Ouray, Colorado, known as the Switzerland of America, is such a beautiful and unique place to visit. We always like to take a winter vacation after Christmas and I discovered this little gem last minute while searching for hot springs. Pronounced “you-ray”, this winter paradise is surrounded by 13,000-foot snowy peaks from the San Juan mountain range, and has lots of relaxation and adventure to offer.
The town of Ouray seemed especially quiet after Christmas, which we loved. Having no traffic lights just made this snowy town all the more charming, and as long as you’re bundled up nice and warm a large majority of the town is walkable. There is so much to see and do, and I’m really excited to share all our hot and cold adventures with you! Ouray instantly has become one of my favorite Colorado towns.
In 2021, we’re still dealing with Covid, so of course not everything was open and that was fine with us. Just keep in mind if you’re reading this post-Covid there should be even more things available.
THINGS TO DO
SHOP ON MAIN STREET
I really enjoyed Khristopher’s Culinaire and the Ouray Bookshop was another favorite. There are lots of quirky stores and souvenir, clothing, and gear shops to choose from. There is also a small grocery store if you need to pick up a few items.
SOAK IN THE HOT SPRINGS
I’m definitely addicted to hot springs! Soaking in a 104-degree mineral pool is just heavenly. There are many hot springs to enjoy in the area including the Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa, where we stayed. They have a main hot spring pool and a private hot spring that is available by reservation. They also have a vapor cave which sounds amazing (but it’s closed currently due to Covid) and a spa below. Orvis Hot Springs is just a short drive to Ridgeway and gorgeous. There’s also the Ouray Hot Springs, which is perfect for the entire family with several pools to choose from and waterslides. The Twin Peaks Lodge also has a hot spring on site.
GO ICE CLIMBING
Ice climbing was another thing that excited me about visiting Ouray, they’re known for some of the best ice climbing terrain around. Seasoned ice climbers can climb for free at the Ouray Ice Park. If you’re a beginner like me have no fear. You can take a lesson from the San Juan Mountain Guides and have fun climbing the beginner route. It’s really fun to watch others climb too.
Ice climbing was actually easier than I thought it would be, that is once you get the moves down. It’s fun, but also a bit exhausting… and cold. The day we climbed was one of the coldest days, and it was heavily snowing. Having said that, Brian and I both loved it and can’t wait to do it again.
HIKE TO THE FALLS
I just love waterfalls, even if they’re frozen. Cascade Falls is an easy walk from the parking lot, even in the snow. Those who have hiking poles can walk up a little farther like we did. There is a surrounding trail nearby too. Box Canyon Falls is located near the Ouray Ice Park and quite impressive from what I hear but sadly it was closed the day we tried to visit. That’s okay, it’s just another excuse to visit again, right?
ADMIRE THE GORGEOUS ARCHITECTURE
There are lots of beautiful and unique historic homes and buildings all throughout Ouray. I just couldn’t get enough, I took photos of so many places! Driving and walking around the town looking at all the gorgeous architecture was really fun.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Telluride is a little over an hour away and makes a great day trip to ski, dine, or shop. Be sure to take the free gondola to Mountain Village it was the best gondola rides we’ve done.
The Wright Opera House is currently closed due to Covid but they plan to re-open when it’s safe. There are a few interesting museums in the area, and plenty of spas available too, which we didn’t have time to enjoy.
WHERE TO EAT
We had so many delicious meals, here are our favorite places where we ate.
Bon Ton Restaurant – Delicious Italian food with a neat underground location. Try the scallop pot pie appetizer!
Brickhouse 737 – Okay, we didn’t get to eat here but locals say it’s one of the best restaurants so I had to include it. Next time we visit (can’t wait) we’ll be sure to eat here.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at The Wiesbaden to take advantage of their private hot spring pool. The rooms were charming and sweet and the water felt amazing. Currently there is no breakfast or coffee due to Covid. The Artisan Bakery and Cafe was a short walk from our hotel, there is also another nearby coffee shop as well.
I can’t really speak for other lodging in the area since we only stayed at the Wiesbaden, but the Beaumont Hotel and Spa looked wonderful, as well as the St. Elmo Hotel. The Twin Peaks Lodge also has their own hot spring on site so that’s a bonus. When it’s possible we love to book through Hotels.com because you find the best price and you earn points for free nights.
Have I convinced you to visit Ouray? It’s such a unique charming town to visit in the winter and we can’t wait to visit again!
Winter is one of my favorite times to travel and explore Colorado. I love the crisp, cold air and the beautiful snowy mountains and trees, it’s a frozen winter paradise! After 2020 ended I was determined 2021 would be an amazing year full of fun and adventure. I know we’re still dealing with Covid and everyone needs to be careful so a road trip to explore the Rifle Mountain Park was perfect for us, and I was able to check off another Colorado bucket list item, exploring ice caves!
The ice caves are formed after several cycles of freezing and thawing and typically take their shape from December to February. Each ice cave is uniquely beautiful with hues of aqua throughout the ice. It’s a true winter gem.
Rifle Mountain Park is located just north of the town of Rifle, about an hour from Glenwood Springs (another favorite place of ours). Some people opt to park by the entrance sign and walk in, while others prefer to drive closer to the caves. The park road follows the East Rifle Creek through the canyon, and on the other side of the creek is Koper’s Trail. There are small parking areas along the way, with bridges to cross the creek to allow cave access. You can also park at the Koper’s Trail trailhead and hike along the creek to all the caves.
Admission to the park is $5 per vehicle. You pay at a kiosk just past the entrance sign.
The drive into the park is nothing short of stunning. The road parallels the trail and creek so if snow or terrain is ever too difficult you can cross over a bridge and walk on the road. In the summer rock climbing is popular in Rifle Mountain Park, and in the winter you may spot some ice climbers as well.
The trail is a mixture of snow, ice, and dirt. Inside the caves the ground is solid uneven ice. It’s crucial to wear microspikes – or even better crampons – to avoid falling. Poles are helpful when navigating around rocks and terrain on the trail, but poles alone will not help you in the cave. If you don’t have a solid traction device on your feet please don’t enter the cave. Also it’s winter in Colorado so remember to wear a warm synthetic or wool base layer, possibly a mid layer (I usually don’t need one if I’m active), waterproof pants, a jacket, gloves, hat, and waterproof snow boots. Don’t forget to pack some water and snacks too!
The first cave is a a short hike from the beginning of the Koper’s Trail. Upon entering I was in awe of this beautiful icy fantasy land, it’s like walking behind a blue frozen waterfall. Inside, the ground was a frozen thick sheet of ice with icicles hanging from the ceiling. You could hear and see water trickling beneath the ice in some areas but the icy ground was solid.
The caves are large enough to walk around in, and although they can be dim in certain areas you do not need a flashlight to see inside.
Someone on Instagram mentioned how cute it was that I matched the ice caves. Haha… it was unplanned I promise!
The second cave is a little farther down the trail, with a little elevation but nothing extreme. Poles can be helpful here, remember you can always exit and walk along the road where it’s easier.
The second cave is a bit larger, with a narrow opening on one side and a larger one on the other end.
Below is one of the bridges connecting the road/parking lot to the Koper’s Trail that leads to the caves. The creek is warmed by the groundwater with beautiful green aquatic plants growing inside it, even in January.
We had heard that there are more ice caves farther up the trail, but by the time we exited the second cave it had started snowing really hard so we decided to head back. Based on our research, though, we heard that the first two caves were the best.
I think everyone should explore this beautiful frozen trail, and especially the ice caves. After exploring the caves we went back to Glenwood Springs for a nice quiet hot spring soak which was fantastic, and then the next day we ventured a little farther to Ouray, Colorado, where we had more frozen fun. I’ll be sharing our Ouray trip on the blog soon. Happy winter!
Since moving near Rocky Mountain National Park we’ve developed a huge love for hiking, and our favorite time of year is winter. Once upon a time I used to find winter hiking very intimidating, it does take more planning, but winter hiking is a true gem. The crowds thin out, the cold crisp air is invigorating, and the views are just incredible, it’s like hiking in a snow globe!
There are lots of amazing trails for all fitness levels throughout Rocky Mountain National Park but today I’m going to share with you my five favorite easy winter trails on the east side of the park. I’m also listing some of our favorite AFFORDABLE winter essentials for hiking.
Micro-spikes – These are our favorite, so lightweight and easy to put on. They are essential for traction in ice and packed snow!
Sunglasses – Ski googles are a lifesaver on extremely windy days!
Sunscreen – Winter sun is intense!
Water in an insulated container – Regular water bottles can freeze during winter hiking.
Winter weather in Rocky Mountain National Park can be quite unpredictable. You may not need all of the items above, but it’s a good idea to have them handy just in case.
Distance 0.9 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 10 feet
Directions: Enter Rocky Mountain National Park on highway 36, turn left on Bear Lake Road, go about 6 miles and turn left at the sign for Sprague Lake.
Sprague Lake is the perfect easy winter warm up hike for all ages, there is very little elevation gain so it’s wheelchair and stroller friendly too. Here you’ll see dreamy views of the continental divide, cross bridges, read historical information about the lake, and see children playing on the frozen snow covered lake. You’ll probably see trout in the babbling stream too.
Distance 0.8 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 45 feet
Directions: From highway 36 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left on Bear Lake Road, go all the way to the end which is a little over 9 miles.
Parking at Bear Lake is the summer is a nightmare, you may wait a little bit in the winter for parking depending on the time of day, but overall it’s much easier. This popular lake trail always has a crowd but don’t let that keep you away. The views all around the lake are stunning!
Walking around Bear Lake is like a true winter wonderland, you’ll see stunning mountain views, gorgeous snow covered pine trees, icicles, and a snowy view of Hallet Peak. This trail is perfect for all ages.
Distance 2.2 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 450 feet
Directions: The trailhead is at Bear Lake. From highway 36 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left on Bear Lake Road, go all the way to the end which is a little over 9 miles.
Starting at Bear Lake, the hike up to Dream Lake is incredibly stunning in every direction. Staying on the trail can be tricky at times, especially after fresh snow because people go off the trail a lot. Pay attention to signs, and it’s a good idea to bring GPS if you’re unfamiliar with this trail. You’ll start gaining some altitude with this trail but it’s an easy trail as long as the weather cooperates. Dream Lake can have very bitter cold winds in the winter so dress very warmly, also be prepared for deep snow in spots.
The close views of Hallet Peak are absolutely incredible and make any extreme weather worth it.
Distance: 4.6 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 640 feet
Directions: From highway 34 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn right at the Old Fall River Road sign and park in the West Alluvial Fan Trailhead parking lot, and continue hiking west along the road past the winter gate.
In the summer Old Fall River Road is a one way road that takes you up to the Alpine Visitor Center. In the winter the road closes to all vehicles and it becomes a great hiking trail. The trail starts out flat, walking through groves of sleeping aspen trees and beautiful snowy mountain views in the distance. As you near the waterfall you’ll get the heart pumping with a few switchbacks but it’s nothing that in-shape older people or enthusiastic kids can’t handle. You’ll see a sign for Chasm Falls to the left and follow steps down to the waterfall.
Partially frozen, the waterfall is beautiful! You can hear and see the water dropping 25 feet under a veil of ice into the icy pools below. There is railing everywhere so it’s safe and a beautiful photo taking spot! We usually see only a few other hikers on this trail, which is a nice bonus.
Distance 4.4 miles round trip
Elevation gain: 630 feet
Directions: From highway 36 enter Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left on Bear Lake Road. Go about 7 miles to the Bierstadt Lake sign and parking lot on the right.
Bierstadt Lake is a favorite trail of ours any time of year, but the winter season has a completely different feel from the summer. Bierstadt Lake has low crowds in the winter making it a quiet peaceful trail. You’ll begin this trail walking through pine trees, then transition into switchbacks with sweeping views of Long’s Peak and the Continental Divide. The trail is narrow and often ice packed so traction devices are extremely helpful.
Once you reach the top you’ll be greeted by a quiet forest of pine trees surrounding the lake. You can turn around and go back at this point or continue the loop around the lake following the orange tags on the trees to stay on trail. There are clearings along the trees to allow access to the lake. On a clear day you’ll be able to see sweeping views of the mountains behind the lake. I love walking around the lake being surrounded by snowy pine trees. Snow can be quite deep in some areas around the lake, it’s a great spot for snowshoeing too. We see older kids do this trail all the time, it depends on their comfort level.
If you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park during the wintertime I hope I’ve convinced you to go on a winter hike. It’s truly a magical time of year. Bring sure to bring an insulated pot of hot cocoa to enjoy after your hike!
We recently returned from a long weekend in Steamboat Springs for my daughter Ashley’s birthday. My littlest is now 16, how is that even possible? Sniff sniff. She had such a blast… we all did, and I’m so excited to share it with you! Steamboat Springs has lots of great skiing, but what if you visit in the winter and you don’t want to ski? Don’t worry I’m here to give you tips on what to see and do in this snowy paradise!
STEAMBOAT SNOWMOBILE TOURS
Some of the best snowmobile terrain around is found in Steamboat Springs! I recommend Steamboat Snowmobile Tours for sure! Our guide made sure we felt fully comfortable safety-wise before we started our tour. We felt safe, had a blast, and saw some of the most gorgeous views we’ve ever seen! Be sure to bundle up with waterproof pants, a coat, gloves, and snow boots. Goggles are highly recommended too! Helmets are required and provided. Get more information and make reservations at www.steamboatsnowmobile.com.
PLAY IN THE SNOW
Enjoy some of the fluffiest most gorgeous snow around, perfect for snow angels, snowball fights…. or maybe you just want to give the snow a hug? Bundle up and jump in, it’s good clean fun!
STRAWBERRY PARK HOT SPRINGS
I am quickly turning into a hot springs addict! Seriously you just can’t beat relaxing in the winter Colorado beauty while soaking in toasty warm water. The outdoor beauty is unreal here, it’s nature therapy! There are several hot pools to choose from, and if you’re feeling brave there’s also a cold pool to plunge into. As lovely as Strawberry Park Hot Springs was I feel I the need warn you about a few things.
First of all, the road to the hot springs is bad, and I mean bad! It’s not paved and full of stomach turning potholes, an off road vehicle is ideal. There is a shuttle I believe that can pick people up from the town as well. Also be warned it’s CASH ONLY, no credit or debit cards are accepted. The changing room is tiny, gender-neutral, and not very private – definitely have your swimsuit on under your clothes, the restrooms are also located ridiculously far from the hot springs and no showers are available. Last, be warned it gets crowded very quickly – like 45 minutes after they open quickly! If you can accept these issues than definitely go and enjoy the mineral benefits soaking in this beautiful spot!
Admission ranges from $15-20 depending on the time of year. Be sure to bring your own towels, sandals, and a bathrobe.
TAKE A SLEIGH RIDE TO DINNER
Sleigh rides aren’t just for the Christmas season. The Steamboat Ski resort offers a sleigh ride dinner at their Scandinavian restaurant called Ragnars. After riding up the gondola you’ll be given hot cocoa and blankets to snuggle up in before entering the sleigh. It’s a 10 minute ride the top, you’ll breath in crisp mountain air, possibly catch the sun set, and see a sky full of stars on the way down after dinner. It’s simply beautiful, and cold so dress warm. Ragnars is not accessible by road, and it’s definitely a fun experience. If you want to avoid snow blowing in your face it’s best to sit with your back to the snowcat. Reservations are required, visit www.steamboat.com for more information.
RIDE THE GONDOLA
I don’t know about you but I can never turn down a gondola ride, especially one that’s in a gorgeous winter wonderland. This relaxing ride is a good 10 minutes with views aplenty. There is a restaurant, lounge, and small ski shop at the top, so you can stretch your legs and grab a bite if you like. It’s definitely a fun experience.
SOAK UP THE VIEWS
Whether snow or shine, Steamboat Springs has breathtaking wintery views nearly every place you go! Sometimes you just need to relax and soak up all the gorgeous views! Be sure to take in every moment from downtown to the mountain range!
RIDE THE MOUNTAIN COASTER
The Outlaw Mountain Coaster is open year round, but nothing beats riding the coaster in the snow! Each coaster has it’s own brakes so you control your own speed, whether it’s a slow relaxed ride or a heart pounding fast one you’ll be sure to love it! The coaster operates every day from 11-6 pm and costs $20 per person. Be warned, you’ll want to go more than once!
SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP
Steamboat Springs has an abundance of unique shopping and restaurants quietly located away from the ski areas. If you’re not feeling the shopping vibe it’s still fun to just stroll down the street and take in the views and atmosphere.
EAT, DRINK, & BE MERRY
There are so many amazing restaurants to pick from in Steamboat Springs you won’t ever go hungry! Below we’ve listed our favorites.
Truffle Pig offers delicious food and great ski views! They have a happy hour with awesome outdoor seating, but be prepared for the ski crowds! Dinner reservations are available on OpenTable.
Table 79 is located downtown and was probably the best restaurant we ate at, it’s my #1 restaurant pick. The atmosphere is modern yet lively and fun with a long list of creative food to choose from. Reservations are available on OpenTable.
The Cabin is a great place for a quick lunch near the ski area, the faux Aspen trees in the dining area added a cute charm too. Reservations are available on OpenTable.
Salt and Lime has some of the best tacos I’ve tasted. We’re always on the lookout for great tacos! Be sure and try the queso too, it’s some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Be warned it does get crowded so be prepared to wait during peak times.
Haizies is located at the top of the gondola. It probably won’t be the best food you’ve ever eaten but it is pretty great considering you’re eating on top of a mountain. You’ll find beautiful views while dining and a nice menu of foods to choose from. Word of advice… avoid ordering anything with lobster and you’ll probably be happy. Reservations are available on OpenTable but you can probably wing it and be ok.
So if you’re not a skier, or maybe you’re like me and just haven’t learned to ski yet (that will be happening next year) still be sure to visit Steamboat Springs in the winter season. There is a ton of stuff to see and do!
Should you need any winter apparel for snow activities (like snowmobiling) you can rent clothing at Christy’s Sports in Steamboat Springs. There are plenty of hotels to pick from based on your needs, I recommend www.Hotels.com. I can’t wait to visit (and hopefully ski) this gorgeous spot again!
After some much needed rest and relaxation I’m back, and I’m so excited to show you all about the amazing town of Glenwood Springs in Colorado. We recently visited there over a long weekend, and it was the perfect place for the three of us to soak, relax, and have some wintery fun. Located about 2 1/2 hours west of Denver and an hour from Aspen, it’s a perfect spot for those visiting Colorado and for locals as well. It’s a great getaway for families and couples any time of year, but I think it really shines in the winter!
THINGS TO DO
Soak in the incredible hot springs! In Glenwood Springs you’ll find 2 incredible hot springs to soak away all your troubles. Plus it’s just a fun experience swimming and relaxing in a pool when it’s freezing cold out. Don’t worry you’ll stay plenty warm while inside the water. Maybe even a little bit too warm at times. The hot springs do occasionally close for maintenance so be sure to check those times online before planning a trip.
WHAT MINERALS ARE IN THE WATER?
Calcium, chloride, sodium, sulfate, potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, boron, lithium, phosphate, silica, fluoride, and nitrogen make up the thermal heated hot springs. These 15 minerals are found naturally in the water and are perfect for relieving aches and pains, reducing blood pressure, eliminating toxins, and increasing circulation. At times you’ll smell an egg-like smell which comes from the sulfate, which is a compound of sulfur and oxygen, it reminds me of the heath benefits so I find it enjoyable! All these minerals are easily absorbed through the skin and give your body a great health boost. I can verify after a morning and evening of soaking in the natural hot springs Brian and I felt amazing and slept amazing that night and my skin felt incredibly soft and smooth.
WHAT TO BRING TO THE HOT SPRINGS
Definitely bring your bathing suit, you can rent towels but I suggest you bring your own. I also recommend bringing flip flops because the concrete is freezing cold – it’s not pleasant to walk barefoot! You’ll see some people wearing bathrobes walking to and from the pools, it’s not crucial but it would be nice having one. Depending on the weather you might want to bring a hat to keep your head warm, especially at night.
Shown above is the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort. The main big pool is 100 feet wide and kept at 90 degrees, while the smaller therapy pool is kept at 104 degrees. A poolside grill is nearby, and waterslides are open in the summer. Swimsuits are available for rent (gag) as well as towels. Prices range from $18.75-$29.95 depending on age and dates selected, those staying at the hotel get free admission.
Iron Mountain Hot Springs is another great place to visit with 16 smaller mineral pools to choose from and soothing spa music playing. Each pool has a different temperature ranging from 98 to 108 degrees. The 98 degree pools are a wonderful way to ease in, with the 108 pools being quite hot. My favorite pools were around 103. Children under 5 are not allowed in the small mineral pools, there is a larger family pool that allows children of all ages but it is chlorinated. There is a cafe and bar nearby and a locker room with free lockers. Towels are available for rent and there is a small gift shop area. Prices range from $14-$30 depending on age and dates selected.
Walk along the charming downtown area. You’ll find a ton of unique shops and boutiques to browse, and plenty of restaurants to choose from. Or maybe you’ll just want to grab a coffee and take a nice walk to soak up the architecture and the beautiful views.
Ride the gondola up to Adventure Park and take in the beautiful views. Some of the rides are closed during the winter season but don’t let that stop you. With a winter coaster, caves, and gorgeous views it’s still worth a trip up there. There is a cafe with gorgeous views of the mountains with snacks and delicious hot cocoa drinks and adult drinks too.
There are two caves to visit with tours running every 45 minutes. The Fairy Cave is shorter and suited for younger kids. The Kings Row cave is very impressive but it involves lots of stairs. If you only have time for one cave tour I highly suggest Kings Row. You can purchase tickets for the gondola ride only, the gondola and cave, or for the full amusement park.
Soak up the history and have drinks in the gorgeous lobby insideHotel Colorado. With a nearby bar there is plenty of seating in the lobby, so relax, warm yourself by the fire, and take in the historic architecture and the birth of the Teddy Bear. According to legend Teddy Roosevelt stayed at this hotel and after an unsuccessful day of hunting the staff presented him with a stuffed bear to cheer him up. He said “I will call him Teddy.” The term caught on and the popular Teddy Bear was born.
Sunlight Mountain Ski Resort is located about 30 minutes from Glenwood Springs. With affordable rates it’s a great place have some ski and snowmobile adventures. There is on-site lodging plus a restaurant and bar.
WHERE TO STAY
Glenwood Springs Hotelshown above is where we stayed. I chose it because it had a great location to all the attractions. With a mini indoor water park and located right next to the gondola it’s a perfect affordable option for families and kids. There were lots of kids running around, so if your looking for a quiet romantic getaway this is not the hotel for you.
Glenwood Hot Springs Resortis on the pricier side but you can’t beat the convenience of having the hot springs pool steps away from your room. Plus you’ll get free admission into the pool, and there is a full service spa inside the hotel.
Hotel Coloradois a historic hotel built in 1893 with a full service restaurant, bar, coffee shop, and a large beautiful lounge to relax in. Even if you don’t stay here it’s worth stopping by just to admire the building and sip a drink by the fire. It’s located behind the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort so it’s just a short walk to the pool.
Hotel Denver is boutique hotel that offers a 1920’s hip rustic style. Located downtown near shopping and restaurants and across from the Amtrak station, there is plenty to do. Plus it’s just a 6 minute walk to the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort.
Still not sure about where to stay? Check out Hotels.com, our favorite site to book hotels, where you can earn free night stays and save money!
WHERE TO EAT
CO Ranch House was our favorite! We loved the small coziness of the restaurant with modern western decor, with lots of amazing food to choose from as well. Try the blue crab dip, it was incredible!
Rivers is located right along the roaring Fork River, you’ll want to request a table view for sure. The menu has a nice variety with plenty of gluten free options as well. Our favorite was the elk potstickers.
Glenwood Canyon Brewing Companyis located on the first floor of the Hotel Denver. With an excellent food and bar menu this place is a perfect stop and should be on everyones list!
Slope & Hatch is perfect for those in need of delicious tacos. This cozy restaurant is on the smaller side with limited tables so arrive early or you might have to wait a while.
Juicy Lucy’s is a fun lively restaurant bustling with activity. Great happy hour specials, unique appetizers, and great steaks makes this restaurant a great place to stop.
If you’re needing a magical wintery getaway Glenwood Springs is the place for you, your body will thank you for it! I’m already excited to plan another trip before the winter season ends. I need to be in those hot springs again… it’s like soaking in a tub full of Xanax.
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!