.

Estes Park is the point of departure for most tourists driving the Trail Ridge Rd. Crowds get so thick here in the summer that hikers are often forced to ride shuttle busses to the overloaded parking lots at the trail heads.

But don't let that dissuade you from doing the drive. The ethereal views -- it seriously feels like the top of the world up there -- will make the tourist trappings seem like they're from another planet entirely.

Many a lifelong family vacation memory (including this writer's) was born at the Y.M.C.A. of the Rockies in Estes Park, a perfect base for exploring the area. Situated on 860 acres that back onto park property, the giant log-cabin lodge is an atmospheric jumping-off point for campy excursions such as horseback riding, hiking and fly-fishing.

To further distance yourself from the throngs, consider splurging on a stay at The Stanley (circa 1909). Estes Park's most elegant hotel, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Before setting off on the Trail Ridge Rd., grab sandwiches for a panoramic park picnic from DeLeo's Park Theatre Café & Deli, where the offerings are named after movies. (You'll be back for The Pastraminator, touts the menu.)

Estimates on how long you'll need to enjoy the Trail Ridge Rd. vary somewhere between 2 and 4 hours. To avoid the worst of the bighorn bottlenecks (traffic jams caused by bighorn-sheep rubberneckers on the side of the road), consider setting out for the drive early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

Whether you leave from Estes Park or Grand Lake, you'll climb over 4,000 feet during the first few minutes of the ride. The scenery plays like a moving geological exhibit.

Train your eyes to the trees and you'll see the foliage morph from montane pine forests and aspen groves to sub-alpine forests thick with spruce and firs.

Above the tree line, the temperature can be 20 to 30 degrees colder than down below, so have a sweatshirt handy.

About 22 miles from Estes Park, at Falls River Pass, you'll arrive at the Alpine Visitors Center (elev. 11,796 feet). The center offers exhibits, a gift shop and a short trail to an overlook. The views take in spiky peaks carved by glaciers, sweeping valleys and surreal vistas into the heart of the mountains.

Many visitors mistakenly think this is the highest point on the Trail Ridge Rd. The actual highest point is 2 miles east, where the road peaks at over 12,000 feet.

Don't look for a highest point signpost, however. Since there's nowhere to park in the area, the sign was removed to prevent eager tourists from getting clipped by passing traffic while posing for pics.

The high tundra area is reminiscent of landscapes you'd see in Alaska or Canada. And despite the barren feel of the terrain, colorful alpine plants blanket the rugged ground in the summer months like colorful carpets tossed out to dry in the sun.

Continue west 4 miles from the Visitors Center and you'll reach the Milner Pass -- site of the Continental Divide (a clearly signposted photo moment). If rain falls to the west of the split, it is said, it is bound for the Pacific Ocean - to the east, it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Higher elevations (below the treeline) are the habitat of mountain lions, bighorn sheep and bobcats -- all of which are elusive animals. More common wildlife sightings include elk and moose in the lower valleys. Also look for marmots and pikas (the latter look like rabbit-hamster hybrids and are as cute as they sound).

Take advantage of the many pullouts along the road, where you can stop to ogle views that change as rapidly as the altitude. But think twice before wandering off for a hike: rangers don't recommend hiking at altitude until you've adjusted to the thin air.

Once you get to Grand Lake, the end of the road, you can wait for your blood to thicken back up while re-hydrating with pure Rocky Mountain water in the form of a handcrafted beer from the Grand Lake Brewing Company.

The town isn't nearly as happening as Estes Park. But after a long day driving and sensory overload from all that stunning scenery, low-key Grand Lake can be just what the doctor ordered.

Consider helping reverse the carbon footprint of your day's drive by opting for a room at the environmentally minded lodge at Spirit Mountain Ranch. At this bed-and-breakfast, the electricity is 100 percent green, the soaps are herbal, and the veggies organic and fresh as the Trail Ridge Road air.

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