Trail Ridge Road – Motoring Adrenaline!

Miles Driven Today:      98      Total Miles Driven: 4525

A brilliant day today in every way.  The weather was flawless: cloudless, blue sky, hot sun, about 18C.  Ok it was a lot colder in some of the places we were today, but the visibility was gin clear.

Today we drove one of the most spectacular roads in the USA if not the world.  Indeed, it has been called a scenic wonder of the world and with good reason.  It is not hyperbole. Covering the 48 miles between Estes Park on the park’s east side and Grand Lake on the west, Trail Ridge Road website more than lives up to its advanced billing. Eleven miles of this high highway travel above treeline, the elevation near 11,500 feet where the park’s evergreen forests come to a halt. As it winds across the tundra’s vastness to its high point at 12,183 feet elevation, Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) offers visitors thrilling views, wildlife sightings and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions, all from the comfort of their car.

The opening miles from Grand Lake to the high point in the Alpine tundra, took us through a series of looping switchbacks and hair raising bends through a high gain of around 4000 feet in a few short miles.  It was a job to know where to look, such was the extraordinary scenery all around.  However, the narrowness of the road, the absence of any sort of guard rail and the straight down plunge into the valley, tended to keep at least the driver concentrating on the road ahead!

We stopped at quite a few pullouts to admire the view.  Our first big stop was at the Alpine Information Centre which was at about 11,000+ feet.  It was much colder up there than in Grand Lake of course.  The car thermometer was reading 2C but that wasn’t taking account of the wind.  Which was fierce.  We decided we wanted to do a shortish hike to some rocks at the highest point of the road.  We parked up at Split Rock and got warm clothes on.

My new padded coat came into its own.  Bob was in multiple layers!  We set off.  The first 1/4 mile was uphill.  Wow.  Did we feel that climb up to 12,300 feet.  Talk about puffing and panting!  It was like 20 years ago when we had a family trek in the Himalayas at about the same altitude.  Walking along the flat, or a gentle undulation was ok.  Any sort of exertion turned you into a wheezing consumptive!!!!  Glad to know not much has changed in 20 years LOL.

It was really cold.  Everything that wasn’t covered up – my knees and lower legs, face, hands when they weren’t in my pockets – was just freezing.

The tundra zone was actually very beautiful.  Still some colour from alpine flowers and plants, some areas deeply red and brown.  Snow in places.  We felt pretty proud of ourselves for our hiking venture, short though it was.  We battled through the cold, the wind and the wheeze.  Saw some marmots.

Wended our way onwards and downwards, stopping and looking.  Had a picnic down in the valley where there were some elk.  A lot of elk around today.  A stunning drive.  A bit nerve wracking but on a day like today, just perfect.  I wouldn’t want to drive that road in the rain or with less visibility.   Not surprisingly it is only open between about June and October.  I have never seen such tall snow guide poles along the road for the ploughs.

Came out of the park and into the town of Estes Park.  What a busy place, quite scenic.  There was a festival on, lots of vintage cars.  Not surprisingly, I don’t think any of them were trying the road!  We went to take a quick look at the Stanley Hotel, the location that inspired Stephen King to write “The Shining”.  Looked absolutely gorgeous.  website

Apparently Stephen King only stayed one night, had a bad dream, got up smoked a cigarette and the plot just came to him.  The Kubrick film was not shot at The Stanley but the later mini series sanctioned by Stephen King, was.

We re-entered the park, taking a slightly different loop around the eastern section.  Then for our return trip to the west, we decided to take another jaw dropping park road: Old Fall River Road.  website  This was the first park road over the Continental Divide, built in 1921.  It is about 9.5 miles long, single lane, one-way, gravel and dirt.  It goes without saying there are no guardrails at all, and its mostly about 10-12 feet wide.  Not too rutted.  We checked with a ranger that we were ok to do it in an ordinary car and were reassured it was.  It has an even shorter season than Trail Ridge.  Normally, it doesn’t open much before July and closes again mid October.

The road winds very steeply up from the valley base to near the Alpine Centre at 11,900 feet.  There are extreme switchbacks and bends.  The saving grace is that it is now one-way ie east to west.  Of course the views are amazing.  At one point we came across a massive bull moose and his wife, feeding in the trees.  That was quite an excitement.  You get great views of waterfalls, and trickling falls coming down from the remaining snows at altitude.  It took us over an hour to drive the road.  You really can’t do more than about 10 mph.  Well worth it! Definitely try this road if you get the right day and you aren’t too nervous a driver.  It is more nerve wracking than Trail Ridge Road because it is much narrower, unpaved and you are much nearer the edge all the way.    You can see the road map for the park here website

We drove back down Trail Ridge Road towards Grand Lake.  Came across quite a large group of elk in a meadow and stopped to watch them.  They were all lying down.

A gorgeous day!

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