I’m so excited to share my Trail Ridge Road experience with you today! First of all if you have no idea what Trail Ridge Road is, it’s the highest paved road in any United States National Park. Peaking at 12,183 feet, Trail Ridge Road offers breathtaking views, but it can be very intimidating for those who have a fear of heights, like me. I’ve wanted to do this drive with my husband for quite some time now but I had so many questions and concerns. I’ve heard many say it’s a terrifying drive due to the elevation and lack of shoulders and guard rails, and I’ve also heard it’s not that bad. I wasn’t sure what to believe, being afraid of heights I Googled away yet none of my fears were ever clearly answered. We decided to go for it, with the realization we could stop and turn around at any time. So if you’re confused what to expect driving Trail Ridge Road I’m here to break it down for you with this guide.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
It’s important to call the Trail Ridge Road Status Line at 970-586-1222 to check the road conditions and possible closures before heading up. The weather can rapidly change in Rocky Mountain National Park and closures can happen suddenly, even in the summer. Trail Ridge Road is an ideal summertime drive. We did ours in early July, but many parts of the road are closed from mid October to the end of May and sometimes into June.
Admission is $25 per car per day and annual passes are available for $70. You’ll be given a park map with admission. We actually splurged for the $80 “American The Beautiful” pass which gives us free admission to any national park.
Make sure you bring a jacket, and plenty of water. Altitude sickness symptoms such as dizziness, headache, and nausea can hit quickly at such a high altitude, and staying hydrated is absolutely crucial. Here is a post I wrote a short while ago with tips to beat altitude sickness. Bring extra water and possibly a few snacks as well.
Rocky Mountain National Park is extremely popular in the summer so plan for crowds. Traffic can back up at times, it’s best to start early in the day and avoid weekends if possible.
Trail Ridge Road does not make a loop. At some point you’ll need to turn around and head back the way you came or you can continue through to Idado Springs and Denver. I’ll explain a little bit more the places you might want to turn around below.
IS THE DRIVE REALLY THAT SCARY?
In my opinion it’s not as scary as I was led to believe. Don’t get me wrong there are some parts of the drive that made me uneasy, but for the most part I was ok. If you have a fear of heights have someone else drive and sit on the passenger side of the car. Most of the scary parts were on the passenger side of the car. As crazy as it sounds it helped me a lot to sit on the scary side because I could look down and see the guard rail or the edge of the road and know we were fine. Sitting on the drivers side I wouldn’t have had that perspective.
I was led to believe there were no guard rails or shoulders. There are actually many rock guard rails and thick trees which give the sense of security. There are plenty of small areas to pull over and parking lots to stop at. It is true there are some steep mountain roads without guardrails but it’s not in many areas.
We entered the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park, our first stop is Sheep Lakes Overlook. Here you’ll see beautiful views of the glacier-formed lakes and have fun watching the prairie dogs and other wildlife.
Next up we we stop at Horseshoe Park Overlook with lovely views of the valley and creek. Parking is very easy at the lower level parking lots.
We continue up with windy road and stop at Beaver Ponds. The pull off area is quite small and easy to miss without a sign, so be watching for it. You’ll walk a short boardwalk over wetlands ending at a view of the clear creek, it’s definitely worth a stop.
HIDDEN VALLEY PICNIC AREA AND NATURE TRAIL
Hidden Valley is a great place to stop with plenty of parking. Here you’ll find lots of picnic tables, clean restrooms, and hiking trails along the creek. Little ones will love the junior ranger headquarters with ranger led programs at 10:00 am, 11:30 am, 1:00 pm, and 2:30 pm. From this stop the road starts to climb quite a bit in altitude.
MANY PARKS CURVE
After a steep sharp curve you’ll arrive at Many Parks Overlook. The parking lot is opposite the overlook and just past the curve, it can cause traffic delays and backups, because of this we continued a little farther up the road to stop. The road starts to get steep but it’s still very tolerable at this point, there are rock guardrails and dense trees. We found a small pull off area that’s not crowded and took advantage of the views. The snow melting creates pretty waterfalls along the road.
Leading up to Rainbow Curve Overlook the road starts getting steeper, and I had my first I’m not so sure about this moment… but keep going it’s worth it! There are rock guardrails along the way. This is a popular stop with a large parking lot and restrooms, it also gets very crowded. Continuing up the road we cross the tree line. If you have a severe fear of heights you may want to consider turning around at this point, but I strongly suggest you keep going to Forest Canyon, it’s magical.
Driving up to Forest Canyon the roads get pretty steep and scary, not consistently but just in certain spots. You’ll still find rock guardrails in some places but not all, a few spots made me uneasy but traffic moves slow and that helps quite a bit. Remember my trick to look at the edge of the road if you can for security, it helps. The parking lot gets very crowded here, we had a short wait but it was worth it, you must stop here! There is a short walk to an overlook that offers dramatic mountain views, it’s hard to capture the true beauty with a camera. If you’ve made it this far don’t stop to go back now continue on to at least Lava Cliffs, it’s not far down the road.
When you hear the lack of guard rails and shoulders on Trail Ridge Road it sounds terrifying but as you can see below that’s not always the case. In my opinion less than 10% of the road is truly scary, a majority of the road just slopes, it’s not a sharp drop off.
The amazing snowy mountain views just keep coming with Rock Cut Overlook, you might spot the elk herd grazing on the grass nearby. Next up is Lava Cliffs which is a real treat.
The mountains take on a dramatic new look as we approach Lava Cliffs. It was really windy and chilly up here but a gorgeous spot to stop.
Gorge Range is the highest point of the road at 12,183 feet and naturally offers dramatic snow covered mountain views. Up ahead is the Alpine Visitor Center which makes a great stopping point if you’re ready to head back.
ALPINE VISITOR CENTER AND TRAIL RIDGE STORE AND CAFE
The Alpine Visitor Center makes a great stopping point and a great spot to stretch your legs. Traffic was very slow turing into the parking lot, but once inside there was plenty of parking. You’ll find restrooms, a large gift shop, and cafe. It’s not a luxury restaurant by any means, but a good spot to grab some cocoa and a muffin. If you’re feeling energetic you can take a long walk uphill to the Alpine Ridge Trail but Ashley was getting a little dizzy and we decided to skip it. If you’re really feeling light headed they sell oxygen in a can for around $10, it can help you catch your breath a little quicker. Behind the visitor center you’ll find more gorgeous mountain views.
This is a great spot to turn around and go back, or you can keep exploring like we did.
After crossing Medicine Bow Curve we start descending down the mountains and it’s smooth sailing from here when it comes to scary roads. The roads are thickly lined with pine trees and we arrive to Poudre Lake, there are some spots to park off the road. It’s pretty quiet here and the crowds significantly dropped off. We walked around, spotting flowers while listening the the gentle sounds of the stream. As we headed towards Farview Curve we crossed the Continental Divide at Milner Pass.
The last iconic mountain view stop along Trail Ridge Road is Farview Curve. From here you’ll need to decide if you want to turn around and go back the way you came or continue to Grand Lake. We decided to venture on and keep exploring.
In between Farview Curve and Grand Lake you’ll find lots of trails and campsites along small lakes and streams. You’ll start seeing a lot more damaged dead trees from the the devastating pine beetle. Seeing the damage is sad yet there is also a rustic natural beauty that’s very appealing.
GRAND LAKE LODGE
Shortly down the road we saw a sign for the historic Grand Lake Lodge and thought why not? What a jewel we found! This beautiful lodge is nestled along Grand Lake, also known as Spirit Lake. The grounds are gorgeous, and the inside has a beautiful bar and restaurant. We sat on the porch swings and sipped a glass of Chardonnay as we stared off to the blue water.
We officially called the end of Trail Ridge Road for us here, although you can stop at any point that works best for you. You can turn around and go back the way you came or make a big loop through Idaho Springs and Denver, just be aware it will take much longer this way. From the Lodge it’s about 90 minutes back to Estes Park without stopping. If you continue through Idaho Springs its 2 1/2 hours back. Those coming from the west side will take this trip in reverse ending up near Estes Park.
We ended up spending about 4-5 hours total on Trail Ridge Road, that includes stopping for all the views, photos, a quick picnic lunch, and our drinks at Grand Lake. It was an absolutely incredible day trip and we enjoyed every single second of it. Yes traffic was slow in spots, there were a few crowds, and scary road spots, but we’re ready to do it again. This is one incredible drive that should be on everyone’s bucket list!