Mini Road Trip: Driving the Trail Ridge Road

By: Virgin Atlantic

February 12, 2016

The road trip. An American-born institution that’s all about freedom, family and, most importantly, views. High up on the list of the United States’ most picturesque routes is Colorado’s Trail Ridge Road. Meandering through Rocky Mountain National Park’s alpine forests and snow-capped glaciers, the route’s vistas are unrivalled.

Highway 34 (the road’s less impressive moniker) is the highest paved road in North America, which has its obvious advantages but also presents an unavoidable problem. As its summit is so high, the road becomes impossible to drive when winter hits. In fact, it takes around four weeks to clear following heavy snowfall. As such, the mountainous path is only open during summer, usually from late May until late October.

With a route as beautiful as the Trail Ridge Road, take your time and make a whole day out of the drive, which starts just a couple of hours outside of Denver. Join us as we take a slow road trip, following the path of the sun from Estes Park in the East to Grand Lake in the West.

Estes Park

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | The Stanley
Stay over at the ‘haunted’ Stanley hotel © The Stanley

Trail Ridge Road is, unsurprisingly, a major Colorado attraction, which means it can get busy. Beat the crowds with an early morning start. While the route is easily accessible from Boulder, make it even easier for yourself by staying over in Estes Park the night before. For a night to remember, splash the cash and book into The Stanley, an elegant Victorian hotel which inspired Stephen King’s novel The Shining. A warning: the ghosts of late owners Freelan Oscar and Flora Stanley are said to still wander the hotel’s halls late at night.


In the morning, pick up some snacks for the road. Estes Park, which surrounds Estes Lake, happens to be a hub of saltwater taffy making. If you’re travelling with the family, a box of assorted sweets from The Taffy Shop is bound to go down a treat.


Many Parks Curve

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | Bighorn Sheep
Spot native mountain animals like Bighorn Sheep © Rocky Mountain National Park

Once you’d filled the car with treats and passengers, it’s time to set off. There are plenty of highlights to look out for en route, most of which are signposted, so keep your eyes peeled. One of the first layovers is at Many Parks Curve, where visitors are treated to unbeatable views over Estes Park, Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park. Look closely and you may spot dozens of elk frolicking in the grass.

Rainbow Curve Outlook

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | Hallett Peak
Drive past Hallett Peak on the Trail Ridge Road © Rocky Mountain National Park

As you meander on up through glacier valleys and past crystalline lakes, you’ll come across Rainbow Curve. Another highlight on Trail Ridge Road, this viewpoint allows snap-happy visitors to capture stunning vistas of the entire Eastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Play a game of “˜spot the mountain’ and tick off your list famous peaks such as the giant Mount Fairchild and Hagues Peak – both scaling over 13,000ft.

Rock Cut

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | Train Ridge Road
Drive through Rock Cut © Ann Schonlau/Rocky Mountain National Park

As you continue climbing higher and higher you’ll come across Rock Cut – a landmark section of the road that cuts through the mountainside. Stop for a break and stretch your legs with a walk along the Tundra Communities Trail. At 12,000ft, the altitude is high but the half-mile hike is classed as easy and is worthwhile for the captivating terrain and wildlife. The area is rife with pika – adorable small alpine mammals that look like fluffy mice without the tails. Nature lovers can also spot marmots that live in mountainous areas, and bighorn sheep, which are native to North America.

Lava Cliffs

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | Wildflowers
Spot wildflowers growing alongside Trail Ridge Road © Rocky Mountain National Park

Back in the car, continue up to Lava Cliffs – the highest point on Trail Ridge Road. At 12,183ft above sea level, you’re also above the tree line – and occasionally, above the clouds. It can get very windy up here so hold onto your hats. While the weather is too fierce for trees to grow, strong-rooted shrubs and wildflowers manage to cling onto the earth and add some welcome colour to the otherwise barren landscape.

Alpine Visitor Centre

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | Sunset from Alpine Visitor Center
Enjoy a dramatic sunset at Alpine Visitor Centre © Rocky Mountain National Park

Like the Trail Ridge Road, the nearby Alpine Visitor Centre is only open seasonally. Break for lunch at the restaurant – the sole eatery in the national park – and take in panoramic views over the mountains and alpine tundra below. Walk off lunch with a ‘Land Above the Trees’ hike along the ridge, accompanied by a park ranger. A trip to the centre is also a good opportunity to pick up guide books and souvenirs of your day out.

Milner Pass

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | View of Rocky Mountain National Park
Take in the views over Rocky Mountain National Park © Davis Tilley/Visit Estes Park

As you begin the drive back down towards sea level, you’ll soon come across Milner Pass. Located on the continental divide between the watershed draining into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, this significant natural landmark is marked with a large sign, which makes for a popular photo opportunity.

Grand Lake

Driving the Trail Ridge Road | Rocky Mountain National Park
Cycle or drive along Trail Ridge Road © Marc Piscotti/Visit Estes Park

Once you’ve packed your cameras away, continue down to the charming lakeside town of Grand Lake, where the Trail Ridge Road ends. The town sits on the shores of Grand Lake – the largest natural body of water in Colorado. If the sun is still up on your arrival, spend a relaxing afternoon fishing or sailing, before checking into one of the many quaint lakeside cabins or summer houses.

Our partnership with Delta means it’s easier than ever to travel to Colorado, making the Trail Ridge Road a great destination for your next road trip.

Written by Rachel Ingram

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic

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