Auto Touring in Rocky Mountain National Park
East EntraceClick thumbnail to view full-size
Auto Touring in Rocky Mountain National Park offers amazing views of God’s creation from lush green valleys, to pine forests, to mountain lakes, to high mountain peaks. The park is located in north-central Colorado with entrances in Estes Park (Beaver Meadows Entrance and Fall River Entrance) and Grand Lake. The entrance fee is $25 for a seven day pass. It is well worth it to spend a few days here and take your time and enjoy the mountain views and the abundant wildlife. Rocky Mountain National Park ranges in elevation from around 7,800 feet to 14,259 feet (Long’s Peak). The park has three main roads to auto tour: Trail Ridge Road, Old Fall River Road, and Bear Lake Road, each have a beauty of their own.
Driving in the mountains requires caution. The park roads are steep and many have little or no guard rails. It is important to pay attention at all times. Leave extra room between the cars in front of you and be prepared to stop. Slower drives should use the turn outs to allow other vehicles to pass, plus it gives you a great opportunity to pull over and take some pictures and enjoy the views. When going downhill, use lower gears and avoid riding your brakes, or you will wear them down. When I was driving, I stayed in either D2 or D3 depending on how steep the decline was. Also, remember that there is less oxygen at higher elevations so take an easy when you get out of your vehicle to take pictures. Be sure to have ample gas, because there are not any gas stations in the park.
Trail Ridge and Bear Lake RoadsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Trail Ridge Road (US 34)
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved highway in the country with a high point of 12,183 feet. It is a road that seems to take you to the sky in the comfort of your car. The average grade on the road is less than 5%, but never exceeds 7%. It is closed during the winter and spring because of the large amount of snow that falls there. Starting in Estes Park (east side), enter the park at the Beaver Meadow entrance station. Watch for Elk grazing in this area. Stay left at Deer Ridge Junction and this is where Trail Ridge Road begins. You will begin to climb quickly through ponderosa pine forests and soon enter subalpine forests of thick fir and spruce trees, this will last until around 11,500 feet. As you climb higher, you enter the alpine tundra, an area that has trees battered by the wind and little vegetation because of the harshness of the climate. The views from up here are amazing. Majestic mountain peaks towering over the valleys below that separate you from the peaks. There are ample places to pull out and take pictures. If you choose to get out of your car up here, the temperature is much colder than lower levels by about 20 – 30 degrees. Hold on to your hats, the wind can blow at speeds in excess of 100 mph in the higher elevations. Don’t be shocked to see elk, long-horned sheep, pikas, and yellow bellied marmots in the highest elevations. Remember to pay attention as your drive because there are few, if any, guardrails. Between Lava Cliffs and Gore Range, you will climb to the highest point (12,183 feet) on the road, which is marked by a pull out. You will begin a slow decent until you reach the Alpine Visitor Center (11,796 feet). There are restrooms, snacks, and a gift shop. After that, you continue a slow decent for about 12 miles and you will come to the Continental Divide at Milner’s Pass (10,758 feet). The Continental Divide is the imaginary line that separates all of the waters west of that point will flow into the Pacific Ocean and all of the waters east of that point will flow into the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. After that, you begin a more rapid decent after Farview Curve which has a lot of switchbacks. You descend into the Kawuneeche Valley which has abundant wildlife including moose and elk. You will come to the Kawuneeche Visitor Center as you exit the park and drive into Grand Lake, CO. Grand Lake offers a good place to stop and eat and stretch your legs. You can either rent or charter a boat on Grand Lake or Lake Granby and enjoy the beautiful scenery on the water. When you are ready to return, it is back up Trail Ridge Road to head back to Estes Park. Round trip from Estes Park to Grand Lake should take anywhere from half a day to a full day. Personally, if you stop for any length of time in Grand Lake, I would plan on a full day. Driving back gives you more opportunity for pictures that you could not see driving over the first time.
Old Fall River Road
Old Fall River Road is the oldest road into the park’s higher elevations. It is primarily a gravel road with a 15 mph speed limit that is one-way and almost all uphill. No guard rails exist on this road. Old Fall River Road is much steeper than Trail Ridge Road, its grades reach up to 16%. It is imperative to be patient. This road is road is a relaxing drive which reaches a high elevation at Fall River Pass (11,796 feet). The road is narrow with many switchbacks. This road is closed during the fall and winter months. It is also that last road to open in the spring. Old Fall River Road is great if you want to get closer to nature. Trees are close enough to touch from your car. Old Fall River Road can be accessed from either the Fall River Entrance or the Beaver Meadow entrance and ends 11 miles later at Trail Ridge Road by the Alpine Visitor Center.
Bear Lake Road
Bear Lake road is much shorter than Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road. It boasts many hiking trails, abundant wildlife, and a much easier drive and open year round. It starts near the Beaver Meadow entrance and ends at the Bear Lake trailhead. It is worth a hike around Bear Lake. It is a mile around and offers some stunning views of the lake with the forest and mountains behind it. Great place to take family pictures. There are several other trail heads here also. Watch for Elk in this area.
My advice is to go slow and pull over often. Take a lot of pictures because each view is unique. Watch for wildlife at any elevation. On my trip there, I saw elk, yellow bellied marmots, and many different species of birds. I love Trail Ridge Road, it is absolutely amazing. During this vacation, we also spend a few days in Colorado Springs. This was the best vacation I went on, other than going to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons.