Rocky Mountain National Park

Scenic Driving

Trail Ridge Road is the highest through highway in United States. It crosses the park from east to west and then drops into the Kawuneeche Valley, where the North Fork of the Colorado River flows.

As you travel along Trail Ridge Road, above tree line, you are on the "roof of the Rockies" with superlative vistas of glacier-carved peaks on every side. The road travels for four miles above 12,000 feet and for 11 miles above 11,000 feet. It is usually open from Memorial Day to mid-October depending on snowfall. If you are pulling a trailer you will notice reduced power at this high elevation.

Take three or four hours for this 50-mile (80-kilometer) scenic drive, stopping at the overlooks to absorb far-spreading views of Rocky Mountain's peaks and valleys. Two must stops are Rainbow Curve and the Many Parks Curve, both above Hidden Valley. For a closer look at the alpine world, stretch you legs at Forest Canyon Overlook. You can pick up the Ute Trail just below the overlook.

The Tundra Nature Trail gives an even closer look at the fragile alpine environment. Remember, the alpine tundra ecosystem is extremely fragile—stay on the paths. Also stop at Fall River Pass, 11,796 feet (3,595 meters), to visit the Alpine Visitor Center, where exhibits explain the life of the alpine tundra. The road's highest point—12,183 feet above sea level—occurs between Lava Cliffs and Gore Range. Milner Pass offers enticing walking options. One trail leads up Specimen Mountain, but not to the summit, which is off limits to protect a salt lick favored by the resident herd of bighorn sheep. After a bit, the road drops down and follows the headwaters of the Colorado River to the park's Grand Lake Entrance.

More Drives
Old Fall River Road, the original road crossing the mountains, runs from Horseshoe Park west to Fall River Pass. West of Endo Valley picnic area, it is one way uphill. The gravel road switchbacks up a narrow mountain valley, giving you an idea of what it was like to travel across the mountains in the early days of the automobile. Because of sharp switchbacks, pulled trailers are not allowed and maximum vehicle length is 25 feet (8 meters). A guide booklet, available at the visitor Centers, tells what you can expect.

Take Bear Lake Road, ten miles (16 kilometers) long, if you have an extra hour or an extra day. This is one of the few paved roads in the Rockies that leads to the heart of a high mountain basin. The area is heavily used and is often congested. You can expect that parking lots here and at Glacier Gorge Junction will be full between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on summer days.

Don't forget: Park roads are not high-speed highways, but scenic drives. Speed limits and traffic laws are enforced. Please obey signs. Report all accidents to the nearest park ranger station. There are no service stations within the park, so check your gasoline and other needs. Cars tuned for lower elevations often overheat and may vapor lock. If your car acts as if it isn't getting gas, pull off the road at the nearest pullout, stop your engine, and allow it to cool. If snow or cold water is available, put it on your fuel pump and the line leading to the carburetor. Let your car cool for 15 minutes before trying to start it again.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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