Rocky Mountain National Park is a paradise for nature lovers, with its stunning landscapes, diverse wildlife, and breathtaking waterfalls. From the soaring peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the serene alpine lakes, this national park has it all.
If you’re planning a trip to this natural wonderland, don’t miss out on the top attractions. Let’s take a closer look. Explore everything The Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park offers, including the Continental Divide, wilderness, and waterfalls.
So, grab your hiking boots and camera, and get ready for an adventure.
Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park
Our favorite scenic drive is Trail Ridge Road. It’s a breathtaking route that winds through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road offers unforgettable experiences for active outdoor enthusiasts and those seeking nature’s beauty from comfortable vehicles.
Driving along this well-maintained road, you’ll pass through various ecosystems, from subalpine forests to alpine tundra. Keep an eye out for wildlife along the way, including elk, bighorn sheep, and even bears.
There are plenty of vehicle pullouts and overlook parking spots along the route. Rest assured that you can stop and take photos or use binoculars to view nature’s details. Many of these overlooks have restroom facilities and picnic tables too.
Overview of Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road spans an impressive 48 miles across the park, connecting the towns of Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west. As you embark on this epic journey, you’ll ascend to incredible heights, reaching an elevation of over 12,000 feet. From Estes Park, take Highway 36 to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. Proceed to the Beaver Meadows Toll Booth to enter the park.
A Few (of the Many) Scenic Overlook Stops
Soon after entering the park, you’ll arrive at Hidden Valley, once a bustling ski area, now transformed into a serene picnic spot. Stretch your legs, enjoy a snack, and soak in the surrounding beauty before continuing your ascent. There is a boardwalk for a short nature trail. While here, you can begin to relax and settle into the beauty of nature.
Many Parks Curve
Continue along the well-maintained road to reach Many Parks Curve. Pause to absorb the sweeping vista of the lush meadows and valleys below. Take a moment to reflect on the scenic grandeur and marvel at the park’s vastness. Welcome to the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park.
Forest Canyon Overlook
At Forest Canyon Overlook, witness the dramatic cliffs and rugged terrain of Forest Canyon carved by ancient glaciers. The sheer scale of the landscape is awe-inspiring, reminding us of the forces that shaped this majestic wilderness. There are informational placards to explain the geology of the terrain.
Ascend to higher elevations, then stop at Rock Cut, where the road cuts through massive rock formations. This area showcases the park’s rugged beauty and dramatic geology. The Rock Cut offers visitors a unique perspective of the surrounding landscape at this high elevation. The Rock Cut overlook is an ideal location to leave the vehicle, breathe crisp mountain air, and marvel at the grandeur. Gaze across the rugged terrain, and you may spot cascading waterfalls, alpine lakes, and the verdant valleys. These define the park’s diverse ecosystem. Binoculars are highly recommended.
Gore Range Overlook
The Gore Range Overlook provides an opportunity to marvel at the jagged peaks of the Gore Range in the distance. Keep your camera handy to capture the contrasting beauty of the snow-capped summits against the vibrant alpine meadows.
Alpine Visitor Center
Near the highest point of Trail Ridge Road, you’ll reach the Alpine Visitor Center. Here, take a break to soak in the immensity and beauty of the Rocky Mountains. There are plenty of trails nearby for those who want to explore further. However, we ascended the concrete steps leading to the 11,796 ft elevation marker. It’s a steep climb but worth the effort. The visitor center has a convenience store and snacks. It’s a good place to plan an extended break after the morning drive.
One of the best ways to experience Rocky Mountain National Park is on foot. The park boasts over 350 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy nature walks to challenging multi-day backpacking trips. No matter your skill level or interests, there’s a trail in the park that’s perfect for you. As you drive along Trail Ridge Road, watch for trailheads with markers for short hikes nearby.
Tundra Communities Trail
The Tundra Communities Trail is a shorter hike (about .6 miles) and provides an opportunity to study the Rocky Mountain National Park’s ecosystem. The trail begins at Rock Cut trailhead. There are panoramic views of Longs Peak in the distance before entering a meadow filled with wildflowers in summer.
Alpine Ridge Trail
Grab your hiking boots for the Alpine Ridge Trail. This moderate 1/2-mile hike provides unparalleled vistas of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Traverse alpine tundra, catch glimpses of wildlife, and feel on top of the world at this high elevation. From the Alpine Visitor Center, head northeast onto this trail.
If you’re looking for a longer hike, try Ute Trail. This 10-mile round-trip trail passes through meadows and forested areas and offers views of Longs Peak during the hike. It begins at the Alpine Visitor Center and goes south to Milner Pass, the marker for the Continental Divide. The distance one way is 4 miles. If you return to the Alpine Visitor Center, the round-trip is 8 miles. The return trip is an elevation increase from 10,759 feet at Milner Pass to 11,796 feet at the Alpine Visitor Center.
Holzwarth Historic Site
For a bit of history and flat terrain, explore the ruins of the Homestead Historic Site. This historic homestead dates back to 1915 and was once home to John Holzwarth and his family. Here you can explore ruins, see artifacts from the past, and learn about early life in this part of Colorado.
Historical Significance of Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road holds a significant place in history. Constructed in the early 1930s, it is a testament to human engineering and ambition. This marvelous road construction not only allows visitors to traverse the park with ease but also is a gateway to the wonders of the Rocky Mountains.
The Creation of Trail Ridge Road
The construction of Trail Ridge Road was no small feat. The project began in 1929, spearheaded by the National Park Service, with the bold goal of creating a highway to showcase the park’s incredible variety of ecosystems and landscapes. The road was intended to be more than just a convenient (and much-needed) route through the mountains; it was designed as a scenic wonderland – a driving experience that would inspire awe and admiration for the majesty of the Rocky Mountains.
The location of the road necessitated a unique construction program. With a plan to cross the Continental Divide and reach towering elevations, engineers were faced with significant challenges. Crews worked tirelessly, often in harsh weather conditions and at high altitudes. The oxygen constraints made physical labor even more strenuous.
Despite these challenges, the workers persevered, using explosives to carve through the dense rock and heavy machinery to remove debris and shape the road. The Civilian Conservation Corps had six camps in Rocky Mountain National Park that built trails, buildings, and roads, including Trail Ridge Road.
After four years of intense labor, the road finally opened to the public in July 1933. The completed Trail Ridge Road was — and still is — an engineering marvel, rising above the tree line, traversing the tundra, and offering unparalleled views of the Rocky Mountains. It is a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance, providing visitors easy access to the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park.
On this iconic road, imagine the early explorers and pioneers who navigated these mountains long before the road’s existence. Consider the indigenous people who revered these lands and the wildlife that has called this area home for centuries.
Rocky Mountain National Park is home to diverse wildlife, including elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, and bobcats. If you’re hoping to see these animals, you’re likely to spot them in several places in the park.
One of the best places to see elk is in the park’s meadows and valleys, especially during the fall rutting season when the bulls compete for mates. The Kawuneeche Valley is a great place to watch for elk.
If you’re looking for bighorn sheep, head to the Sheep Lakes area near the park’s east entrance. It’s a 4-mile detour north from your Trail Ridge Road route. Turn at Deer Ridge Junction. This area is named for the herds of bighorn sheep that can often be seen grazing on the hillsides. You may also spot mountain goats in the park’s higher elevations, especially near the top of the mountain ridges.
While spotting wildlife in the park can be exciting, it’s important to remember to keep a safe distance and never approach or feed the animals. It’s also a good idea to bring binoculars or a telephoto lens for a closer look.
Lakes and Rivers Along Trail Ridge Road
The scenic Trail Ridge Road unveils a series of captivating lakes and rivers as you journey from Estes Park to Grand Lake. Prepare to be enchanted by the glistening waters and rugged landscapes, adding a touch of serenity to your adventure.
As you ascend to higher elevations, Poudre Lake emerges, nestled amidst the alpine tundra. This jewel has stunning views of the surrounding peaks, along with native wildlife in their home environment.
On the western route, shortly after the Fairview Curve marker, Trail Ridge Road follows the path of the mighty Colorado River. Marvel at the power and beauty of this well-known river as it winds its way through scenic valleys, showcasing nature’s mastery.
The crown jewel at the end of Trail Ridge Road, Grand Lake welcomes visitors with its expansive beauty. Surrounded by mountains and adorned with a charming lakeside town, it offers opportunities for boating, fishing, and lakeside picnics, all against a backdrop of breathtaking scenery.
Tip: Don’t just pass through; choose to stay overnight at Grand Lake, Colorado. Immerse yourself in the tranquil beauty under the starlit sky. Awaken to the serene, breathtaking views of the mountains reflected on the lake’s surface – it’s an experience!
The lakes and rivers along Trail Ridge Road present a tapestry of natural wonders, combining the tranquility of still waters with the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
Historic Sites and Museums
If you’re interested in the history of Rocky Mountain National Park, visit the historic sites and museums in the park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is not known for its historic sites, as its main attraction lies in its breathtaking natural beauty. However, there are notable historical sites that can be found along this iconic road, adding cultural significance to your journey. These sites offer perspectives about the region’s past.
Beaver Meadows Visitor Center
Situated near the entrance to Trail Ridge Road, the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center includes informational resources about the park’s natural and human history. Explore exhibits detailing the park’s geology, ecology, and the challenges faced during the road’s construction.
Historic Milner Pass
The Continental Divide stretches across the entire American continent, starting from Alaska and reaching all the way to Cape Horn in Chile. Whenever it rains along this divide, each drop of water is routed on a predetermined path. Water on the eastern side of the divide will always flow towards the Atlantic Ocean. Likewise, water on the western side will flow towards the Pacific Ocean.
Milner Pass was named in honor of T.J. Milner, a determined railroad promoter who surveyed a railway route across the divide. However, like many possible routes analyzed during the 1880s, the railroad line was never constructed. This visitor rest area provides access to the Ute Trail hiking path that leads to the Alpine Visitor Center.
Holzwarth Historic Site
Located on the western side of the park, near the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, the Holzwarth Historic Site provides a glimpse into early 20th-century homesteading life. Explore the historic cabins and barns and learn about the family who settled and ran a ranch here.
It’s important to note that while these sites offer glimpses into the region’s past, they are secondary to the natural wonders along Trail Ridge Road. The true allure of this scenic highway lies in its sweeping vistas, rugged mountains, and pristine wilderness that have captivated visitors for generations.
Tips for Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park
Before you visit Rocky Mountain National Park, there are a few things to remember when planning for a safe and enjoyable trip. First, watch check the park’s website for any alerts or closures, especially during the winter months when Trail Ridge Road closes for months.
It’s a good idea to bring water, snacks, and appropriate gear for the weather conditions. The park’s elevation can also cause altitude sickness for some visitors, so take it slow and stay hydrated. Finally, practice Leave No Trace principles and help preserve the park’s natural beauty for future generations.
Immerse yourself in the grandeur of nature, breathe in the crisp mountain air, and let the beauty of the Rocky Mountains leave an indelible mark on your soul.
Bonus: Other Scenic Drives
In addition to Trail Ridge Road, several other scenic drives in the park are worth exploring.
Stretching between Estes Park and Nederland, the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway showcases the stunning beauty of the Rocky Mountains. This winding road (outside of the park) takes you through picturesque mountain towns, past cascading waterfalls, and alongside dense forests. The expansive views of the surrounding peaks and valleys make it a popular choice for nature enthusiasts and photographers.
Inside Rocky Mountain National Park, Bear Lake Road provides access to some of the park’s most iconic destinations. This scenic drive offers glimpses of the park’s pristine lakes, including the picturesque Bear Lake. This road is accessible by turning south immediately after entering the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station.
For a historic and scenic drive, Old Fall River Road winds its way north to Fall River Pass from the east side of the park. This one-way dirt and gravel road climbs from Horseshoe Park to the Alpine Visitor Center, offering stunning views of the park’s waterfalls and mountain peaks. This road demands a slow-paced journey, allowing you to appreciate the rugged beauty of the surrounding landscapes. With its sharp switchbacks and dramatic views, Old Fall River Road is a favorite among adventurous drivers.
Whether you’re driving Trail Ridge Road or one of the park’s other scenic drives, take your time and enjoy the views. There are plenty of pullouts and overlooks along the way, so you can stop and take photos or relax to absorb the beauty of the mountains and valleys.