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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Driving the Trail Ridge

Since I moved to Colorado nine years ago, almost to the day, I’ve wanted to drive Trail Ridge Road, the highest continual road in the country at a maximum elevation of 12,183 feet. And finally, today, I did just that.
It was a long day with a lot of driving, but the views on Trail Ridge Road and the hikes we went on in Rocky Mountain National Park made up for all of the time in the car, much of which was raining anyway. We were sprinkled on a bit at the end of our first hike to Alberta Falls and around Bear Lake, but it was really no bother since we got in the car shortly after it started and made our way west across the mountains and the Continental Divide at Milner Pass.
The hike to and from Alberta Falls is one of my favorites in Colorado. It’s not a difficult hike, except maybe the last half mile since it’s up a good incline, but it ends at a very large and beautiful waterfall. The falls are surrounded by several huge boulders that are good for climbing on. And if the rocks are followed up high enough, it generally leads to some seclusion and waterfall tranquility; away from everyone atthe spot where the main trail ends.
The 3,200 foot walk around Bear Lake, after returning from Alberta Falls, is as easy as they come with very little change in grade. It offers some very picturesque vantage points, but it’s so crowded, even on a week day like this, that it’s hardly worth it. There are much better ways to spend time in the park than in such crowded locations as Bear Lake and Alberta Falls, even though seclusion can be found here as I said.
Many less crowded spots can be found, as I discovered today, on the west side of the park. With my trip over Trail Ridge Road today the number of excellent, and apparently uncrowded, trailheads far exceeded my expectations. There were dozens of paths to take that were readily accessible from parking lots just off the road. And it was here that we saw the best wildlife today too.

We saw several little critters early in the trip, and only three elk, but nothing overly exciting. At the Alpine Visitor’s Center though, there’s a half-mile hike that goes up to the top of a nearby peak, literally taking your breath away as you climb, maxing out at 12,005 feet, or 2.3 miles, above sea level. And at the top of that trail we found a little marmot happily eating away at some grass in the rocks.
It was a welcome surprise since we had really not seen anything yet. But, once we started to head down into the west side of the park, we found two large herds of elk. We were hopeful to discover some moose since a ranger at the visitor’s center mentioned they live on the west side of the park, but were delighted nonetheless with the elk find.
We got several great photos of two of them grazing near the Coyote Valley Trail picnic area. We tried to be careful and not disturb them, but it was obvious they were aware of our presence. Gradually we moved closer and closer to them, but with patience so as not to startle them and cause any problems. We moved slowly and paused several times to make sure they knew where we were by lifting their heads from grazing to look at us, at about the nearest point, 70 or so yards away.
It was a lot of fun to see the elk so close and to drive the road. It has such great curves as it stretches over the mountain tops, making it a road that needs to be driven. And yeah, that includes in cars like my little four cylinder. It’s fun no matter what, and it offers spectacular views of the mountains, many of which still have a good snow covering in late June.
For anyone that doesn’t live near Rocky Mountain National Park, like myself, I suggest taking several days to see the area and enjoy the trails and the views. Estes Park, Colorado, the east gateway to the park, is also worth a strong look.
Unlike many Colorado mountain towns, it’s more popular in thesumer than the winter due to the lack of ski slopes. So, in the summer, Estes Park can be a crowded town with a multitude of festivals, souvenir shops and great eats along the main street in town, Highway 34, which ultimately winds up going over the mountains as Trail Ridge Road.
Knowing what I know now though, there’s no way I’d center my Rocky Mountain National Park trip in Estes Park. It’s worth a good visit, that’s for sure, but I found the west side of the park to be just as beautiful and a lot less crowded. And when trying to enjoy nature, the fewer the crowds the better in my opinion.

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  1. A Scenic Drive Over Old Fall River Road | Jason's Travels - August 13, 2012

    […] Trail Ridge Road is the highest continually paved road in the United States. It runs from one side of Rocky Mountain National Park to the other, lifting drivers and their passengers above tree line in the process. When it was built it replaced Old Fall River Road, which opened in 1920 and is now nothing more than a seasonal scenic drive, or “motor nature trail,” as the National Park Service calls it, up the side of Mount Chapin to the Alpine Visitor Center. […]

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