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Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

As we turn the corner, the scene spreads out before us – mountains so high they’re permanently capped with snow fields, wind-swept alpine valleys, azure blue skies with clouds designed by Maxfield Parrish. We’ve arrived in sky-high heaven.

Colorado is known for spectacular scenery and plenty of sun, which makes it perfect for a motorhome trip. But we didn’t want to visit the usual hot spots like Vail, Telluride or Mesa Verde. We also didn’t want to spend endless hours driving. Situated just 67 miles outside of Denver and home to Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road, one of the most breathtaking, sky-touching roads in the world, Grand County fits the bill.

It’s nearly noon when we jump on the interstate and cruise to the college town of Boulder. We take Canyon Road (Highway 119) and, within moments, we’re in canyon land on a gently winding road skirting Boulder Creek. The nearly vertical rock outcroppings are a climbers’ playground and we spot several, barely visible as tiny, colorful dots, ascending the canyon walls.

hikers at Boulder Falls

Young hikers cool off at Boulder Falls.

We’re in Roosevelt National Forest, a land of rock, pine and cottonwood, on part of the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway that runs from Estes Park south to Black Hawk. The road climbs up and shortly we come upon a turnout for Boulder Falls. We take a short and steep hike up a natural stone stairway to an impressive torrent of water that cascades 70 feet into a shallow pool. The air temperature is in the 80s and the falls make a nice place to cool off.

Alpine Villages

Our first town is Nederland, an alpine village perched on Barker Reservoir at elevation 8,236 feet. This former mining/milling town was named after Dutch investors who owned the area’s mine. It boasts a handful of interesting restaurants, including one featuring Kathmandu food, a fuel station, mining museum and the B&F Mountain Market where we stock up on groceries.

In the market’s parking lot, an octagonal building with a “Carousel of Happiness” sign intrigues us. To our delight, it’s an operating carousel on an original 1910 Charles Looff frame and mechanism with animals – from swans to monkeys – hand carved by former Vietnam Marine Scott Harrison. During the past 26 years, rehabbing the carousel became Harrison’s passion and, judging from the long list of volunteers, a community project. We watch several giggling girls and one adult go ’round and ’round.

We take Highway 119 south and continue to climb, passing through alpine valleys surrounded by jaw-dropping mountains. As we gain elevation, groves of white-trunked aspen appear, their electric green leaves shimmering in the sunlight against cobalt blue skies.

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park offers plenty of turnouts to capture spectacular views.

There are plenty of campgrounds in the area, most are primitive with no services. About 20 miles outside of Nederland and a mile down a hard-pack gravel and dirt road, Golden Gate Canyon State Park offers RVers comfortable sites, including pull-throughs and electric hookups, beneath pines with mountain views. We pull into a shady spot and, as we listen to the wind rustle through aspen leaves, watch the sunset.

Back on the road early the next morning, we enter Arapaho National Forest, and the road descends into Black Hawk, a former mining town (altitude 8,050 feet). The north end of town has Victorian-era homes, a few old brick buildings, and the remnants of an abandoned mill, but a few blocks farther, glitzy hotels and casinos cram the narrow canyon. Neon signs advertise $5.99 prime rib and million dollar jackpots. We’re not interested and roll through road construction that’s straightening this beautiful, curving road so people can get to the casinos faster.

We merge onto Highway 70, passing Idaho Springs and the ruins of several old mines like the Argo. Peak to Peak Scenic Byway and the canyon lands were beautiful, but it’s nice to go 55 mph again. While we spotted few RVs on the scenic byway, Highway 70, with its wide lanes and faster pace, is thick with them. We turn onto Highway 40 toward Winter Park and soon climb again. As the terrain transitions into sloping, aspen-studded alpine meadows and patchy snow, evergreens become smaller and narrower.

We notice standing dead lodge pole pines on the steep hillsides. For several years, the mountain pine beetle has infested the West. In some areas, crews removed the dead trees; in others, the trees stand as a stark testament to natural cycles. The pests have recently moved on and the forests have begun to recover, but the damage still shows.

Up and up some more we go, finally reaching Berthoud Pass and Trailhead at a dizzying 11,307 feet and we cross the Continental Divide. This is where water on the east side flows toward the Atlantic Ocean and on the other, toward the Pacific Ocean. We begin a long, slow descent, with 15 mph switchbacks, into the village of Winter Park.

In the winter, this upscale town is a mecca for skiers and snowboarders. In the summer, it transforms with activities like ATVing and road- and mountain-biking. We wanted to ascend the Zephyr Express tram to 10,700 feet and streak down on the bobsled-like track, but the Village at Winter Park Resort hasn’t officially opened. Opening is based on previous year snow levels, and despite the mild weather the place is a ghost town. We ease our disappointment at Carvers Bakery and Café, a from-scratch eatery that’s been serving homemade bagels, cinnamon rolls and big breakfasts for 30 years.

Just a few miles down the road, we turn off at Granby Ranch (formerly SolVista Ski area) and jump aboard a chairlift for some stunning area views. The chairlift transports mountain bikers to the top where they can ride the ski trails and bomb down ski hills. For pedestrians like us, the ride is free, and you can ride round-trip or hike down.

Grand Lake fishing

A mother and daughter fish off a dock at Grand Lake, Colorado’s deepest and largest natural lake.

This area is great for road biking, too, and we pass plenty of bikers on the road. We also pass Granby Lake and Stillwater Campground, an RV campground with electric, water, picnic tables, fire rings, a boat launch, commanding views of the lake, and, according to campers there, some of the best fishing in Colorado.

We pull into Grand Lake, a quaint, lakefront village filled with cafes, boutiques, candy and souvenir shops, and plenty of activities such as kayaking, horseback riding, and ATV rentals. We park the rig at the public beach and marina and meander through Kauffman House Museum, an old home and hotel that’s filled with furniture and artifacts from the 1800s. Across the street at Headwaters Marina, we board a pontoon boat for a tour of the lake. While we ogle million dollar homes, Captain Rudy tells us that Grand Lake, the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River, was gouged out to a depth of 300 feet by glacial action and is the largest natural lake in the state.

Winding River Resort Horses

A young camper shows lots of love for her horse at Winding River Resort.

We camp for the night at Winding River Resort, just a couple of miles out of town. This park, with full hookups, is like an RV dude ranch with activities ranging from horseback riding to nightly campfires and we find it a congenial place to pause.

Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road

The following day is free entrance to the park, so we hop into the motorhome and head a few miles north to Rocky Mountain National Park. This is our opportunity to see one of the most beautiful national parks in the country and to drive the infamous Trail Ridge Road. We’re not a mile into the park when we spot cars pulled off the road. A mother moose and her baby are browsing in the willows. Another half mile, a huge moose stands next to the road and doesn’t move when we leap out to snap photos.

We pull into Holzwarth Historic Site, one of the oldest former dude ranches in Grand County, and walk along the flat, half-mile trail reading the interpretive signs. We also pull out sandwiches and enjoy the picnic area under shady pines near the parking lot.

Holzwarth Historic Site

This old cabin at Rocky Mountain National Park’s Holzwarth Historic Site is one of the oldest former dude ranches in Colorado.

After lunch, we check out Timber Creek, one of the RV-accessible campgrounds in the park. Beetle damage has forced rangers to cut the trees so there’s no shade and no hookups, but the camp offers level sites, shower houses, picnic tables and fire rings. Like many campgrounds in national parks, RVs are limited to 30 feet.

After Timber Creek, tall snow markers appear and Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous road in North America, climbs in earnest. Our ears pop with elevation gain and we round five 15 mph hairpin turns. We pause briefly at Fairview Curve to admire the sweeping valley vistas below and the surrounding mountains crowned with permanent snowfields. We are truly in the heart of the Rockies.

We pass a small sign that tells us we’re two miles above sea level. At an elevation of 10,758, Milner Pass is where you can stand on either side of the Continental Divide and we spot several Class C and B motorhomes in the parking area, but we avoid the crowds and continue upward.

We pause at a wide turnout, Medicine Bow Circle, and, when we step out to take photos, the wind practically knocks us down. We’re above the tree line and, from this point on, the road is narrow and without guardrails and feels a little scary.

We pull off at the Alpine Visitor Center, at 11,796 feet, the highest visitor center in the national park system. Informative displays tell us the area can get 35 feet of snow a year and it takes six weeks to open the road in spring. Temperatures stay below freezing eight months of the year and winds can reach 150 mph. Today, it’s gusting to 50 mph, almost too hazardous for RV travel. (Rangers post wind warnings, so check before you go.)

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

At a high altitude, Rocky Mountain National Park offers the perfect habitat for elk and their presence often causes “elk jams” along the highway.

There’s a well-stocked gift shop, cafe and several alpine hiking trails. We brave the wind and march down the four-mile trail that heads back to Milner Pass and the Continental Divide. The growing season in this harsh climate lasts only six to 12 weeks and we’re charmed by miniature bouquets of blue forget-me-nots, pinkish dwarf clover and yellow buttercup-like alpine avens no more than the size of a half dollar. We haven’t gone a half-mile before the cold wind and elevation have us panting and scurrying back to the motorhome.

We continue on, determined to complete Trail Ridge Road. There’s a wide turnout at 12,090 feet and we pull in when we spot a herd of a dozen elk, including a huge bull with a four-point rack, munching on tundra plants. We walk along the narrow road and snap several photos, the elk barely noticing our presence.

A bit farther on, we pass the road’s highest point, 12,183 feet. There’s no pullout here, but we know we’ve passed it because the road immediately begins to descend to Estes Park. We smile and give each other high fives. We’ve done it – experienced Grand County, one of the most beautiful and high altitude places in the U.S. and conquered Trail Ridge, the highest continuous road in North America.

Carvers Bakery and Café
970-726-8202, carvers-wp.com

Grand County Tourism
970-531-7020, www.visitgrandcounty.com

Golden Gate Canyon State Park
303-582-3707, www.parks.state.co.us

Rocky Mountain National Park
970-586-1206, www.nps.gov/romo

Stillwater Campground
970-295-6600, www.fs.usda.gov

Winding River RV Park
970-627-3215, www.windingriverresort.com

Coloradonational parks

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