While it can snow any day of the year, the surest sign that winter is in our rearview is the opening of Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge is one of America’s greatest ribbons of pavement and one of our finest scenic drives. It was completed in 1933 and twists 48 miles through Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake, and it spends 11 miles above treeline, coursing in glorious arcs across the tundra. It crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass and reaches a highpoint of 12,183 feet near the Alpine Visitor Center, earning it the title of highest paved road in the country. There are short hikes and various trailheads along the way and the chance to see elk, marmot, bighorn sheep, and ptarmigans too. It’s one of the gems of the national park system. Ready to check it out?
How to Enjoy Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge is a road (duh), but sometimes it’s a trail. Let us explain.
- As a Road From April 1st through late fall (usually October or November, depending on snowfall), Trail Ridge is officially a road. Visitors can ride a bike, walk a leashed dog, or drive a motor vehicle. Here are some nuances… Cycling: There’s a lovely time (a narrow and unpredictable window) when you can ride your bike or walk your leashed dog on the road with no motor vehicle traffic. This happens sometime between April 1, when Trail Ridge is designated for road use and when plowing is completed, usually around Memorial Day. Plow operators post signs indicating the point on the road where pedestrian and bicycle travel is not allowed. This is done for safety purposes and smooth plowing ops. Depending on the day and conditions, the amount of road you can access could be minimal. One day it might be 3 miles, three days later it might be 1 mile depending on their operations. I’ve never nailed that window just right, but I’ve ridden from Estes to the Alpine Visitor Center and back on a mid-summer day, and I’m glad to have done it, though the traffic was nerve-wracking at times. Walking: Once the road is open to vehicles (historically this happens on or around Memorial Day weekend), walking along the road is not a good idea. You can walk a pet in paved parking lots, but not much else (definitely not on trails). Driving: This part is pretty straight forward. You’ll feel like you’re staring in the best car commercial ever made. See more guidelines below.
- As a Trail When the road closes, it becomes a trail. You cannot ride bikes or walk leashed pets on trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. Period. Don’t do it. When Trail Ridge is designated as a trail, you can hike, ski, splitboard, or snowshoe, though. Which is awesome. This is from when the road closes and plowing discontinues at some point in the fall until April 1. If you're looking for something different, check out our 9 best winter hikes.
Either way, start early Mountaineers start climbing obscenely early to summit and return to lower ground before daily storm cycles start up. They call it the Alpine Start. We strongly recommend the same tactic to anyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Yes, it can storm any day of the year, but the bigger motivator for an alpine start in the summer season is to beat the crowds. Trail Ridge, like any beautiful thing, attracts a lot of eyeballs. Start your drive by 7am to help ensure smoother travels and open parking spaces.
And pack right “Spring” is a relative term in Estes–and, frankly, so is “Summer.” It’s generally 20-30 degrees cooler at the highest reaches of Trail Ridge than in Estes Park, and it can (and does) snow any day of the year. Follow our guide to packing here.
And… keep moving There are no shoulders, so if you stop to try to get a photo of an elk, you are stopping the flow of traffic and hindering others’ Park experience. Park only in designated lots and pullouts.
Check current Trail Ridge Road status from national park service here.
Lastly, don't forget to tag @VisitEstesPark when you're posting your best Trail Ridge Road photos for all to see. Who knows, you might even get featured!