For anyone who has ever dreamed of soaring like an eagle from one mountaintop to the next, Trail Ridge Road is a fantasy fulfilled. Travelers along this heavenly highway ascend, curve by sinuous curve, to elevations that are literally breathtaking. From ethereal overlooks in Rocky Mountain National Park, the drive winds south through forested valleys, along the shores of azure lakes, and across raging rivers, ending at a charmingly preserved Victorian-era mining town.
1. Park Headquarters
A quiet prelude to the stunning vistas to come, Rte. 36 winds lazily westward from the gateway town of Estes Park to the high ramparts of Rocky Mountain National Park. After pausing at park headquarters for a brief orientation, visitors enter a domain where more than 60 peaks soar higher than 12,000 feet into the alpine world above the tree line.
Within the park are 147 lakes and over 350 miles of trails ranging from easy strolls along glacier-fed streams to strenuous hikes that crest the Continental Divide. Perhaps the best time to visit is in September, when the summer throngs have thinned, elk come down from the high country to feed in lush meadows, and the leaves of quaking aspen shimmer like gold coins.
2. Deer Ridge Junction
As Rte. 36 climbs the flank of Deer Mountain, the view to the rear embraces a line of lofty summits crowded shoulder to shoulder. The champion is Longs Peak, towering above its neighbors at 14,259 feet.
At Deer Ridge Junction the drive joins Rte. 34 — the start of legendary Trail Ridge Road. Bisecting the national park, the 48-mile route rises to more than 12,000 feet, meandering for 11 miles across stark tundra that looks as though a part of Alaska had been transplanted to Colorado.
3. Many Parks Curve
In the language of Colorado pioneers, a “park” was a mountain-ringed meadow — an invitingly flat place to homestead in this otherwise rugged region. Upper Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park sprawls below the observation point at Many Parks Curve; visible in the distance is Estes Park, where the drive began.
As it winds through forests of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, the road passes a sign marking an elevation of two miles above sea level. A bit farther is Rainbow Curve, where another of the park’s panoramas embraces a seemingly infinite expanse of mountains and valleys. The long scar on the hillside below is a reminder of the fearful flood that occurred on July 15, 1982, when the Lawn Lake Dam broke, sending a wall of water down Roaring River into Horseshoe Park and scattering giant boulders as though they were mere dice.