One of my very favorite summer activities in the Fraser Valley is riding my Harley to the top of Trail Ridge Road. Once there the big question is: do I continue on to charming Estes Park or, turn around and head back home to the beautiful Winter Park area? I know, I know, life’s tough… Please don’t misunderstand me, I love having such a tough choice to make. In short, I consider Trail Ridge Road the most scenic highway in the entire Rocky Mountains; and, I have been fortunate to have traveled a good number of them. Having such a fantastic ride a short distance from where I live and play is just ‘icing on the cake’. You’re right – life is good!
Trail Ridge Road/Beaver Meadow Road was built to replace Fall River Road. Fall River Road was the first road to cross the Rocky Mountains in Northern Colorado. In fact, it was built before Rocky Mountain National Park was established. Fall River Road quickly proved to be inadequate for ‘modern’ motor traffic as soon as it opened in 1920. It had steep grades, numerous sharp switchbacks, was a single track road and, because much of it was located among the trees, its shady nature made it hard to clear of snow.
Trail Ridge Road was designed to reduce these short comings. It took six years to build and was constructed between 1926-1932. The road bed was designed to “lie lightly on the land”. Historic pathways, used by native peoples to cross the Rocky Mountains, were followed whenever possible. The road’s sunny ridge-top location reduced snow accumulation (vs. Fall River Road) and, allowed for an earlier opening date than its predecessor. Normally, Trail Ridge is open from Memorial Day to mid-October. Its road grade is generally less than 5% and never exceeds 7% – less than half as steep as Fall River Road. Trail Ridge is noted for both its impressive engineering and stunning views. In 1996 it was given the designation of ‘All-American Road’ which is the highest level of designation possible.
Eleven miles of the road are above tree line and winter climate conditions are similar to those found at the Arctic Circle. It crosses the continental divide at Milner Pass (elevation 10,758 ft/ 3,279m) and reaches a maximum elevation of 12,183 ft. / 3,713m. It is the highest continuous highway in the U.S. From beginning to end it is 48 miles long and takes approximately 2 hours to drive. However, the time it takes you will vary greatly by the number of stops you take to snap pictures and enjoy the view or, perhaps to have a picnic or a walk in the woods. Numerous overlooks provide awe inspiring views of nearby mountain peaks that range from 12,000 to 14,000 feet in elevation. At several stopping areas, located near the top of the pass, you will be able to visit a world of rare alpine beauty. Please note- this tundra is easily destroyed by being walked on; so please stay on the well marked walking paths. On many occasions, I have spotted big horn sheep and herds of elk being watched over by stately bull elk with majestic antlers.
A stop at one of several visitor centers will enhance your ride over Trail Ridge. Kawuneeche Visitor Center, say that out loud and I promise you’ll sound like a real Indian, is located on the Grand Lake side and the Hidden Valley rest stop, located on the Estes Park side, both have a visitor center and a ranger office. (Hidden Valley was a ski resort years ago and was where I first learned how to fall down a snow covered mountain with skis tied to my feet!) The Alpine Visitor center (11,796ft. / 3,595 m.) is located near the top of Trail Ridge Road and has numerous amenities. I suggest you pick up an “Old Fall River Road” guide that will help explain the history of the road(s) as well as what you’re viewing along the way. For the adventurous, I highly recommend traveling up Trail Ridge on a clear night (yes, the road is open at night). There, far from the light pollution of city lights and above almost 50% of the earth’s atmosphere, you will enjoy one of nature’s greatest light shows. Billions and billions of stars will thrill and inspire you as they sparkle in front of your eyes! However, don’t forget to take warm clothing with you. Enjoy the ride!