Trail Ridge road is one of the most scenic roads and has plenty of overlooks with awesome views. It is also the highest paved highway in the U.S and the only one that goes through the Rocky Mountain National Park across the Continental Divide from its east entrance to the west entrance.
We were curious to see the western side of the Rocky Mountains. We discovered that there are beautiful lakes ranging from small gems hidden in the woods to vast and large lakes with islands, coves and inlets. There are also picturesque waterfalls, creeks, and the Colorado River in its inception. There are the forested ridges of Never Summer Mountains, deep canyons and valleys created by glaciers millions of years ago. There is a historical site, which tells the story of homesteaders who settled in the area.
Trail Ridge road, which is also Highway 34, is pretty narrow, but two cars can pass each other. It has lots of switchbacks and takes travelers through three different ecosystems.
There is Montane region with meadows, pine and aspen woods which is below 9000 feet.
The Subalpine region is between 9,000 and 11,400 feet. It’s characterized by spruce and fir trees and an abundance of wildlife.
The Alpine Tundra is above 11,400 feet. It has a harsh climate and strong winds, reaching up to 100 miles per hour. The oxygen level is low, which leaves you out of breath and can induce altitude sickness. Strong ultraviolet radiation can cause burns to the skin and unprotected eyes. Sunscreen and dark sunglasses are needed for such high altitude. The soil is poor in the alpine tundra and the only plants that survive here are moss, lichens, sedges and little flowers, which are covered with tiny hair to hold warmth and preserve moisture during a short summer period.
The length of Trail Ridge road from Estes Park on the east side to Grand Lake on the west side is 50 miles. However, since there are many breathtaking vistas and overlooks to stop at along the way, it’s possible to spend the whole day driving from one side of the park to the other. There are also interpretive trails and three visitors’ centers: Fall River Visitor Center, Alpine Visitor Center and Kawuneeche Visitor Center. We stopped at the Fall River Center. It has rest rooms, maps, information, a souvenir shop, a cafe, and friendly park rangers. The highest point of Trail Ridge road is at 12,183 feet. Irene Lake was so pretty, that we stopped there on our way from Estes Park to Granby and also on our way back to Estes Park.
The first overlook we stopped at was Many Parks Curve at about 9,620 feet. The weather was sunny with temperatures in low 60s. A long paved sidewalk with railings was built on a steep cliff. It hugged a sharp curve of the highway. The overlook has a panoramic view of the valley down below and the surrounding mountains with slopes overgrown by fir trees and aspens. In the valley a network of trails meandered between pine trees heading into the mountain ranges. The valley was created by a glacier millions of years ago. There were spectacular views of Moraine Park to the south and Horseshoe Park to the north. Heavy clouds, white and fluffy on the tops and grey and saturated with moisture at their bellies, were hanging over the bald mountain peaks, casting shadows on the landscape of the valley. The tree line was clearly visible separating almost barren mountain peaks from lush and green lower parts of the slopes. There was scanty vegetation among the boulders outcropping on the tops of the mountains.
The weather changes pretty quickly at high altitude as well as the character of these beautiful mountains and valleys. When the wind blew away the clouds and the sun showed up on the strikingly blue sky, the mountains and the valley looked cheerful and green. Before that it was somber and dark. Clouds hanged so low that they looked like they were hooked to the mountains tops. We watched the play of the wind with clouds and sun for a while and took off to the next overlook.
The next overlook, Forest Canyon, was already above the tree line at an elevation about 11,716 feet. It is in the Alpine tundra region and the climate resembles the arctic regions of Alaska, Siberia and Canada. The temperatures here are below freezing about half of the year. It was significantly cooler and the wind was so strong that we had to put on our jackets. Lush and green Forest Canyon can be seen down below from a short trail and an observation point. Millions of years ago, during an ice age, a frozen river, thousands of feet deep, filled the canyon. From the trail, as far as the eye can see, there were barren craggy mountain tops with small pockets of snow in hollows between the peaks. Moss and short greyish brown grass interspersed with boulders, which were flattened by erosion and harsh weather, created a bleak cover of the earth.
Heavy grey clouds, the craggy peaks of the mountains and the austere landscape of tundra met at the horizon. There was not any space between the clouds and jagged mountain peaks, but a blue sky appeared for a moment when the wind blew away the oppressive cloud cover. The clouds were unbelievably low.
The next stop was Lava Cliffs overlook. There was a small reservoir of melted ice under the cliffs. These cliffs were formed 28 million years ago as a result of a volcanic explosion in the Never Summer Mountains. Molten lava moved like an avalanche for about 12 miles from the place of the explosion and stopped right there. It cooled off and formed rock called welded tuff.
We also stopped at Irene Lake. Its serene and quiet beauty is mesmerizing. The reflection of fir trees on its calm surface was soothing. The first time we were at the lake it was cloudy and a little rainy. Blue dragonflies were swooping over the lake to the sedges growing in shallow water close to the shore.
Continuing on, we were lucky to see wildlife close to the road. Just as we passed Kawuneeche Visitor center we spotted a moose in the trees next to the highway and a few minutes later a herd of mule deer grazing in the grass.
To be continued.