Driving along Trail Ridge Road in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best ways to experience the natural beauty that earned this area National Park status.
As the parks primary road, it's not possible to experience what Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer without traversing this 48 mile (77 kilometer) scenic highway!
Once you have a better understanding of how this road provides access throughout the park and connects the towns of Estes Park to Grand Lake, it can make planning your trip to Rocky Mountain much easier.
Along the way you'll enjoy stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and if you're lucky you'll even spot some wildlife along the way!
Don't forget that Rocky Mountain National Park is now on the timed entry reservation system during peak season (end of May through early October). If you don't have a reservation be sure to head over to Recreation.gov to lock that in!
If you aren't familiar with that system - do not fear! I've put together a post highlighting how to get through the reservation process along with other useful tips. Check out my National Park Timed Entry Guide here!
Once you're finished reading this guide, be sure to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide I put together over on my YouTube channel. It includes tons of great footage I shot during my visit throughout the park.
You'll notice some links and advertisements from partner or affiliate sites throughout this post. I typically earn a small commission on any purchases made through those links at no additional cost to you. If you check those out, great. If not, I'm still happy you're here!
Where is Trail Ridge Road located?
There are three entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park. One entrance sits on the western side of the park and can be accessed via the town of Grand Lake.
On the eastern side of Rocky Mountain you have two options for entering that both originate from the fun town of Estes Park.
While we're on the subject - I've mentioned this in some of my other Rocky Mountain National Park related posts, but I'd suggest staying in Estes Park.
Some of Rocky Mountain's best sites are located along the Bear Lake Corridor, an offshoot from Trail Ridge Road which is much closer to Estes Park. It's also closer to Old Fall River Road which leads to the roadside waterfall of Chasm Falls. If you aren't familiar with that area, be sure to check out my short video on YouTube highlighting Old Fall River Road.
We stayed in Estes Park during our stay but on our last day drove the length of Trail Ridge Road all the way to Grand Lake.
If you're eventually flying out of Denver this can be a great option to see both towns. Driving time back to Denver is slightly longer from Grand Lake, but switching up the scenery along the way is well worth it.
Once you start on Trail Ridge Road (aka State Route 36) it will take you the length of Rocky Mountain National Park and dump you off in the opposite town of where you started.
Is Trail Ridge Road difficult to drive?
Visitors without mountain driving experience may find Trail Ridge Road slightly difficult. The road can have steep grades and windy turns with steep drops. However, if you enjoy scenic drives Trail Ridge Road should be one for your USA Road Trip bucket list.
Visitors will reach elevations of 12,183 feet (3,713 meters) at the roads highest point. Along the way you'll enjoy unparalleled views of the Rocky Mountains, some of the best that Colorado has to offer.
Along the way you'll find numerous pull offs to stop, take in the views and to snap some photos.
Photographs of the massive Rocky Mountain peaks hardly do the experience justice, it's the type of thing you really need to experience for yourself.
Keep an eye out for wildlife along the way. We were fortunate enough to spot the moose below near the Fall River entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
In fact, we encountered this moose less than 5 minutes into our three days exploring the park.
Sadly we wouldn't spot another moose, but we did see plenty of marmots and elk along the way. Many visitors will also encounter bighorn sheep!
While wildlife encounters can be exciting, be respectful and safe. The moose we saw was far off in a field which made for safe viewing.
Some people will instinctively try getting close for a selfie or better photo, but remember these are WILD animals and can be aggressive.
Also, be mindful of your speed along Trail Ridge Road. You'll encounter tourists on both ends of the speed spectrum.
That is, people who drive way too slow, along with people who think this is a time trial for the Indy 500.
If you're driving slow to enjoy the views, there are countless pull offs where you can let faster traffic pass. This is a great tip to keep in mind when visiting most National Parks.
Now would be a good time to mention that if you're visiting Colorado during the summer, travelers will be in competition for rental cars which can drive up their prices. Be sure to secure your rental car reservation well in advance using a tool that allows you to compare prices across different agencies.
Will I have cell phone service on Trail Ridge Road?
Cell phone service throughout most of Rocky Mountain National Park is minimal. Service and GPS will be spotty so be sure to get your bearings down while you still have good service in either Estes Park or Grand Lake.
You might have better luck at some of the higher points in the park. Most visitors will end up taking a pit stop at the Alpine Visitor Center (check out our post on that here) located near the heart of Rocky Mountain.
This is a decent area to try for service and there will be National Park Service employees around to help if you're lost or have a question!
Is there a fee to drive on Trail Ridge Road?
There is not a fee specific for Trail Ridge Road. The Rocky Mountain National Park entry pass and timed entry reservation are all you need. You can check out current rates at the National Park Service's website.
How long does it take to drive across Trail Ridge Road?
If your itinerary allows it - be sure to drive the entire length of Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to Grand Lake.
This is the only way to ensure you see everything Rocky Mountain has to offer (don't forget to take a Bear Lake Corridor detour)! Bear Lake Corridor is home to many of RMNP's best hikes including Nymph, Dream and Emerald Lakes! If you aren't familiar with that circuit, check out my video covering the hike to Emerald Lake on YouTube.
This drive (without any stops) will take about 90 minutes in each direction. If it's your first or only time passing through the park, you might want to budget an extra hour to make a few stops at pullouts along the road. Be sure to check out places like the Alpine Visitor Center, Lake Irene Picnic Area and Tundra Communities Trailhead!
Past that, budget additional time if you plan to break for lunch or do some hiking.
Are there bathrooms along Trail Ridge Road?
You'll actually find restrooms (of the outhouse variety) quite frequently along Trail Ridge Road. If you're entering from the Fall River entrance there are some higher quality facilities at the welcome center, take advantage of that before venturing into the mountains!
Once you're inside the park, you can find facilities at the Alpine Visitor Center or at many of the trailheads located along the road.
What is the best time of day to visit Trail Ridge Road?
The best time to visit Trail Ridge Road is partially dependent on what activities you plan to attempt during your visit and when your timed entry reservation will allow for you to enter the park.
But, generally speaking, the earlier the better! Keep in mind during the summer Rocky Mountain frequently experiences afternoon thunderstorms so you might not want to get caught driving in those.
While we didn't drive through any of the park after dark, the lack of any lighting means it's will be VERY dark here at night. Great for stargazing, less fun for driving in the mountains.
Be sure to check with the NPS for any road or facilities closures when planning your stay. Trail Ridge Road is frequently closed due to snow.
Also - don't forget to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park Video Guide over on my YouTube channel if you haven't already!
Looking for suggestions on what to pack for hiking for your Colorado trip?
Chances are if you're visiting Rocky Mountain National Park you'll be doing some hiking. If you're doing some hiking you'll want to have the right gear handy in order to have the best experience possible.
For your convenience I've put together an extremely thorough hiking checklist to make sure you don't overlook anything.
That guide is geared towards longer day hikes, so if you're doing something more casual you probably won't need everything on that list. But rest assured you won't overlook a thing!
Check out my Timed Entry Reservation Guide
There's one mistake you cannot afford to make when visiting US National Parks. Showing up without a timed entry reservation is a surefire way to blow up what should be an otherwise stress free day exploring some of Americas most beautiful destinations.
If the park you're visiting requires timed entry be sure to check out my Timed Entry Reservation Guide here!
Another great resource to check out while planning your trip is my video covering things to know before visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. In that guide I'll cover everything I wish I would've known before visiting. I also put together a resource highlighting my favorite things to do in RMNP.
I hope this post covering Trail Ridge Road Colorado helps make your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park go smoothly.