Monday, October 10, 2016

Driving along America's Roof: Trail Ridge Road

At the end of September Andrew, along with his parents, took a two week road trip through several of the great National Parks of the west. Andrew will be writing something about each one, in the order of their visit. Up first is Rocky Mountain National Park and it's famous alpine highway, Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road. Photo by Carol Tate
Many (but not all) of America's national parks have a showcase roadway that goes through much of the park and by many of the most popular vistas, visitors centers, lodges, and campgrounds. Some, like Arches and Bryce Canyon, take you into the interior of the park and dead end, leaving you to drive back through. Others, such as Going to the Sun Road at Glacier, or Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, take you from one end of the park to the other. In Yellowstone, it's not just one road, but a figure eight of roads that connects all of the major sites in the park. Some, such as Tioga Road in Yosemite are seasonal, closing during the snowy winters of the Sierra Nevada. Each of these roads are interesting in their own right, but in many respects they pale in comparison to Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

It's not the first road up and over the Continental Divide to have been built in the park. That honor goes to Fall River Road*. Built later, Trail Ridge Road is primarily there as a showcase of Colorado's second national park, spending miles in the treeless alpine zone. The road is closed most of the year due to unpredictable winter weather, which can hit any time. It's the highest road in the National Park System, and one of the highest in the country.

This was not my first time driving it, as I had driven up and over it once before, as well as driven down the east side an additional time. At times the drive can be a bit nerve-wracking, particularly if the road is wet or the wind is in high gear. Fortunately, this time the road was dry, and while it certainly was breezy, the wind really wasn't too bad. This was a relief driving through the part up near the tree line where you have to drive along a narrow ridge with both sides having significant drops. Also a relief was that the elk were all down in the lower elevations, so I had no worries about a bull elk suddenly deciding to ram our vehicle as we sat high atop a windswept road.

It was pretty perfect conditions for the drive, but as this drive took place above the treeline, topping out at over 12,000 feet above sea level, altitude was having an effect on me. With little time to spare, we basically went into this high elevation drive without optimal adjustment time.  While I tried to stay hydrated and wasn't in too bad of shape, I certainly felt the lack of oxygen in my blood. As such, I wasn't able to do much walking, making sure I kept together to get us back down to the relatively oxygen rich environment of Grand Lake.
Alpine terrain along Trail Ridge Road. Photo by Carol Tate

We stopped to take some pictures on the way up at Many Parks Curve, which is where the road really begins its approach up to the alpine region of the park. At this famous curve, a panoramic view of Beaver Meadows, as well as other lower parts of the park and the surrounding area, is available. Although the sky was cloudy, the Aspen trees were just at their peak in the park, which gave the drive extra color. From the packed parking lots, and the line for the bathroom at the Alpine visitors center, it was clear we weren't the only people enjoying the scenery.

Aspens along Trail Ridge Road. Photo by Carol Tate.

Once we left Many Parks Curve, we only made one other major stop before the Alpine visitors center, a major overlook that is one of the first in the Alpine zone. Earlier in the summer this area is the best to see marmots, but late September might be too cold for them to be out, as they are likely settling in for the long winter's hibernation.

We stopped briefly at the visitors center, long enough for me to get my NPS passport book purchased and stamped and to purchase a couple souvenirs. From there we had a long journey down the other side and on ultimately to Colorado Springs. But first we had to get down the other side of Trail Ridge Road.

Flag and part of Alpine visitors center. Note the heavy logs on the roof, used to protect it from snow. Photo by Carol Tate.

The west side of the road is anticlimactic compared to the east side. After a panoramic view off to the north into Wyoming, the road curves back to the south and below the tree line. It is here where the road crosses the continental divide, following along a tributary of the Colorado River. From there, the road takes many switchbacks and hairpin curves to descend to a lower elevation, where eventually the road straightens out and follows along the Colorado River until exiting the park near Grand Lake.

Lake near Continental Divide. Photo by Carol Tate

All in all it was great to see the road again and be up above the trees, even if it did make it harder to breathe. If you haven't had a chance to drive or ride along it, and don't mind the heights or the altitude, I heartily suggest a trip along it. The views are outstanding, and the temperatures can be a nice break in the warmth of summer. It certainly is one of the more interesting drives you can make.

*Fall River Road is still in use today, although unlike Trail Ridge Road it is not paved and is only one way. Once the road meets up with Trail Ridge Road at Alpine Visitors Center, the newer road follows along the older road's path down to Grand Lake.

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