In an alpine meadow carpeted with lush grasses, newborn white-spotted elk frolic under the watchful eyes of their mothers. Travelers edge their cars onto the shoulder of Trail Ridge Road, opening their windows to gaze at the endearing wildlife “nursery.” Around another bend, snow-mantled Never Summer Range scrapes the sky.
Such wondrous sites unfold as this Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway traverses Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake. The road climbs through three life zones, or ecosystems, before reaching its highest point and crossing the Continental Divide. Distinctive flora and fauna populate each of the zones.
Those who travel this byway can stop to peer into deep valleys, view diverse wildlife, study the park’s features at visitor centers and hike in forests and tundra.
From its east end at Estes Park, Trail Ridge Road begins its ascent through glades and grasslands into Horseshoe Park. During June and July, those who drive through here in early morning or evening are often rewarded with the sight of bighorn sheep that flock to a natural mineral lick rich with nutrients near Sheep Lakes. By mid-summer, Indian paintbrush, golden aster and silvery lupine dapple the meadows.
At the bend in Horseshoe Park, Old Fall River Road — the route that in 1920 opened the park to automotive traffic ? splits off the byway. In 1913, convicts began building the road, which was later completed by contractors. For the adventurous, the 11-mile, one-way gravel road offers a gripping alternative route to the Alpine Visitor Center.
Travelers also have the option of detouring southeast on U.S. 36 to explore Moraine Park and the Bear Lake area. In the Moraine Park Museum, exhibits describe the area’s geology. Hiking trails lead through ponderosa pine forests laced with aspen.
Trail Ridge Road continues westward on U.S. 34. Switchbacking upward, the byway reaches a subalpine ecosystem populated with Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. The first scenic overlook, Many Parks Curve, captures a vista of glacier-carved valleys studded with lakes. Radiant as a diamond, Longs Peak soars 14,259 feet high.
As the road climbs, trees begin to show effects of the harsh environment. Fierce winds have sculpted firs into flag trees, whose branches grow only on the leeward side. Near 11,000 feet, trees stand only as high as the surrounding protective rocks, creating dense, low growth called krummholz. Then, as if halting at a battle line etched in the granite, tree growth stops. Here, the byway reaches timberline and the alpine tundra.
Tundra Trail showcases this fragile world. At Rock Cut, travelers can park their vehicles for a walk through a rock garden of delicate, miniature flowers. Contending with scant soil, limited water, strong winds and extreme temperatures, the plants have developed resourceful ways to survive. Waxy or hairy leaves store water. Red pigments act as sunscreen. Extensive root systems anchor them against the elements.
A five-year-old plant may be no larger than a fingertip. Close inspection reveals the pink petals of moss campion, the deep-blue blossoms of forget-me-nots and the brilliant yellow disks of alpine sunflowers.
Just before reaching the Alpine Visitor Center, Trail Ridge Road reaches its highest point, 12,183 feet. With park exhibits, snack bar and gift shop, the center is a favorite rest stop. Nearby, Alpine Ridge Trail leads to vast, lofty views. Yellow-bellied marmots bask in the sun while squeaking pikas scurry among the rocks.
Always unpredictable, the weather can change at any moment. Temperatures may drop suddenly. Thunderstorms may roll in. Snow may fall, even in July.
As the byway begins its descent, the panorama sweeps north to Wyoming and west to the Gore Range. Elk graze on steep, grassy slopes stitched with pockets of snow. At Milner Pass, travelers cross North America’s watershed, the Continental Divide.
Curves corkscrew down through alpine, subalpine and montane life zones, unveiling broad vistas of the Kawuneeche Valley. From picnic areas, hiking trails lead into open meadows and cool forests. Gray jays flit among the trees. Mule deer may prong across the path. The sweet scent of vanilla welcomes those who sniff the sun-warmed bark of ponderosa pines.
At the site of Never Summer Ranch, guides relate stories as visitors tour the buildings of this early-1900s ranch. To the south, beaver dams obstruct gurgling streams. Camouflaged by wetland willows, moose graze in the marshes. Sighting one of these huge creatures is a rare delight.
Elk often graze on the vast valley floor. Massive racks crown bull elks. During the autumn mating season, their eerie bugling pierces the air.
Trail Ridge Road ends its 48-mile course at the west entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, but the exhilarating journey need not end. The dramatic grandeur of the byway’s scenery changes with each and every visit, encouraging visitors to come again.
If You Go
Trail Ridge Road traverses Rocky Mountain National Park on U.S. 34 between Estes Park and Grand Lake. Estes Park is accessed by U.S. 34 and U.S. 36 and Colorado 7; Grand Lake is accessed by U.S. 40 to U.S. 34. The one-way length is 48 miles; drive time is two hours.
The route is great for exhilarating scenery, experiencing tundra and other high-altitude ecosystems, and viewing wildlife and wildflowers.
The two-lane paved road is open from about Memorial Day through mid-October, weather permitting. Elk bugling and fall colors in autumn offer an exceptional experience.
Rocky Mountain National Park, 970-586-1206
Estes Park Chamber of Commerce, 970-586-4431
Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, 970-627-3402
Rose and David Muenker, who live in Denver, are co-authors of the Colorado Front Range History Explorer, which features history-oriented sites and attractions of our state’s most populous region, and Colorado Front Range Scenic & Historic Byways.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.