Classic Roads: Colorado US 34: Trail Ridge Road National Scenic Byway

Jul 16, 2018 View Comments by

Colorado US 34

This 64-mile Classic Roads adventure begins in the historic mountain resort town of Estes Park, Colorado, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and rolls along a stretch of US 34, which is the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. It has been a popular destination for motorists since its completion in 1938. The present-day route follows a trail formerly used by Native Americans to cross the mountains along this high ridge between their homelands in the west and hunting grounds to the east.

Owing to the road’s high elevation (11 miles are above the tree line) and substantial snowfall, the route is usually open only in late June through early October. Even in mid-summer a ride may start out warm and comfortable in Estes Park, but soon turn frigid as it gains thousands of feet in elevation. Donning additional layers of clothing or activating heated gear along the route will make for a more comfortable riding experience.

The visitor centers and museums along the route give riders a more in-depth understanding of the area’s geological and human history. There are numerous turnouts for panoramic overlooks across the Rockies and, on a clear day, into other states. For those looking for even more adventure in the park, there are trailheads leading to additional natural splendor. Although corner carving may be tempting on this serpentine road, substantial elevation changes, drop-offs, and hairpin curves suggest a prudent rate of speed. So, let’s get started at a historic hotel in Estes Park.

Points of Interest

  1. The Stanley Hotel
Although it’s often considered the most historic and luxurious accommodation in Estes Park, the Stanley Hotel has a darker side, which horror-film buffs will readily recognize. This hotel was novelist Steven King’s inspiration for his 1977 best-selling book The Shining and the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation (but filmed in other locations). Find it at 333 Wonder View Ave, Estes Park, CO, (800) 976-1377, www.stanleyhotel.com.
  2. Rocky Mountain National Park
With over 265,000 acres in land area and four-million visitors annually, this is one of America’s premier national parks. The eastern and western slopes of the continental divide run through the middle of the park, and heavily wooded forests give way to alpine tundra above the tree line. Some of the larger mammals commonly seen in the park are mule deer, bighorn sheep, and moose. For more information, go to: www.nps.gov/romo.
  3. Moraine Park Museum and Amphitheater
Moraine Park is a glaciated meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park, located just south of Route US 36. The park’s museum has hands-on, interactive exhibits that demonstrate various processes of nature, including geological, glaciation, climate, ecosystems and human impact. Phone: (970) 586-1206.
  4. Highest Point on Trail Ridge Road
This route reaches a maximum altitude of 12,183 feet at the location indicated on the map. Enjoy the superb vistas from here and avoid altitude sickness by not overdoing physical exertion at these heights. Also, the temperature here will be 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) colder than it is in Estes Park.
  5. Alpine Visitor Center
At Fall River Pass (elev. 11,796 feet), the Alpine Visitor Center has exhibits on alpine tundra ecosystems. Views from this location include the Fall River Valley, Trail Ridge, and the Never Summer and Medicine Bow mountain ranges. Short and longer hiking trails are accessible from the center, and rangers are on hand to provide park orientation and interpretive programs.
  6. Fairview Curve Overlook
When rounding Fairview Curve, this overlook comes into view quickly. Although there are no services at this pullout, it is worth the stop. The panoramic views of the glacier carved Kawuneeche Valley and the Colorado River are stunning. Kawuneeche means “valley of the coyote” in Arapaho. Although parking may be limited, most traffic pulls in and out relatively quickly.
  7. Kawuneeche Visitor Center
This visitor center, one mile north of Grand Lake, CO, on US 34, stands at the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. A topographical relief map and an on-request film help orient visitors to the park’s many offerings, with a bookstore, ranger programs, restrooms, and a picnic area on site.
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