A Brief History of Trail Ridge Road in Colorado

One third of Rocky Mountain National Park is above tree line and covered in delicate alpine tundra. You can see much of this strange, harsh landscape and incredible mountain vistas, by driving along Trail Ridge Road. Eight miles of the winding, 50 mile long, Trail Ridge Road are above 11,000 feet in elevation, with the highest point at 12,183 feet above sea level. Because of careful design and use of switchbacks, the maximum grade is 7%.

Trail Ridge Road is another marvel of human engineering. Construction began in September 1929, reached Fall River Pass in July 1932 and then Grand Lake in 1938. Until Trail Ridge Road, vehicles used the too-narrow Fall River Road, which also had limited views due to the dense forest.

As is still the case today, the work season during Trail Ridge Road construction was mid-June to mid-October. At its peak, there were 150 workers using various machinery as well as horses. Environmental impacts were considered so that marring of the natural landscape was avoided. Debris was carefully removed or salvaged and used in natural ways. You can see the efforts of this work today

Your Trip across Trail Ridge Road

As you traverse the Park along Trail Ridge Road, you will see two distinct climate patterns, separated by the Continental Divide which runs roughly north/south through the center of the park, zigzagging across the high peaks. The east side near Estes Park is more arid while the western side near Grand Lake is wetter. Along the way, expect to see Trail Ridge Road weather conditions may change as you climb in elevation. It may be sunny and 70 degrees at the onset and blowing snow at the summit.

Trail Ridge Road is usually open from Memorial Day to mid-October depending on when the snow flies and how difficult it is to plow open in the spring. Take your time on this scenic drive, stopping at the overlooks for breathtaking vistas and the many trailheads for hiking. And, visit the Alpine Visitor Center where you can have lunch, buy mementos and learn about the fragile tundra.

Along the route, at lower levels, are ponderosa pine, juniper and Douglas-fir. Blue spruce and lodgepole pines are found along streams. And, aspen groves are scattered here and there. You'll see meadows abundant with wildflowers as well. Above 9,000 feet, are Englemann spruce, subalpine fir and other wildflowers including the blue Colorado columbine. Just below tree line, trees are dwarfed and twisted from the strong harsh winds. Then up to the fragile tundra - where a number of the plants can also be found in the Arctic.