Scenic Colorado roadway takes visitors to high-elevation wonders
Trail Ridge Road might well be the most hazardous highway in America.
Here above the tree line in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, my head is on a swivel as I take in the sublime views: a profusion of saw-toothed peaks, thick forests of spruce and fir, crystalline lakes, colorful wildflower gardens, windswept alpine tundra and massive glaciers, not to mention wildlife in abundance.
Problem is, Trail Ridge Road features no guardrails and scarcely even a shoulder at this high elevation. The passenger-side tires rotate perilously close to the edge and a possible plunge into the valley far below.
How to keep one’s eyes on the pavement when so much else begs for my attention?
“Fortunately, people tend to drive cautiously on Trail Ridge Road,” said Rocky Mountain National Park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson. “A lot of our visitors just take it very slow and easy. We do note that sometimes people hug the centerline. You certainly don’t see many drifting over the fog line.”
So why tempt fate on this serpentine route where even a momentary lapse can spell disaster? Because it’s arguably the most spectacular stretch of highway in the country.
Trail Ridge Road skims the roof of the Rockies, cresting at 12,183 feet near Lava Cliffs, a formation composed of volcanic rock. Breathtaking scenery abounds along its 48-mile route from Estes Park on the eastern side, across the Continental Divide, to Grand Lake on the west. Albert Bierstadt, a notable 19th century landscape artist, described the area it traverses as “America’s finest composition for the painter.”
Some sections of Trail Ridge Road offer jaw-dropping 360-degree panoramas. Dozens of mountains in excess of 12,000 feet, topped by 14,259-foot Longs Peak, surround visitors as they drive along the highest continuously paved road in the United States. Horace Albright, then director of the National Park Service, knew even before it opened in 1932 that those who traveled Trail Ridge Road would be awed by the views.
“It is hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make,” Albright said during construction. “You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions.”
Rocky Mountain National Park was dedicated in September of 1915 — a yearlong centennial commemoration will commence Wednesday — but it’s Trail Ridge Road that truly unveiled the wonders of this lofty wilderness to the public.
The great gift of Trail Ridge Road is that it provides easy access to a world few would otherwise experience. From the comfort of their vehicles, visitors enter a realm whose plants, animals and stark terrain resemble what’s found near the Arctic Circle.
“It’s this incredible road because it gets you to the alpine tundra,” Patterson said. “Most places in the world, to get to that kind of ecosystem would be a whole different ballgame. Here the road literally takes you right to the tundra, with many opportunities either to see it from the road or to get out at a number of overlooks and experience it really up close and personal.”
Alpine tundra encompasses fully one-third of the park’s 415 square miles. At these high elevations (above 11,500 feet), glaciers cling to mountainsides and snowfields are plentiful. My wife, Linda, snapped photos as I explored a small snowfield near the road and made a hard-packed snowball, hardly something I expected to be doing in late July.
Nearly 200 species of alpine plants bloom here, squat in stature given the ferocious winds and a growing season that doesn’t extend much beyond 40 days. But when they bloom, the fields explode with color. Some of the prime viewing spots are located along the Tundra Communities Trail, a half-hour walk from the parking area at Rock Cut, not far from the road’s highest point.
“You can go out there along the trail and experience it on your own, or you can take a ranger-led program and really learn about the tundra and the hardy species that survive up there,” Patterson said. “It’s pretty fascinating. We encourage our visitors to go on a ranger-led walk — you really understand then how fragile that ecosystem is. The rangers will have you get down on your belly so that you can feel the temperature difference, just from standing versus getting low on the ground, which demonstrates why all those plants just hug the earth. It’s survival for them.”
At slightly lower elevations, harsh weather produces stunted, gnarled trees that grow more horizontally than vertically. In the Rainbow Curve (10,829 feet) area of the road, spruce and fir battered by fierce, freezing winds exhibit skimpy branches that grow only on the downwind side of the trunk, hence their descriptive nickname: flag trees.
Travel down Trail Ridge Road, especially at dawn or dusk, and you’ll quickly understand why Rocky Mountain is invariably listed among the best national parks for viewing wildlife.
“Those of us that live in this area oftentimes get spoiled because you’ll be driving along the road and you’ll see mule deer,” Patterson said. “And then maybe two miles down the road you’ll see elk, and then you drive some more and you may see moose and bighorn sheep, and coyotes and badgers and foxes. It’s quite amazing, the diversity of wildlife. And you’re pretty fortunate that you have these viewing opportunities so frequently.”
The park is also home to cougars, bobcats, black bears, snowshoe hares, martens, beaver, yellow-bellied marmots, hawks, eagles and ptarmigans. Visitors seem most captivated by the larger inhabitants: Traffic regularly slows to a crawl when herds of elk or bighorn sheep gather near the road to graze.
But Jared Gricoskie, owner of Yellow Wood Guiding, an Estes Park tour company that operates in the park, favors the smaller residents. He’s especially enamored of the adorable American pikas — furry, chubby, mouselike creatures that weigh less than a pound and scurry about among the rocky crevices of the tundra.
“They’re little balls of energy that run like a rocket through the rocks with big piles of grass in their mouth for their winter haystacks,” Gricoskie said. “What’s most endearing is they bark. They’re incredibly cute.”
Three million visitors come to Rocky Mountain National Park every year, so Trail Ridge Road sometimes resembles a highway at rush hour. Those who wish to get off the beaten path, quite literally, can head to Bear Lake, located about eight miles south of Trail Ridge Road, on the eastern side of the park.
The lake, at an elevation of 9,475 feet, is fringed by thick stands of aspen, fir, lodgepole pine and spruce, one of which has survived a number of forest fires and is estimated to be more than 450 years old. The mountains rise abruptly from the lakeshore, with 12,713-foot Hallett Peak looming almost overhead, its image reflected in the lake’s glassy surface.
“There’s just beautiful scenery all along a trail that circles the lake,” Patterson said. “It’s a very photographed spot.”
Bear Lake is a veritable hub of trails — some lead to other lakes, some to glaciers, some to waterfalls. The most popular is a nearly mile-long path to Alberta Falls, a picturesque, 30-foot cascade that crashes into a small gorge.
The busiest trail on the western side of the Continental Divide offers views of the aptly named, snow-capped Never Summer Mountains to the west and leads to the Kawuneeche Valley and the headwaters of the Colorado River. The mighty waterway that millions of years ago carved the Grand Canyon 500 miles to the southwest is little more than a rivulet here.
The grandeur of the Rockies spreads out before those of us congregated at the Many Parks Curve overlook (9,620 feet), about 10 miles from Estes Park. Cameras click away, but no photo can truly capture the magnificence of the view we’re sharing: ridge-enclosed meadows, known as parks (or cirques), so far below it’s as if we’re flying above them; forests of ponderosa pine and, at a higher elevation, Douglas fir; and the jagged peaks of the Rockies beyond. One can imagine Katharine Lee Bates standing here and finding the inspiration to write “America the Beautiful.”
I’m entranced by these purple mountain majesties that, judging by the license plates we’ve spotted, draw visitors from all over the United States and Canada. The sweeping panorama stops everyone in their tracks.
Even those who work in the park, who look upon these mountains every day, can relate.
“I’ve worked here 13 years and you just never get tired of it,” Patterson said. “Just yesterday, I was driving west to east on Trail Ridge Road, kind of early evening, and the way the light was hitting the mountains, it was just so beautiful. You go, is this real? Is this a painting? But it’s real. And as you drive on Trail Ridge Road and look around, you realize just what an unbelievable place this is.”