If you're angling to drive through the clouds on the nation’s highest continuous paved roadway this summer, you're going to want to plan ahead.
Colorado’s Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (famously known as the Highway to the Sky) is now officially open for the summer after what was a rocky start to the season.
And when we say "rocky" we mean it: After opening in late May, massive snow drifts and a giant boulder shut it back down. On Friday, June 3, the majestic thoroughfare opened yet again. The boulder is still being removed from the road, causing a bit of a slow down on the route. However, a new reservation system is now in place to help manage the traffic in the park, so would-be visitors will have to plan ahead.
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How to reserve a time to enter Rocky Mountain National Park
After recent years of over-crowding, Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the busiest national parks in the US, has started a new timed entry reservation system.
To get a permit for Trail Ridge Road, travelers must book a permit that allows access to the park within two-hour windows of availability during a reservation period that stretches from 9 am to 3 pm. Head to the National Parks' website here for more information and to reserve your time. Day passes start at $15 per person or $30 per automobile.
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Didn't plan ahead and you're there now?
No worries, just head to the park with ample time prior to 9 am or after 3 pm and you'll be allowed to purchase a day pass without a timed reservation.
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The Trail Ridge Road route
The epic 48-mile thoroughfare snakes above the treeline to an elevation of 12,183 feet — where the mountains meet the clouds — winding through Rocky Mountain National Park and crossing the Continental Divide.
After Trail Ridge opened in 1932, linking the Colorado towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, the Rocky Mountain News called it a “scenic wonder road of the world.” And it’s no wonder, with the awe-inspiring vistas that stretch in all directions — north to Wyoming, east to the Great Plains and south and west into the Rockies.
The best stops along the route as you head from Estes Park to Grand Lake
Rainbow Curve (10,829 feet): Located 10,829 feet above sea level, this location gets its name for a reason: rainbows are often spotted here.
Forest Canyon Overlook (11,716 feet): Expect a dazzling panoramic view of Mount Ida, the Continental Divide and Forest Canyon, a distinctive U-shaped valley that was carved out by a massive glacier.
Iceberg Pass (11,827 feet): Trail Ridge Road is close to historic pathways that Indigenous people used to follow as they crossed the Rockies, and Iceberg Pass is the highest of three mountain passes.
Lava Cliffs (12,000 feet): It’s hard to imagine it now, but volcanoes originally helped create the Rocky Mountains. Pull off the road and scope out jagged lava cliffs formed millions of years ago.
Alpine Visitor Center (11,796 feet): The highest visitor center in the National Park Service has a restaurant, souvenirs, guided tours with park rangers and occasional sightings of bighorn sheep. Some travelers choose to turn around here, as the Trail Ridge Road does not make a loop, but you’d be missing out on seeing all the sites.
Milner Pass (10,759 feet): This is no ordinary pass: you’re crossing the mighty Continental Divide.
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Pro tips before you head out for the drive
- Leave early and plan to make a day of it.
- The route takes about 2 hours to complete.
- Pack snacks.
- Bring warm layers (it gets cold at the top).
- Consider staying at a hotel in Estes Park the night before your drive, so that you can acclimate to these lofty elevations.