Florida Man on the Run

Trail Ridge Road Trip

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The single day road trip is one that I think too few people get a chance to appreciate. Often, we don’t think about the opportunity to make a road trip and end up in the same place that we started the day. Yet the paved environs of Trail Ridge Road make for the perfect one day excursion. Situated in the immensely scenic Rocky Mountain National Park, Trail Ridge Road is a unique experience for road trip enthusiasts. The highest paved road in the United States, its a treat to experience rising above the treeline as your explore its bends. Any trip to the Denver area isn’t complete without a Trail Ridge Road Trip.

Starting Your Trail Ridge Road Trip

When to start your Trail Ridge road trip is going to depend on a couple of factors. The biggest one will be the season and associated weather. The road is only open during a fairly short window each year from Late May to Early October. Keeping an eye on the weather is necessary because the road can be shut at any time if visibility is poor. The day we went last year ended up being the last day the road was open because a huge snowstorm came in and shut it all down that night.

The second factor you’ll want to account for is time. This Trail Ridge road trip will set you up to catch an amazing sunrise at Rocky Mountain National Park. That is, if you’re willing to get up amazingly early to do so. Since we were in Denver for this trip, that meant my wife and I getting up at 4am to make the two hour drive. No matter where you stay, if you want to catch the sunrise you’ll need to be to your spot an hour ahead of time.

Bear Lake is the easiest sunrise on your Trail Ridge Road Trip
How could you miss a sunrise like this?

In addition to those two timing factors, is of course what day of the week you’re heading out. Be aware that Trail Ridge road isn’t a secret and weekends will be especially busy. An early start is going to be a must even if you don’t plan on catching a sunrise. It doesn’t take long to make the drive, so beating the traffic will make for an enjoyable experience.

Key Overlooks on the Trail Ridge Road

Like any good mountain road, Trail Ridge has plenty of amazingly scenic views along its way. Unlike some scenic mountain roads, however, Trail Ridge is plenty wide and the overlooks are all well marked. You’re not going to feel like the car is teetering on the edge during your drive, which makes for a more pleasant experience.

The first overlook I recommend isn’t technically on Trail Ridge Road but just off of it on Fall River Road. Take a stop at the first Horseshoe Park overlook and admire the twisting and winding Fall River below. You’re still well below the treeline at this point.

Gazing out over Horseshoe Park and the Fall River

From here your next opportunity to step out of the car is at Many Parks Overlook. This sweeping, 360-degree bend in the road offers a boardwalk that runs alongside the road. It provides some amazing views to the east and would provide a good spot to watch the sunrise if you’re not feeling adventurous.

Next up will be the stellar views from Rainbow Curve Overlook. By this point, you’ve just started to come up over the timberline and will transition into the alpine tundra afterwards. Rainbow Curve was one of my favorite spots because it looks back on the road you’ve just traveled which is already a couple thousand feet below you!

The best overlook on your Trail Ridge Road Trip is Rainbow Curve
My favorite views came from Rainbow Curve. You can see for miles!

Forest Canyon Overlook is next up on the list. Unlike the previous three, this one is positioned to the west. The views of unspoiled wilderness were breathtaking. This spot has a short trail that walks out through the alpine tundra to a viewing spot which I highly recommend.

The final overlook is also the best place to stop and stretch your legs for a bit. The Alpine Visitor Center provides a welcome stop, especially if you’ve been battling some traffic. The views from behind the visitor center are beautiful. The visitor center itself is very informational. Stopping here means you’ve visited the highest visitor center in the entire park service to boot!

Really wanted to take a trek behind the visitor center

Hikes Off The Road

While you might be content staying on the road for your entire Trail Ridge road trip, there is plenty to explore just off the pavement. Hundreds of miles of trails can be accessed from different points along the road. There is really something for everyone to be happy with.

If you’re looking for something easy and stunning, look no further than Bear Lake. This small alpine lake is surrounded by a 3/4 mile trail that has very little elevation change. As an added bonus, it also is one of the most stunning sunrise spots in all of RMNP. The stunning views of Hallett Peak, bathed in radiant orange light from the rising sun, was hands down the best part of my trip to Denver.

Bear Lake was the perfect easy morning hike

With its ease of access, Bear Lake isn’t going to always be your oasis of solitude. With this in mind, don’t be afraid to trek a little deeper along the trails here towards Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, or Emerald Lake. These trails will be a bit steeper, but well worth the effort. Sunrises from any of these will be just as good, if not better, than what you’ll get at Bear Lake.

Another alternative hike that can be accomplished as part of your Trail Ridge road trip is Forest Canyon Pass. This trail starts at the Alpine Visitor Center and works its way through some amazing views of the park. You’ll come out at Milner Pass, which just so happens to be where the Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide.

Straddle the continental divide and snap a photo before the end of your Trail Ridge Road Trip
Don’t forget to grab your required Continental Divide picture!

If you’re interested in more trails to be found throughout the Rocky Mountain National Park, I highly encourage you to check out RockyMountainHikingTrails.com. The team there have an extensive guide to the trails found in RMNP.

Welcome to Grand Lake (or Estes Park)

Nearly everyone who ventures along the Trail Ridge Road does so heading from east to west. Following this route brings you from Estes Park to Grand Lake on the other side of the park. The tiny town of Grand Lake is a quaint village situated on the edge of, well, Grand Lake. During the height of season, Grand Lake is a bustling town where you’ll be able to find lodging, food, gas, and other essentials. If you end up there at the end of season, like we did, you’ll find the town nearly dead.

Bright sunshine and cool waters greet you at Grand Lake

No matter when you get to Grand Lake, take some time to enjoy the beautiful waters the town sits on. After travelling through winding mountain roads, a nice lunch along the shore will be the perfect rest you need. From here, you’re gonna be making a long trek back to your original destination, wherever that might be.

However, if you’ve decided to take the trip in the opposite direction, you’ll end up in Estes Park. Unlike Grand Lake, Estes Park is a destination town practically year round. This means that it serves not only as a good starting point, but a great ending point as well. The other benefit of traveling in the opposite direction will be the reduced traffic. In either case, both of these towns are welcome sights after traversing the highest mountain road in the country.

Road Tripping Above The Trees

If you’re taking a trip to the Rockies, its hard to see how you can miss taking the Trail Ridge Road Trip. Practically nowhere else in the country can you drive above the tree line and experience alpine tundra. This short road trip provides amazingly scenic views, beautiful environments, and enjoyable hikes. All in a one day package! If you’re a fan of road trips, this one has to be on your bucket list!

Just one more sunrise picture before you go

Speaking of road trips, be sure to take some time to check out the stories from my mega Pacific Coast Highway road trip. We drove from Los Angeles to Portland and hit just about every amazing place along the way. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading about that trip as much as I loved being on it.

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16 Responses

  1. Gorgeous photos! Isn’t it true that the best photos are either early in the morning or in the evening? For example your sunrise photo of Rocky Mountain National Park. I love all your road trips!

    1. The panorama of the lake at sunrise is probably the best I’ve ever taken. Almost all of what I take is with my phone because I’ve never been great with normal photography, so the phone can compensate for that. Plus, panoramas are far easier with the phone doing all the work.

    1. Road trips are my favorite kind of trip. This was my first through terrain like this though. Nothing like the Rockies on the east coast.

  2. Great road trip idea! I’ve been to the Denver area and Breckenridge, and want to go back, so this is a great road trip idea! And your photos are amazing – I love the feet on the Continental Divide!

  3. Well….it has been many years since I traveled to Colorado, and your post is making me think about a return trip. Od love to hear more about the smaller lakes accessible from Bear Lake. It sounds like this particular day trip could easily be extended into a weekend…or more. Thanks for the great read.

    1. I would have loved to turn this part of the trip into an entire week! Staying in Estes Park, Grand Lake, or Boulder would make it really easy to make multiple trips into the park to hike. So many places to catch amazing sunrises.

  4. Wow! This road trip looks stunning! Especially for Floridians like us. Can’t wait to spend some time out that way to see scenes like yours.

  5. I love it! I really want to spend some time in the Rocky’s! I’ve only ever been in that area for work though. I love the photos you took. You mention you were doing it as a road trip – where were you road tripping from?

    1. It was a one day road trip from Denver. We finished the loop by taking US 40 back to I-70 and on to Denver. Lots more to explore along that route but we had plans for later in the day.

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