Rocky Mountain National Park is home to the highest continuous paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road. This scenic drive takes you to over 12,000 feet with stunning views of one of America’s most scenic national parks. My husband and I have driven this road many times, and each time I see something new. Be sure to acclimate yourself to the higher elevation before you begin your trek by staying overnight in Estes Park. Nobody enjoys driving up or down a mountain road with altitude sickness. With that in mind, here are all my other tips to help you enjoy America’s highway in the sky.
1. Prepare Your Car
Make sure your car has a full tank of gas before you head toward Trail Ridge Road. There are no gas stations along the 48-mile route from Estes Park to Grand Lake. You can fill your fuel tank in Estes Park or Grand Lake. Ensure your car has the proper amount of engine oil, as your vehicle will get a workout. You will want to fill your windshield washer fluid tank as well. Driving Trail Ridge Road can be messy, with rain, sleet, and snow at times. I would not recommend driving a car designed for summer-only driving. All-weather tires will make your drive much easier if it begins to sleet.
2. Start Early
We typically start our drive on Trail Ridge Road in Estes Park before 7 a.m. The road is not crowded, and the wildlife is out and about early in the day. Sunrise offers tranquil views that will make for some incredible photo opportunities. Mid to late afternoon thunderstorms are common, and these often include sleet or hail. If you start earlier in the day, you have a better chance of avoiding these storms.
3. Follow The Speed Limit Signs
The speed limit signs are on Trail Ridge Road for a reason: your safety. It can be frustrating to get behind a seemingly slow-moving motorhome or bus, but it’s easy to make the most of it. Keep in mind that this beautiful scenery will be in front of you for a longer period of time. There are many pull-outs along the drive, and if you are going too fast, you will miss the opportunity to pull in. If you miss one, slow down on your way back to Estes Park so you can pull in and park.
4. Pack Your Picnic Lunch
Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy along Trail Ridge Road. There are several picnic areas with picnic tables and tremendous views. You will want to plan to eat before 11 or after 1. This way, you will avoid the rush hour crowd and have the time to enjoy your lunch. There are two grocery stores in Estes Park, and both are easy to find.
We enjoy picnicking at Hidden Valley. It offers flush toilets and a picnic area with hiking trails all around. Keep your food packaging closed to keep the ground squirrels from enjoying a meal, as it’s never okay to feed the wildlife in a national park.
Pro Tip: Pack a blanket for your tablecloth.
5. Pack Snacks
In addition to your picnic lunch, you will want to pack plenty of snacks. Peanuts, chocolate, apples, bananas, and grapes make for easy-to-pack and eat snacks. It is also crucial that you pack plenty of water. Drink a lot of water, as it will help keep you hydrated and ward off any potential headaches. Pack your snacks in a day backpack. This way, you will be prepared to hike if you come upon a trail you would like to try. Always take a backpack with you, even if you think your hike will be a short one. It’s always better to be prepared than not.
6. Pack Your Binoculars
Your binoculars will come in handy as you drive Trail Ridge Road. The bighorn sheep and elk can often be elusive, and binoculars will help bring them into view. We have enjoyed watching magpies through the years. This black-and-white-colored bird is always fun to watch. If it’s not flying between picnic tables looking for food, you can find them high up in the greens of the trees.
Editor’s Note: See our picks for the best binoculars for any budget here.
7. Visit The Alpine Visitor Center
The Alpine Visitor Center sits at 11,796 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park. This park facility opens mid-morning, and it’s a fun place to stop on your way back from the west side. You can find souvenirs and an opportunity to visit with a park ranger. Park rangers offer guided tours and presentations about lightning and the tundra. If you decide to walk around, be sure to bundle up, as the temperature will be several degrees cooler than here than it is at lower elevations. I recommend a winter coat, gloves, and a hat. It is usually cold and windy on the top of Trail Ridge Road. If you choose to hike, stay on the trails so you do not disturb the tundra.
8. Stroll Around Grand Lake
Once you have arrived at Grand Lake, you will want to park your car and stroll the historic boardwalk. It’s charming and offers ice cream cones and views of Grand Lake and the mountains surrounding it. Unique wood carvings and souvenirs that you won’t find in other places can be purchased here. For a nice break in your drive, kick back on the beach at Grand Lake and enjoy the view.
9. Watch For Moose
On your way back to Estes Park, watch for the moose near the Grand Lake Entrance. We have seen several moose in this area over the years. If you see brake lights and cars stopped along Trail Ridge Road in this area, there’s a good chance there is a moose sighting. Pay close attention to where you park if you choose to leave your car to get a better view of a moose. You don’t want to ding your car up on a rock or block traffic. Be smart about where you choose to park anywhere along the road to view the wildlife.
10. Enjoy The Elk
As you cross the Continental Divide and continue the climb, before you head back down, back to Estes Park, enjoy the elk. There will be several elk alongside the road, and if you are traveling fast, you may miss them. It’s not uncommon to see a large herd near the highway or off in the distance. If you see one elk, there are usually several more nearby.
11. Watch For Bighorn Sheep
We have seen bighorn sheep near the Alpine Visitor Center while traveling both ways. They are beautiful animals that are often elusive in the park. Consider yourself lucky if you see one or a few near the Trail Ridge roadway. These animals are majestic and can be the subjects of beautiful photos.
12. Follow The Lines On The Road
Driving Trail Ridge Road is not for the faint of heart. Many miles of the road are next to a steep ledge. We have met people driving this road traveling on the wrong side of the road while approaching us head-on. Remain alert while driving, as many people will cross the center line when they realize the drop-off is steep. If you are prone to motion sickness or are afraid of heights, I would recommend that someone else in your party drive your vehicle up Trail Ridge Road.
13. Respect The Wildlife While Driving Trail Ridge Road
It is never okay to stop to feed the wildlife along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Never approach the elk for a close-up selfie. Use the zoom lens on your camera or phone, as elk are large and in charge. Elk are powerful and will charge when allowed to do so. Remember, you are a guest in their home, and it’s up to you to respect them. For more information, consider these tips for safely viewing wildlife in national parks.
- Stop at Rainbow Curve and Many Parks Curve on the Estes Park side of your road trip on Trail Ridge Road on your way to Grand Lake. It’s easier to pull in and out of these parking areas while traveling on the side of the road that the parking lots are on. These parking lots will fill later in the day, and it can become tricky when it comes to finding a parking space. There are also vault toilets in some of the parking areas along your route. Be prepared for any weather and take this drive with an attitude of exploration. Take your time and take it all in as you drive one of America’s most scenic highways.
Also consider Sara’s take on Why You Must Visit Estes Park, Colorado In An RV and, if you want to explore other scenic American drives, read up on: