Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

Elk herd at dusk - Trail Ridge Road

Elk herd at dusk – Trail Ridge Road

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road is one of the highest paved roads in the U.S.A. Colorado also boasts two of the others on the list-  Pikes Peak and Mount Evans, both over 14,000 feet. At 12,183 feet at its highest point, one of the things that makes this drive so spectacular is the tundra landscape and the wildlife. The sweeping tundra and wide open spaces creates a  view makes it seem like you are on top of the world. It is a completely unforgettable experience!

Clouds around the top - Trail Ridge Road

Clouds around the top – Trail Ridge Road

There are two ways to the “top”  (the highest elevation areas near the visitor’s center) and the drive to the western side of the park. Old Fall  River Road is the one way dirt road that runs parallel to  the paved highway, Trail Ridge Road. It begins at the end of Endovalley area and ends at the top by the visitor’s center. We frequently  start out on Old Fall River Road to make our way to the top (it is shorter) and then make our way (slowly) back down Trail Ridge Road.

Old Fall River Road - Rocky Mountain National Park

Old Fall River Road – Rocky Mountain National Park

You can access Trail Ridge Road  via highway 36 and the eastern entrances of the park, or from Lake Granby on the western side of the park. Be aware that most of Trail Ridge Road is closed from mid-October to the end of May and Old Fall River Road is closed from October to early July, both depending on the weather and park conditions.

Tundra along the top of Trail Ridge Road

Tundra along the top of Trail Ridge Road

View of the visitor's center on top - OId Fall River Road

View of the visitor’s center on top – OId Fall River Road

 

Some of our favorite highlights:

  • Wildlife – Herds of elk are usually everywhere up here in the summer. We loved seeing groups of bull elk laying around on the tundra. In the summer you may also score seeing elk calves.
    Elk calf with herd - Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road

    Elk calf with herd – Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

    This is also where you are likely to see critters that you won’t see outside a tundra environment, such as marmots and pikas. Marmots are furry creatures that live there among the rocks , and the first time we saw one, we had no clue what it was!

    Marmot standing up along Trail Ridge Road

    Marmot – Trail Ridge Road

    Also unique, Pikas can usually be seen busily gathering grasses to store up for the winter. Take a few minutes and read one of the information signs on this tiny creature. You will be impressed!

    Pika at Rock Cut - Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road

    Pika at Rock Cut – Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

    This is one of the hangouts for big horn sheep as well, and they are more elusive than the elk. We were thrilled to see our first sighting of them on our last trip there. Try asking a park ranger about where any specific animals are being sighted.

    Big horn sheep climbing the tundra - Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road

    Big horn sheep climbing the tundra – Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

  • Visitor’s Center at the top – The visitor’s center is perched on the side of a very steep slope and has large windows with fantastic views of the tundra. It has great hot chocolate and coffee, but of course you need to walk through the gift shop to get there. It is usually a busy happening spot, if for no other reason that they have restrooms there. The restrooms are in the parking lot, and no, they are not flush toilets. They also have hot food, deli items and snacks. It is a little expensive, but worth it.
  • Many Parks curve – This popular road side view is one of the first great stopping points as you drive up from the eastern entrance. It has a “wide angle view” of the valley looking back to the east. The stop also usually features chipmunks and a variety of birds that hang around the cliff.

    View from Many Parks Curve - Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail

    View from Many Parks Curve – Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

  • Rock Cut – One of the great photo spots! We went here for both sunrise and sunset photos, and it looks different every time.

    Sunset at Rock Cut - Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road

    Sunset at Rock Cut – Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

  • Lava Cliffs – The color and texture of these rocks always draw me to take another photo. There is often a puddle of glacial melt below, and there are marmots that frequent this spot. There is also a great trail just above that you can take out on the tundra.

    Mountainside – view from Old Fall River Road

Old Fall River Road highlights:

  • Chasm Falls  – is on the Old Fall River Road. It is a popular and scenic waterfall, with a great landing spot for photos. The wet rocks can be slippery and of course, be careful when taking little ones, but it is definitely worth a visit!

    Chasm Falls - Old Fall River Road

    Chasm Falls – Old Fall River Road

  • Chapin Creek Trailhead – A popular trail on Old Fall River Road that takes you up and through forests and meadows. My husband and I decided to get out on this trail on our last trip. It was a beautiful hike! We also saw two big bull elk laying quietly just of of the trail, watching the hikers come by. We paused long enough to snap a couple of photos. Elk are used to people being in the area, but remember – NEVER approach them. Not only is it against park rules, but it is also dangerous.

    Bull elk in the woods along the Chapin Trail - Old Fall River Road

    Bull elk in the woods along the Chapin Trail – Old Fall River Road

Chapin Creek Trail - Old Fall River Road

Chapin Creek Trail – Old Fall River Road

Suggestions:

  • Explore other areas of the park,  if at all possible. Find a lot more info on my post Visiting Rocky Mountain National Park if you have not read it.
  • You should be prepared for some form of altitude sickness. It bothers me a little each time I go, usually in the form of a headache, which may feel a little like a sinus headache. Last time, I took essential oils of peppermint and rosemary, and that really helped! Every time I felt a headache coming on, I would inhale the two for relief. Peppermint oil is my standby for headaches anyway, so I am not surprised that it helps with altitude sickness.
  • When you stop at the visitor’s center, take a short hike up the trail just above the restroom buildings for a really nice view. It is one of the high points, and you can take photos with the “12,000 feet elevation” sign. The trail does go UP, but it is worth the huffing and puffing.
    Elevation sign on the trail above the visitor's center - Trail Ridge Road

    Elevation sign on the trail above the visitor’s center – Trail Ridge Road

    Visitor's Center at the top of Trail Ridge Road

    Visitor’s Center at the top of Trail Ridge Road

  • Wear layers! The elevation at the top means the tundra has a separate weather system from lower areas of the park. The last time we were there, it was bright and sunny in the morning, and then it was sleeting and snowing a few hours later! The amount of snow varies greatly with the time of year and the weather. Some years you will only see scattered patches of snow. Other times, in the middle of the summer, much larger areas are still snow covered. I used to teach high school World Geography, and it was always fun to ask my students, “Where can you have a snow ball fight on the 4th of July, and why?”.  Most, never having been out of Texas, would look at me blankly. People from the south will know what I am talking about. Then I would show them photos of the place you can do that! On my family’s very first trip to the park (which actually happened to be on the 4th of July), our kids, delighted to see the snow, had a snowball fight on a large patch of snow right along side of the road. Right after that, we went down to watch the fireworks celebration! Of course, if you are in area that has a sign saying “Stay off of the tundra”, then please stay off of the tundra, snow or not. My Texas family was also unprepared for the temperatures at the top that first trip and were scrambling for jackets because it was COLD at the top!
  • Take at least a short hike out on one of the many trails that lead off of Trail Ridge Road. It feels amazing to be  “out in it” and it will definitely enhance your experience.  Even if you just walk a short way, you should do it.  You will want to wear hiking shoes or decent walking shoes.

    Tundra - Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road

    Tundra – Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road

Be aware:

  • The roads are steep and curvy! Watch the speed limit and be aware that it will take you longer to drive this road because of this. If you are up on the top at dusk, then you are going to be driving back to your camp, cabin or hotel room in the dark. Being at top at dusk is worth it, but take extra care driving out in the dark.
  • Watch for wildlife on the road! This is their home and many are killed on the roads of the park each year. We have seen mule deer and elk crossing the road more times than I can count, and the smaller critters often fall victim to automobiles.

    Elk cow crossing the road - Trail Ridge Road

    Elk cow crossing the road – Trail Ridge Road

  • There are no places to buy gas in the park. Make sure your tank is full before you start out. The closest places for gas are Estes Park on the eastern entrance, or Lake Granby on the western side.
  • There is little to no cell phone service in the park. Unfortunately, that means it won’t likely be available for emergencies.
Bull elk on tundra - Rocky Mountain's Trail Ridge Road

Bull elk on tundra – Rocky Mountain’s Trail Ridge Road

 

Resources to help you out:

I know you will love this place!!

Sandy

About Sandy

My life revolves around my faith in Jesus Christ and chasing the dreams I believe He has placed in my heart.

Comments

  1. Amazing photos! I love the Marmot, so cute. Great tip about making sure your gas tank is full before you head out! 🙂

  2. aradmin1 says:

    Oh my gosh those photos are breath taking!! You make a great point in remembering to wear layers!

  3. Such beauty! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Your photos are amazing. I would love to experience it for myself, so jealous!

  5. Omg !! This is such a beautiful post 🙂 I love nature and this one just touched my heart ❤️

  6. Great pictures

  7. I love spending time in nature and I really enjoyed this post. Your photos are stunning.

  8. Jenni Petrey says:

    Oh my, that looks amazing. I’d love to do this one day!

  9. What a beautiful post! I really love being outdoors and the photos of the wildlife you took are amazing! Prob gonna have to subscribe to get more outdoor info!

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