Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road

These crazy times of COVID-19 have inspired us (and many other people) to prioritize visiting the National Parks and enjoying the great outdoors.

One of my favorite Christmas gifts – my annual America the Beautiful National Parks Pass – has come in especially useful this year. As planned, we kicked off the year visiting new parks in Jan/Feb prior to COVID-19, but we also bumped a number of other parks and monuments up on our list post-COVID-19 when our other travel plans started to fall through. This year we’ve visited:

Our first day at Rocky Mountain National Park began with a beautiful late-September autumnal morning. We had reserved a 6-8 a.m. park entry timeslot so we headed out early to grab some breakfast and coffee to-go in Estes Park before spending our day driving the Trail Ridge Road.

We were greeted by a doe and fawn outside our AirBnB as we walked to the car, and across from the coffee shop downtown – just outside the library – we encountered an elk herd! What a way to start our day!

Trail Ridge Road was constructed in 1931 and is the highest continuously paved road in the United States.

Covering the 48 miles between Estes Park on the park’s east side and Grand Lake on the west, Trail Ridge Road 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.

According to the National Parks website

Thankfully the fires in the park didn’t impact our drive, although we did see quite a bit of haze in the distance when we would get out at different viewpoints to walk around.

While it doesn’t take long to make the roundtrip drive between Estes Park and Grand Lake, we ended up dedicating an entire day to the experience due to the various stops and hikes we made along the way. Here are a few of our favorites!

Rainbow Curve Overlook

We entered the park via the Beaver Meadows entrance station, and likely due to the timed entry reservations, the lines weren’t that long. In fact, we didn’t encounter that many people in the park throughout our day. There were some other cars on the road, but we never had any trouble finding parking at the pullouts and only ever encountered a handful of people on any of the trails we hiked.

I had read horror stories about how packed the park can be so I think going early in the day, going later in the fall season after kids had returned to school, and going during COVID-19 all worked to our advantage.

One of our first stops was at the Rainbow Curve pull off, which features sweeping views of the eastern side of the park. The valley was beautiful – leaves were changing colors, elk were bugling in the distance, and some chipmunks who were a little too friendly kept us company as we soaked it all in.

Forest Canyon Overlook

We briefly stopped at Forest Canyon, which has a short and flat trail to a stone overlook of the mountains to the south. There was a handy map pointing out the 14er peaks in the distance.

Rock Cut

One of my favorite stops was the combo Rock Cut/Tundra Communities pullout up in the alpine zone. We crossed the street to the Rock Cut overlook and were thrilled to hear and then see some park favorites – the yellow-bellied marmot and pika – scampering around in the rocks below us!

I’ve see pika in other parks, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a marmot before. They were both incredibly well hidden among the rocks – we only knew they were there when they moved around.

Can you see the marmot and pika almost kissing in the picture below? One of my favorite photos of our trip!

Tundra Communities Trailhead

Across the street from Rock Cut is the Tundra Communities trailhead. We opted to hike the .6-mile, out-and-back trail and didn’t make it far before we were sweating and struggling to breathe. Hiking around at 11,000-12,000 feet of elevation will quickly wear you out!

This area was gorgeous – desolate and rocky, windy and quiet, with occasional patches of snow. I loved the mushroom rock formations, featured in the photos below.

Alpine Visitor Center

The Alpine Visitor Center, which is around the half-way point between Estes Park and Grand Lake and the only place with food/drink amenities between those towns, was by far the most populated stop of our drive.

We parked and set out for the .5-mile roundtrip Alpine Ridge trail, climbing the steps up to the 12,000-foot marker. I must have acclimated to the elevation to some degree from our earlier hike because this one seemed a little easier to me.

We enjoyed the views and then grabbed a hot lunch to eat in the safety of our car before continuing on our drive.

Holzwarth Historic Site

We didn’t make many stops between the visitor center and Grand Lake, enjoying the views from the comfort of our car instead.

We did stop to stretch our legs and explore the Holzwarth historic site, where were learned about the German family who transitioned from being homesteaders in the early 1900s to operating a successful ‘dude ranch’ for those interested in trout fishing in the nearby lakes and hunting in the nearby mountains.

The buildings are still there with information plaques explaining how they were used (the main kitchen area, the ice house, etc.), but they are all closed to the public right now because of COVID-19. They are still getting some use, however; we discovered several marmots hiding in the wood piles stacked along the old buildings!

It’s a beautiful area, and we enjoyed the one-mile roundtrip walk to and from the parking lot back to the old complex.

Harbison Meadow

We turned around at the Grand Lake entrance and started our journey back to Estes Park. Along the way we noticed a bunch of people pulled over by the Harbison Meadow area. We quickly spotted what they were seeing – elk, and a little further down the road more deer!

I hopped out of the car with my long lens and enjoyed watching and photographing them in the distance. While cell phones are great for most pictures, I don’t think you can beat an actual camera with the right lens for taking pictures of wildlife at a safe distance.

Sprague Lake

After a lovely and uneventful drive back toward Estes Park, we decided to make one last stop at Sprague Lake. We turned off at Bear Lake road just before the Beaver Meadow park entrance and made our way to the parking area, which was quite full. There were some people who had made a day out of visiting the lake – fishing and reading their books in the shallow water along the lakeshore.

We could see some quickly moving clouds rolling in over the mountains so we picked up the pace, finishing our .5-mile roundtrip walk around the loop trail just as raindrops started to pepper the lake.

This was a popular spot, which wasn’t surprising given the easily accessible trail and short distance from the park entrance. I’m glad we were able to squeeze it in!

Driving Trail Ridge Road was a perfect introduction to Rocky Mountain National Park, and I especially enjoyed all of our stops along the way.

I can’t believe it’s taken so long for me to make it to this park – I’m thankful we were able to safely prioritize visiting it this year!

One thought on “Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road

  1. Pingback: Rocky Mountain National Park: Summiting Deer Mountain – Heather's Compass

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