Trail Ridge Road: Discover America’s Highest Road

A Colorado Scenic Drive over Trail Ridge Road in the Rocky Mountains

Trail Ridge Road in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest continuous paved road in the United States, crosses the Continental Divide with beautiful scenery.

To see the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains at its finest, take a scenic drive over Trail Ridge Road in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. This is the highest continuous paved road in America, and it weaves through some stunningly beautiful scenery, past glaciers, alpine meadows, snow-capped peaks, and mountain lakes, as it crosses the Continental Divide.

Trail Ridge Road is not a precipitous gravel track snaking up a mountainside to a dead end. Also known as US 34, it’s the highest continuous highway in the USA and it’s well-maintained, so you don’t need a high-clearance vehicle to drive it. It runs 48 miles through the park from east to west and ranges in elevation from 8,000 feet to over 12,000 feet.

It will take 3 to 4 hours from end to end, allowing for a leisurely drive with stops to view wildlife or gaze at the magnificent scenery. But it’s best to set aside a full day if you can, bring a picnic, and enjoy a hike on one of the park’s many trails.

There are two main gateways into Rocky Mountain National Park. On the eastern side, Estes Park, 71 miles northwest of Denver, leads to the park entrance. From here, Trail Ridge Road follows an old Native American trail through some of Colorado’s most awesome scenery.

The majestic peaks and deep valleys were carved by glaciers during the Ice Age. At the higher elevations, you can still see the glaciers and the ridges of rock debris known as moraines. Nowhere else in the American Rockies has so many high peaks in such a compact area – 76 of them have elevations of 12,000 feet or more. The highest is Longs Peak at 14,255 feet.

In between, there are sapphire lakes, green valleys, and groves of aspen trees that turn bright yellow in the autumn. In summer, the mountain meadows are blooming with purple columbine, red Indian paintbrush, and hundreds of other wildflowers.

A large herd of mule deer often grazes near the side of the road. You may see elk, too, and hawks soaring overhead. The backcountry harbors more elusive wildlife such as bears and wild cats.

From east to west, highlights along Trail Ridge Road include:

Horseshoe Park

There is a bighorn sheep crossing here, where traffic is controlled to allow the animals to reach the meadow and Sheep Lakes from the moraine ridges above. The best time to see them is mornings in spring and early summer.

Rock Cut

The road continues past beaver ponds and tall pine forests. As it climbs higher, it enters a stark landscape of treeless alpine tundra, where only hardy mosses and tiny alpine flowers can survive. It is the only ecosystem of its kind south of the Arctic Circle. From Rock Cut, the Toll Memorial Trail is a one-hour hike through this fascinating environment.

Alpine Visitor Center

Trail Ridge Road reaches its highest point at 12,183 feet shortly before reaching the center, where there are interpretive displays. Grab a jacket and walk up the windy path through the tundra, surrounded by magnificent views of the mountain peaks and snow bowls.

Colorado River Trail

On the western side, Trail Ridge Road descends through gentler terrain into verdant forests. Another good hike along this trail leads to a ghost town, Lulu City. It’s hard to believe that the peaceful mountain stream here is the powerful Colorado River, which carves through the Grand Canyon further south.

The resort town of Grand Lake marks the western boundary of the park and the end of Trail Ridge Road, which continues on its way west as US 34.

In high season, arrive early as the park gets very busy and traffic can detract from the views. The only restaurant in the park is the snack bar at the Alpine Visitor Center, so buy picnic supplies at Estes Park or Grand Lake. The park is open year-round, but Trail Ridge Road is closed in winter due to weather conditions.