Wonders abound inside Rocky Mountain National Park-many of which can be enjoyed without donning a backpack and hiking deep into the interior. Just hop in the car and hit the road! Several scenic drives originate on the park's east side near Estes Park.
One of Colorado's most famous routes, Trail Ridge Road also holds the distinction of being the highest continuous paved highway in North America, reaching more than 12,000 feet in altitude. It travels through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake, passing breathtaking scenery that makes drivers want to pull over at every opportunity to take pictures.
Each stop offers a unique view, such as at Rainbow Curve where you can see the Alluvial Fan and Horseshoe Park, and at Forest Canyon, where the force of glaciers carved the terrain. For 11 miles, the road rises above treeline into the alpine tundra. Here, dwarfed plants and wildflowers blanket the landscape, colorful in summer and fall. In other seasons, snow and ice cover the area at these high elevations, which is why Trail Ridge Road is usually open from Memorial Day until mid-October, weather permitting.
Before Trail Ridge Road, drivers accessed the national park via Old Fall River Road, which today leads to the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet. It was opened in 1920 and is a one-way dirt road, punctuated by switchbacks forcing a slow pace on the 11-mile climb. Just past the Fall River Entrance, it winds around Horseshoe Park and so closely to trees of the montane and subalpine forests, you could reach out and touch them through the car window. Elk often graze through the area, particularly at Willow Park, where just beyond, the habitat becomes alpine tundra. Eventually Old Fall River Road intersects Trail Ridge Road, where drivers choose to descend back to Estes Park or cross the Continental Divide toward Grand Lake. Old Fall River Road is set to open mid-summer 2015 and remain open (weather depending) through mid-October.
Inside the national park from the Beaver Meadows Entrance, Bear Lake Road runs 23 miles round trip to Bear Lake and open year-round. It passes several picnic areas, campgrounds and the must-stop Moraine Park Discovery Center. In the Moraine Park area, look for foraging elk and other wildlife. The road continues past Sprague Lake, gaining a few hundred feet in elevation, before evening out as it parallels Glacier Greek. It twists and turns up a series of switchbacks to Bear Lake, where an inviting paved trail encircles the sparkling lake at the base of Hallett Peak. Also, several hiking trails radiate from Bear Lake-ranging in difficulty from beginner to challenging.
Information on additional scenic drives in the Estes Park area can be found in the Things To Do section.