Trail Ridge Road is the main driving route through Rocky Mountain National Park, and it has been arguably the best scenic drive in the United States since it was completed in the early 1930s. Home to an abundance of flora and fauna, you are most likely to spot bighorn sheep, marmots, pikas and grazing gangs of elk along the road, especially at sunrise and sunset in higher elevations. It's no surprise that Trail Ridge Road has been designated as one of our country's distinct National Scenic Byways by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Climbing roughly 4,000 vertical feet over 48 miles with very few guardrails, the scenic drive is not for the faint of heart, and you may want to save your lunch for after you complete the drive. The road is plenty wide for one lane of traffic in both directions, and there are more than a handful of scenic viewpoints where you can stop and take pictures (and a breather) if needed.
Starting from the east, Many Parks Curve Overlook will be one of the first scenic stops followed by Rainbow Curve. The next stop at Forest Canyon Overlook is a great place to stretch, catch your breath and take a short walk. There's a paved walkway that takes you out about 100 yards to a spectacular stone platform overlooking the glacially carved canyon with Longs Peak looming in the background.
The Lava Cliffs will be your next geologically significant stop heading west. Shortly after passing the Lava Cliffs, you will reach the highest point of Trail Ridge Road that stretches up 12,183 feet. You will quickly descend to the Alpine Visitor Center (open daily 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) where you can use the facilities and grab snacks, refreshments and souvenirs before completing your trip down the mountain. If you are feeling adventurous, you can complete the moderate Ute Trail Hike directly across the street or opt for the shorter and more congested Alpine Ridge Trail Hike.
Continuing west, you can stop at the next scenic viewpoint overlooking the Gore Range or continue further to stop at Milner Pass, where the road crosses the Continental Divide at 10,120 feet. Most of the remaining drive to the west entrance at Grand Lake is relatively flat with few other roads, but there many trailheads and campgrounds along with a much higher chance of spotting moose.
Trail Ridge Road is the only road connecting the east entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake and the west entrance in Estes Park. Therefore, you should plan your visit to the park carefully, especially in the winter when Trail Ridge Road is closed. During the winter months, you will have to choose just one side of the park, unless you want to drive over four hours around to the other entrance. Most visitors opt for the short and scenic lake hikes found on the east side of the park from the Estes Park entrance that are easily accessible.
Trail Ridge Road is closed during the winter, and it often remains closed until late spring or early summer depending on the snowpack. The road is winding with few guardrails, sees 100 mph winds often, and is typically 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the temperature at the park's entrance in Estes Park.