Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park's heavily traveled highway to the sky, inspired awe before the first motorist ever traveled it. "It is hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make," predicted Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, in 1931 during the road's construction. "You will have the whole sweep of the Rockies before you in all directions."."
The next year, Rocky Mountain National Park's lofty wilderness interior was introduced to the first travelers along an auto route the Rocky Mountain News called a "scenic wonder road of the world."
Covering the 48 miles between Estes Park on the park's east side and Grand Lake on the west, Trail Ridge Road more than lives up to its advanced billing. Eleven miles of this high highway travel above treeline, the elevation near 11,500 feet where the park's evergreen forests come to a halt. As it winds across the tundra's vastness to its high point at 12,183 feet elevation, Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) offers visitors thrilling views, wildlife sightings and spectacular alpine wildflower exhibitions, all from the comfort of their car.
Whether they begin their journey at Estes Park or Grand Lake, Trail Ridge Road travelers climb some 4,000 feet in a matter of minutes. The changes that occur en route are fascinating to observe. A drive that may begin in montane forests of aspen and ponderosa pine soon enters thick subalpine forests of fir and spruce. At treeline, the last stunted, wind-battered trees yield to the alpine tundra.
Up on that windswept alpine world, conditions resemble those found in the Canadian or Alaskan Arctic. It's normally windy and 20 to 30 degrees colder than Estes Park or Grand Lake. The sun beats down with high- ultraviolet intensity. The vistas, best enjoyed from one of several marked road pullovers, are extravagant, sweeping north to Wyoming, east across the Front Range cities and Great Plains, south and west into the heart of the Rockies.
But for all its harshness, the Trail Ridge tundra is a place of vibrant life and vivid colors. Pikas, marmots, ptarmigans and bighorn sheep are commonly seen. About 200 species of tiny alpine plants hug the ground. Despite a growing season that may last just 40 days, many bloom exuberantly, adorning the green summer tundra with swatches of yellow, red, pink, blue, purple and white. All are seen from the Tundra World Nature Trail, a half- hour walk beginning near the parking area at Rock Cut.
Most Trail Ridge Road travelers drive to treeline with a certain amount of urgency. They are advised not to ignore all that awaits in the verdant country below the alpine tundra. Forested moraines, great heaps of earth and rock debris left behind by melting Ice Age glaciers, rise above lush mountain meadows. The Continental Divide, where streamflows are separated east from west, is crossed at Milner Pass, located at a surprisingly low 10,120 feet elevation. Moose munch greenery in the upper reaches of the Colorado River, which flows through the scenic Kawuneeche Valley. Grazing elk greet sunrise and sunset in many of the forest-rimmed meadows found around the park.
At all elevations, the drive on Trail Ridge Road is a memorable adventure. Put aside at least a half day for the trip. Longer, if possible. The experience, as Horace Albright suggested more than a half century ago, is hard to describe.
Completed in 1921, Old Fall River Road earned the distinction of being the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park offering access to the park's high country. In the minds of many park visitors, the relatively subtle old route remains foremost. Unlike Trail Ridge Road, which is well known for being the highest continuous paved road in the nation, the Old Fall River Road is a much more "motor nature trail."
Primarily gravel, one-way uphill and punctuated by switchbacks, slower-paced, 11-mile-long. The old road quietly leads travelers from Horseshoe Park (a short distance west of the Fall River Entrance) through the park's wilderness to Fall River Pass, 11,796 feet above sea level. The journey to the alpine world at the top of Old Fall River Road is relaxing. The experience is one to be savored.
The posted speed limit is 15 miles per hour, a clear indication that a journey up Old Fall River Road is not for the impatient. The road itself is safe, but narrow and curved. In places, the trees of the montane and subalpine forests are so close that motorists can touch them. Old Fall River Road is ideal for visitors seeking to become intimate with nature.
The road follows a route traveled long ago by Indian hunters, who came to the park area in search of its abundant game. Early in the trip, travelers pass the alluvial fan scoured out by the 1982 Lawn Lake Flood and the site of a labor camp that housed state convicts who worked on the road project. For these men, crime did not pay. The laborers were forced to build the three-mile stretch of road to the scenic respite of Chasm Falls with no more than hand tools at their disposal.
After passing Willow Park, where elk often are seen feeding on the foliage, the road enters the alpine tundra. Awaiting there is the Fall River Cirque, birthplace of glaciers that once worked their way up and down the mountain valleys. The road traverses the headwall of this amphitheater-like formation before joining Trail Ridge Road near the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass.
Ahead lie the wonders of Trail Ridge Road, which leads travelers east to Estes Park or southwest to Grand Lake. Behind is Old Fall River Road, that winding old route that offers travelers a taste of auto travel in days gone by and a look at Rocky Mountain's nature close-up.