Trail Ridge Road, known as the “highway to the sky,” fully opened on Friday morning. My stressful hike around Monarch Lake on Thursday was apparently just the appetizer for the insanity that is driving to the top of Rocky Mountain National Park. I can confidently say it was the scariest drive of my life.
A trip up Trail Ridge Road is like traveling to the Arctic. By 11,400 feet, the average annual temperature is so cold that none of Rocky’s trees can survive. Called treeline, you’ll know you’re above it when the trees disappear, and the views stretch to forever.Rocky Mountain National Park newsletter
The west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is only 7 minutes from my place in Grand Lake, Colorado. I wanted to wait until late May before I purchased a 7-day pass to the park in hopes that the famous Trail Ridge Road—the main highway through the park—would be open before I had to move on.
Then a couple of weeks into May I was talking to some locals who said the park is so quiet in May the rangers don’t even staff the fee stations on this side of the park. I could drive right in. What?! Wish I would have known that right away.
I’ve been driving through the west side of the park every day or two, usually at dusk to see all the moose and mule deer who are out in plain view. A black bear about half the size of my car ran in front of my car one day, but I was too flustered to get my camera before it went on its way. It was headed to the picnic area I had just past where I saw people sitting at tables. Good luck with that!
Before the snowstorm last weekend, I was able to make it all the way up to the continental divide at Milner Pass where the road closed and I had to turn around. The snowdrifts were higher than my car, so I was so curious about what it was like past the closure! The park rangers gave me a local number to call each day with a recording of the status of Trail Ridge Road. They were hoping it might be open by Memorial Day weekend, but with all the snow we’ve been getting—especially that high up in elevation—it was uncertain.
“Trail Ridge Road is open for the season!”
I woke up Friday morning to a tweet from the park that the road was open for the summer. Of course, with the caveat that it could close again at any time due to more snow. An hour or so later I got a call from the guy I met the day before who is buying the house I almost purchased, telling me I gotta get through Trail Ridge Road before it’s flooded with tourists. “It’s only a matter of hours, so head there now!”
He was right. Like a firehose being turned on, once the road through the park opens, the summer tourists start flowing through. The roads and businesses in and around Grand Lake have been busy ever since. It’s been a night and day difference from the rest of May.
I drove into the park Friday around 2 p.m. and was surprised to see a line at the fee station. I ended up purchasing the America the Beautiful annual pass, which will get me into all national parks and recreation areas throughout the country. Sweet! And then I was told I can’t enter the park from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. without a timed entry pass, which started Friday morning. Again, such a difference from the day before. I said I’d come back in an hour.
When I returned, it was strange seeing so many other vehicles in the park. I basically had the west side to myself the past couple of weeks.
The 50-mile Trail Ridge Road stretches from Grand Lake on the west to Estes Park on the east. Peaking at 12,183 feet, it is the highest continuous paved highway in North America.
I’m glad I didn’t read much else about it or look at photos before I made the drive, or I’m not sure I would have done it.
Nothing to worry about, right?! This is the point I should say I’m a very good driver, but I’m afraid of heights. I kept inching ahead like an old man down the middle of the road unless an oncoming vehicle was approaching, giving myself little pep talks out loud, and of course, praying that I’d make it through. My hands gripped the steering wheel the entire drive—literally holding on for dear life.
11 miles of the road is above treeline. Being at the top of the Rockies is an unforgettable experience. Wow. My eyes kept darting off to the sides to try to look at the views, but that just made me more nervous. So, I tried focusing on the road. Did I mention there are no guardrails? Apparently, it’s on purpose. Gross. There was literally only a foot or two on each side of the road and then you fall off a cliff. No joke.
Throughout the entire highway, there are 10 to 15-foot sticks anchored to the sides of the road every 20 feet so the crews know where the road is in order to plow it. Do not sign me up for that job.
When I started in Grand Lake, it was about 70 degrees outside. By the time I made it to the peak at the Gore Range overlook, it was probably 30 degrees and extremely windy. The snowdrifts on the sides of the road reached 25 feet. I put on a winter jacket and hat and ventured out to the overlook. People were practically blowing over it was so windy. But the views were breathtaking.
Once I made it to Estes Park, I didn’t stay long on that side of the park. The entrance was backed up about half a mile, plus I knew I had to go through the entire road again and wanted to get it over with!
The drive back wasn’t as bad, simply because I knew what I was getting into. My goal this time was to just stare at the immediate road ahead of me. The more I looked at the views, the more anxious I got. It was a bit comforting to know that 100% of the oncoming vehicles had drivers that looked as nervous as I was.
I said a prayer of thanks when I made it back to the treeline and then to Grand Lake. In the end, I’m glad I was able to experience Trail Ridge Road on the first day it was open. My aunt and I will be driving through the road again in mid-July and it will be interesting to see if there’s any snow left.
I’ve taken hundreds of photos of Rocky Mountain National Park over the past few weeks and somehow narrowed them down to my top ten, located in this photo gallery. Enjoy!