In the summer, Trail Ridge Road is one of the absolute highlights of Rocky. This paved highway ascends to the top of Trail Ridge, rising to an elevation of just over 12,000 feet (3660 m) and providing unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape. It’s also quite a driving adventure, especially for those who have never traveled this type of steep, curvy, exposed mountain road. I highly recommend the drive in the summer or fall.
From approximately mid-October to late May, most of Trail Ridge Road is closed to vehicular travel. On the east side of the park, the road is plowed up to the viewpoint at Many Parks Curve; to go beyond this point you have to use your own two feet. Most people opt to walk up a short distance and we saw a few wearing snowshoes, but we opted for skis. It’s definitely a more challenging approach, but I highly recommend tackling at least part of Trail Ridge Road on foot in the winter as well.
There wasn’t any fresh snow so we were able to follow existing tracks. It was a gradual but steady upward climb, punctuated by periodic gusts of chilly wind, but much of the road was sheltered by trees and the surrounding terrain and the sun made its grand entrance about halfway through the morning. There was one section that required us to unclip and a couple others that we had to hug the edge of the road to avoid exposed asphalt, but aside from that there was an adequate amount of snow cover.
We didn’t have a definite destination in mind but eventually decided to turn around at the “2 miles above sea level” sign. Just slightly up the road from this point is the Rainbow Curve viewpoint, which was approximately where the other three people we saw turned around. It was nearly 4 miles (6.4 km) and 1150 feet (350 m) of elevation gain to reach this point… needless to say, we were pretty sore the next day.
Overall, we found this to be an ideal skiing location. It wasn’t too steep but the incline was enough that we could coast most of the way down while easily maintaining a controlled speed… which was perfect because Pat is fairly new to XC skiing and I’m pretty out of practice. There was one section that crossed beneath a potential avalanche slope, but avalanche danger was pretty low that weekend and we were able to quickly and safely navigate our way across.
Plus, the views from Trail Ridge Road are always beautiful!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Many Parks Curve is located about 4 miles (6.4 km) up Trail Ridge Road (US Highway 34) from the east side of the park
- Fees and passes: there is a $25/car daily or $35/car weekly entrance fee to RMNP; interagency annual passes accepted
- Hiking: from Many Parks Curve to the top of Trail Ridge Road is 15 miles (24 km) and 2500 feet (760 m) of elevation gain, so you have the option to make this hike as long or as short as you want
- Other: the higher you go, the windier and less sheltered the road becomes, so this wouldn’t be a good destination on a windy day!