Cycling over Trail Ridge Road

      by Gordon S. Novak Jr.       July 1, 1998

The best way to see Trail Ridge Road is by bicycle; you can see and hear far more than in a car, and being out in the weather is exhilarating. I usually ride starting from our cabin in Meeker Park, giving a total ride of 62.4 miles (100 km) to Grand Lake with a total elevation gain of about a mile. From Estes Park, the distance is about 48 miles.

I leave at 07:55 and head for Estes Park; although that is "downhill", it requires 600 feet of elevation gain to reach Fall River Pass. It takes about 45 minutes to reach Estes, and I stop at the Mountaineer restaurant for a big breakfast; I'll be burning it off. I leave at 09:34 and head toward the Fall River entrance of the Park. I pay for another entrance fee for myself and the bike (my wife will drive over with the car later); the ranger at the entrance station seems especially pleased to see a cyclist.

I ride up the hill and through the sheep crossing area, then up a fairly steep hill to Deer Ridge Junction at 10 miles from Estes, 10:46. Sometimes there are swarms of biting flies here; bring repellant. The next section is fairly mild, sometimes even downhill. I pass the beaver pond walk. (When was the last time there was a beaver here? I've never seen one.) At the entrance to the old Hidden Valley ski area, the road starts up. Ten miles of 6% grade. Any questions? The road has a narrow shoulder, maybe 18 inches, but enough for a de facto bike lane. After the first uphill section, I reach Many Parks Curve at 11:26, 14 miles from Estes. A rest and then on to Rainbow Curve at 12:20, 18 miles. An impressive 4 mph, somewhat less than Lance would average.

Rainbow Curve has a great view of the Mummy Range and a better than average privy. Clark's nutcrackers wait for nuts thrown by visitors. This is near timberline, and the air is getting thin. Above Rainbow Curve the road is narrower, without any shoulder. There's a drop-off to the right on a slope that burned a century ago and still has not recovered. Cars are polite, though, and pass with care. The road crosses a pass (where the Ute trail starts), and now there is a wider shoulder, often containing rocks. I reach the Forest Canyon Overlook at 13:12, 21 miles from Estes. This place often feels cold when you get out of a car, but the cool wind feels good now.

Only a little more uphill to the Rock Cut, and not as steep as before. Elk are scattered on the tundra slopes below. Beyond the Rock Cut (over 12,000 feet) the road turns down, although there are a few uphill sections left. There are bighorn sheep as well as elk on the slopes, and lots of cars are stopped to look at them. One more uphill section, then steeply down to the visitors center, 27 miles from Estes, at 14:06. It is quite nice to ride back to Estes from the visitors center, although that steep downhill section requires a climb on the way back. The ride down toward Rainbow Curve is especially nice; it feels as if one could just sail off over the valley, one of the few times I've wished I were in a hang glider.

It's also possible to reach the visitor center up Fall River Road, usually opened to car traffic (one-way going up) about July 4. It's better for bicycles to use it before it is opened to cars; otherwise it will be hazardous and dusty. Presumably a cyclist could go down Fall River Road before it opens. A triple crank is needed to go up the road for most mortals.

People are impressed to see a cyclist on top. "How old are you?" Fifty. "Wow." It's fun to add to the local color. Riding all that way makes even a visitor center hot dog taste delicious.

The trip down to Grand Lake is mostly downhill, and of course that's nice, but it's stressful too. You can go fast and take the lane; but the occasional speed demon feels compelled to pass you (can't wait to get out of this beautiful place and back to civilized ugliness). Even worse, watch out for the idiot tourist parked in the middle of the road on a blind curve to watch a deer; always be prepared to stop within the distance you can see ahead. A viewpoint at Farview Curve provides a great view of the Kawuneechee valley, Never Summer range, and the Grand Ditch that forms a scar across the opposite valley wall.

After some switchbacks, the road is less steep as it follows the valley down. Some cars are stopped watching moose grazing in the swampy area below. The moose appears to be a water cow: that long nose allows it to graze on plants under the water while keeping its eyes and ears out to watch for predators. The historic Never Summer Ranch beside the road is a nice side trip. The downhill ends and there are mild rolling hills, requiring more effort than one wants at this point. Finally I reach the entrance station; from there it is a downhill coast into Grand Lake.

Although it is less upscale than Estes Park, it is more real, and I like Grand Lake. The town wisely rejected the gambling that has ruined many of the historic mountain towns of Colorado. I reach the town square at 15:50, 50 miles from Estes by this route, 6 hours 16 minutes elapsed time from Estes. There is a hamburger stand with good food down by the lake, a perfect place to sit and reflect on a great ride.

Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks