Motorcycle Guide to Trail Ridge Road | Colorado Scenic Byways
Riding a motorcycle on Trail Ridge Road is a thrilling, bucket list experience. Cresting at 12,183 feet in elevation, it’s the highest continuous paved road in North America.
Like the Beartooth Highway, Trail Ridge Road has been designated an All-American Road and is one of 26 designated scenic byways in Colorado.
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One ride up this highway is all it will take for you to understand why it’s my favorite ride in the state. If you plan to ride Trail Ridge Road while visiting Colorado, let this guide help plan your trip so that you don’t miss anything along the way!
Where is Trail Ridge Road?
Located within the park boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Trail Ridge Road (U.S. 34) connects the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake via a scenic 48-mile roadway. You will climb from 7,522 feet to 12,183 feet in elevation at the roadway’s summit, high in Colorado’s northern Rockies. (Hence the name of the park!)
The Western terminus of Trail Ridge Road is just outside of Grand Lake, CO and is roughly 100 miles (2 Hours) from downtown Denver. The Eastern Terminus in Estes Park is roughly 65 miles (1 hour and 20 minutes) from downtown Denver.
Important information for 2021: In 2020 Rocky Mountain National Park became the third most popular National Park in the United States. To reduce and control traffic flows, the park is implementing a timed entry system via recreation.gov. You MUST have a reservation through this website to enter the park for each motorcycle in your group. Each reservation is $2. The park entry fee can be paid at the gate, or you can use an Interagency Park Pass for entry.
What is the Best Time of Year to Ride a Motorcycle on Trail Ridge Road?
The short answer to this question: whenever it’s open. Trail Ridge Road offers unique views that change with the seasons. A helpful tip to remember is that you will climb nearly 5,000 feet in elevation, so temperatures will drop 20-30 degrees as you make your way above tree line.
Typically, Trail Ridge Road will open around Memorial Day weekend every year, weather permitting. It is always a gamble as to when the road will be plowed every year due to late season snowfall. Above tree line, Trail Ridge can get over 20 feet of snowpack, even in early June!
If you want to see Trail Ridge in all of its Winter glory, a trip within a week of its grand opening for the season will be the best time to see the giant walls of snow hugging the roadway. As the temperatures heat up for the Summer, the snow will begin to melt rather quickly.
Throughout the Summer, Trail Ridge Road can close at any given moment due to adverse weather. Lightning storms or even a mid July snow storm are common. Typically, storms roll in in the afternoons. So regardless of when you plan to visit, getting there early is a good choice. As summer draws on, the snow above tree line will melt away, giving way to beautiful wildflowers and alpine tundra landscapes.
If you wish to enjoy some leaf peeping of Colorado’s famed Aspens, or hear the bugle of a bull elk during the rut, a trip in September would be ideal. Trail Ridge will typically close for the year in October or November when the first snow storm impacts the area.
Is Trail Ridge Road Okay for New Riders?
Trail Ridge Road doesn’t feature any guard rails, and there are plenty of sections that can be a bit thrilling. One distracted moment could leave you and your bike hundreds, if not thousands, of feet below the roadway.
If you feel that you care capable of maintaining eye contact on the road, the rest of the ride is very manageable. There are only a handful of tight curves, but none of which are considered switchbacks (<10mph). Remember, you’re in a National Park, so speed limits are low and traffic may be congested.
Points of Interest Along Trail Ridge Road
- Wildlife: Moose, Yellow Belly Marmots, Pika, Chipmunks, Black Bears, Elk, and numerous other animals all call Rocky Mountain National Park home. The only animal I have yet to see during a ride on Trail Ridge Road, is a bear.
- Historical Areas: There are plenty of info boards that will tell you the story of the early settlers and native tribes that once called these lands home. You can also check out the Holzworth Historic District in Kawuneeche Valley/West Entrance and the Historic Fall River Hydro plant near the Fall River entrance.
- Kawuneeche Valley: The western area of the park was severely damaged by the East Troublesome fire in 2020. The burn scar through Kawuneeche Valley is saddening, but a blatant example of the power of mother nature. Its swampy, marsh-like flatlands are a Moose and Elk paradise. So keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.
- Fairview Curve: After climbing 4,000 feet in elevation, this viewpoint overlooks the Never Summer Mountains and Kawuneeche Valley below.
- Milner Pass / Continental Divide
- Medicine Bow Curve: You’ll be able to see Wyoming from this viewpoint. It is also where the tree line ends and the alpine tundra begins on the west side of the park.
- Alpine Visitor Center: Gift shop and cafeteria. Usually a very busy point in the park.
- Trail Ridge Road Summit + Lava Cliffs Overlook: From the highest point along the roadway you’ll also be able to check out the Lava Cliffs and Old Fall River Road in the distance
- Rock Cut/Tundra Communities Trailhead: A fairly congested parking area along the roadway. Great for a stop to enjoy the views if needed.
- Rainbow Curve: the first overlook below the tree line as you make your way towards the East side of the park. You’ll be able to see Estes Park from here, and perhaps a Pika or Chipmunk playing along the rocks.
- HWY 36 to Bear Lake Road: Currently under construction for the 2021 season. Packed gravel may be muddy at times. Turnouts offer views of Beaver Meadows, Longs Peak, and the Glacier Gorge area.
What to Pack for a Motorcycle Ride along Trail Ridge Road
Temperatures and weather conditions can change at a moment’s notice, especially on the 11 mile stretch above treeline. Here’s a few tips to make your ride a bit more enjoyable:
- Dress WARM! Even in the late Summer, you can see temperatures dip into the 40’s or even lower at higher elevations. Heated Gear never goes out of style here in Colorado.
- Avoid altitude sickness. Drink plenty of water and take it slow. If you’re feeling lightheaded or short-winded, take a break.
- You’ll be over two miles in elevation, giving you easy exposure to the sun. Even with a UV-protected shield, you may still get sunburned. Bring sunscreen.
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Other Helpful Tips
- The Park has a toll free phone number that offers the most up to date information on Trail Ridge Road Status, including closures and weather conditions: 970-586-1222
- There are no gas stations within the park. The nearby towns of Granby, Grand Lake, and Estes Park all have fuel stations.
- Avoid weekends and national holidays. This is standard procedure in any national park if you wish to enjoy them with fewer crowds.
- The West side of the park is significantly less crowded than the eastern side. Colorado is filled with beautiful mountain roadways, but most people do not venture far into the mountains from the front range/denver metro area. If you have the time to do a day ride, make your way to Rocky Mountain National Park via Berthoud Pass, and continue to the West Entrance. From there you can make your way back into Estes Park and to the front range well before nightfall.
- Don’t Bust the Crust! Hanging out at the scenic viewpoints along Trail Ridge Road is a luxury. Be mindful of the delicate landscape around you and do not wander off into the dirt for your own enjoyment.