Trail Ridge Road snakes roughly fifty miles across Rocky Mountain National Park, from Estes Park to Grand Lake. Planned and built from about 1929 to 1938, the road provided a safer route across the Continental Divide for the park’s growing number of visitors. Trail Ridge Road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet, making it the highest continuous paved road in the United States. Hailed by the Rocky Mountain News as a “scenic wonder road of the world,” Trail Ridge Road continues to draw millions of visitors annually during its open season from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Building Trail Ridge Road
Construction of Trail Ridge Road was motivated by the shortcomings of Fall River Road. Fall River Road opened in 1920 as one of the first auto routes in Rocky Mountain National Park. However, the narrow, one-way road was not paved, suffered from numerous snow slides and deep snow, and had only limited access to scenic overlooks. Wanting to provide the public with a safer and more enjoyable way to drive through the park, engineers from the US Bureau of Public Roads chose a route that emphasizes the area’s stunning beauty. Congress appropriated $450,000 for Trail Ridge Road in April 1928, and construction began in 1929. Construction of the road provided steady employment in the region for several years, insulating the area from the harshest effects of the Great Depression.
A relatively mild winter in 1929–30 increased expectations among the public and park officials that the road would be completed ahead of schedule. More typical winter weather in the following years dampened such expectations. US Highway Engineer W. L. Lafferty oversaw general construction of Trail Ridge Road, but the road was actually built in two sections, each by a different contractor. Construction on the eastern portion was overseen by C. A. Colt of Las Animas. In 1932 Colt completed his stretch of road, spanning just over seventeen miles, between Deer Ridge (8,937 feet) and Fall River Pass (11,794 feet). In 1933 L. T. Lawler of Butte, Montana, completed the western half of the road by connecting through to Grand Lake (8,369 feet). Final touches, including paving and rock work in the higher-elevation portions of the road, would continue for the next several years.
Unrivaled Natural Landscape
Trail Ridge Road boasts eleven miles of road above 11,000 feet, as well as four miles topping out at more than 12,000 feet. Stretches of road can be covered by up to twenty-five feet of snow in winter months, especially on the wetter western half, where sudden blizzards are typical. Wildflower blooms from late May through the early summer draw a host of nature enthusiasts, as do the elk herds that come annually to mate in the area in September and October. Many cyclists test their stamina on Trail Ridge Road, reveling in the challenge of pedaling one of the world’s foremost mountain roads.
Designated as an All-American Road by the US secretary of transportation in 1996, Trail Ridge Road is an American Byway, one of eleven such roads in Colorado. Now part of US Highway 34, the road offers motorists sweeping views of the Mummy Range to the north, the Front Range peaks to the south, and the Never Summer Mountains to the west. Impressively, Trail Ridge Road scales the Continental Divide at Milner Pass without ever exceeding grades of 7 percent, roughly half as steep as the steepest grade on Fall River Road. Unlike the one-way Fall River Road, Trail Ridge Road facilitates two-way travel. Finally, Trail Ridge was designed to incorporate frequent pullouts and parking areas as it winds over Milner Pass.
There are several notable photo and recreational opportunities along the road. Traveling from east to west, Deer Ridge Junction (8,978 feet), at the eastern portal, offers access to hiking trails with views of Longs Peak, Moraine Park Valley, and the Mummy Range. Next up, Hidden Valley (9,325 feet) has a visitor center that is now open year round and attracts both downhill and cross-country skiers. Farther to the west, two of the most popular photo destinations are found at Rainbow Curve (10,875 feet) and the tundra protection area of Forest Canyon (11,758 feet). From there, visitors frequently marvel at the Lava Cliffs (12,135 feet), evidence of the area’s previous volcanic activity. The Alpine Visitor Center (11,799 feet) is the highest such facility in the National Park Service, featuring alpine exhibits, a gift shop, and a café. Highlights on the western portion of the road include Milner Pass (10,755 feet) atop the Continental Divide. Before its western terminus near Grand Lake, the road is dotted with campgrounds and hiking trails.