Trail Ridge Road a thrilling drive to the top of Colorado |

Trail Ridge Road a thrilling drive to the top of Colorado

An elk goes for a summer swim in an icy pool in Rocky Mountain National Park. Scenes like this are a treat on the drive from Grand Lake to Estes Park on Trail Ridge Road.

— I asked a cashier at a small grocery store in Grand Lake last month what I could expect on the drive to the top of the world.

"I’ve never been," she replied to my surprise. "The road is too steep. I won’t drive it."

I hope she makes it up there someday.

I couldn’t imagine living so close to the highest continuously paved road in the country without having at least one memory of making it to the top.

The roughly 48-mile drive up and down Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park is breathtaking on any summer day.

At the end of June, the road that connects Grand Lake to Estes Park was particularly breathtaking.

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Each segment offers a different landscape from dense forest to river valley to Alpine tundra.

For a photographer, the drastic shift in scenery along the way might be more satisfying than any amusement park ride.

The start of it is only 1 1/2 hours away from here, and you can make it to Estes Park well before happy hour.

One of the early pull-offs along the quick ascent to 12,183 feet offers a sweeping view of the Never Summer Mountains and the Kawuneeche Valley.

The valley runs near the headwaters of the Colorado River and hosts moose, elk and coyotes.

My first brush with wildlife on Trail Ridge came around 12,000 feet, just before the Alpine Visitor Center.

Three bull elk grazed a mere 50 feet from the road as cars from places like Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee pulled over to get a closer look.

Some never had seen the animals in the wild before.

Even as crowds on the road and hikers on a nearby trail started getting way too close, the elk didn’t flinch.

But the highlight of the trip came a little farther up the road at a turnout below the park’s lava cliffs.

There, a herd of elk slowly climbed up the last blankets of snow on the cliffs.

A cow elk even found a large pool of ice-cold water fitting enough for a quick swim.

"It’s almost as if they knew we were coming," a woman standing next to me said as dozens of people pulled out cellphones and cameras to capture the moment.

At that point, I would have been happy turning around and going back to Steamboat.

But the finale came long after I ate dinner in Estes Park, turned around and timed my arrival back at the summit of the road to coincide with the sunset.

As sunsets atop the Rocky Mountains go, it was disappointing.

I’ve seen dozens in Steamboat with more color.

But behind the sunset, booming cloud formations rolled over the Alpine tundra.

The six of us who parked at the Gore Range overlook didn’t say a word for 30 minutes as we marveled at the scene playing out in front of us.

When I go back to that grocery store in Grand Lake, I’ll tell that cashier Trail Ridge Road would be a good place to overcome a fear of heights.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email

If you go

To get to Trail Ridge Road, take U.S. Highway 40 east to Granby. Continue on U.S. Highway 34 to Grand Lake. The highway becomes Trail Ridge at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. Access to the road requires a $20 visitor pass to the park. The pass is good for a week.

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