The Opening of Trail Ridge Road

The Opening of Trail Ridge Road

Rotary Snowplow on Trail Ridge Road.
Massive rotary snowplows are used each spring to clear Trail Ridge Road.

At more than 12,000-feet in elevation, each spring, rotary plows dig paths through mounds of wind-driven snow on Trail Ridge Road, often leaving snowdrifts more than 20-25 feet high. Rocky Mountain National Park, typically, opens Trail Ridge Road on Memorial Day weekend but weather is always a factor. A week before Memorial Day 2017, a spring snow dumped three feet or more feet of snow on the Park. The 2017 opening had to be postponed until after Memorial Day.

Once Trail Ridge is open, it’s quite a sight. If you have a chance get up there, it’s an experience that you will never forget.

Last year we decided to drive up Trail Ridge Road several days after the road opened. The trees along Estes Park’s Elkhorn Avenue were leafed out and people walked around in t-shirts and shorts. We weren’t fooled. Before we hopped in the car for our trip up top, we dressed in jeans and sweatshirts and packed windbreakers, stocking caps and gloves.

As we drove through lower elevations of the park, we didn’t see much snow along the road. What was the big deal? We stopped at Rainbow Curve and gazed down at the Horseshoe Park. The river snaked through green meadows and the aspen trees showed a brilliant green. The chipmunks gathered at our feet looking for handouts but we said “No sir, buster!”

Back on Trail Ridge Road we drove above treeline and were soon looking up at 20-foot cliffs of snow. This was a treat since eight miles of the 48-mile long road between Estes Park and Grand Lake is above treeline at 11,000 feet. The Park’s rotary snowplows had been working since April to clear the road and several plows were parked by the side of the road in case the weather turned bad, which is guaranteed at this altitude. It snows every month on top and often the road must be closed until dangerous conditions improve.

In the distance, the ground is snow-covered with occasional patches of bare, windswept tundra. We stopped at Rock Cut and gazed at the layers of whipped cream snow that covered the Never Summer Range. Though the air temperature was in the low 40s the brisk wind blowing across fields of snow makes it seem COLDER! We put on our windbreakers, stocking caps and gloves as we watched those wearing shorts and t-shirts rush to their cars to escape the weather.

The vistas were breathtaking. We stopped at a marked pull off and we could see east across the Front Range and Great Plains, north to Wyoming and west to the Rockies. Longs Peak dominated the southern skyline.

At more than two miles above sea level we struggled to catch our breath. But the thin air was fresh, invigorating, the sky filled with billowing white-gray clouds that play peek-a-boo with the surrounding peaks. One moment Longs Peak in the distance is bathed in sun, and the next it is enveloped in clouds.

This video captures some of the fun excitement on Trail Ridge Road the first few weeks after opening.

A few adventurous souls scrambled over the snow to the Toll Memorial Trail but we would wait until later in the summer when some of the snow had melted and we could see more than 200 species of tiny alpine plants decorate the summer tundra with splashes of yellow, red, pink, blue, purple and white. The growing season lasts only 40 days at this altitude, so not only are these tiny plants beautiful, but they are tough.

We drove west past more towering snow drifts to the Alpine Visitor Center and the Trail Ridge Store. Each year snow covers both buildings to the rafters and Park employees must dig the buildings out and clear the parking lot. It’s a huge job that leave banks of snow well into the summer.

On the way down we stopped for a picnic at Hidden Valley. The sun appeared from behind clouds and the grass was turning green. It seemed impossible that there were snowdrifts only miles away.

If you haven’t drive Trail Ridge Road in those several weeks after opening, it’s a whole new experience and definitely worth the time.

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