That moment when you realize that you are literally on top of the world riding on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park at 12,000 feet — this is bucket list worthy. One of Colorado’s most popular national parks, once you breathe in the fresh (and thin) air, experience its subalpine and alpine world, you’ll savor this memory for years to come. Yes, your motorcycle can take you places and Rocky Mountain National Park is one of those places.
Rocky Mountains Foothills to Rocky Mountain National Park
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I’m lucky. I live in the Rocky Mountains foothills of metro Denver in Colorado. Within minutes, I can fire up my motorcycle or jump in my car, and I can be in the Rocky Mountains (as I’m sort of there already living near Golden). As close as Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are to me, I’ve ony been there a handful of times, and until last year, I had never ridden my motorcycle on Trail Ridge Road. I know. Totally not good. Late last spring, I checked off my bucket list a motorcycle road trip on top of the world in Rocky Mountain National Park.
And oh what a beauty this national park is with 415 square miles of spectacular mountain environments. Enjoy Trail Ridge Road – which crests over 12,000 feet including many overlooks to experience the subalpine and alpine worlds – along with over 300 miles of hiking trails, wildflowers, wildlife, starry nights, and fun times. Yes, Rocky is on top!
Brief History of RMNP
History excerpt courtesy of RMNP: By 1900, the growing national conservation and preservation movement, led by Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, advocated an appreciation for nature. The Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association fostered local conservation efforts. “Those who pull flowers up by the roots will be condemned by all worthy people,” they warned.
In 1909, Enos Mills, a naturalist, nature guide, and lodge owner, championed the creation of the nation’s tenth national park. He hoped that: “In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park.”
In 1915, World War I was in full swing. The House of Representatives rejected the women’s right to vote proposal. Ford manufactured its one millionth Model T. Harley-Davidson’s bestselling motorcycle was the 1915 Model 11-F, with its inexpensive acetylene lamps and mechanically driven oil pump, eliminating the need for the rider to hand pump to maintain oil tank pressure while riding.
And on January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilon signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.
In 2015, Rocky Mountain National Park, Trail Ridge Road, and its bookending gateway towns: Estes Park (eastern) and Grand Lake (western) celebrated the park’s 100th anniversary. The timing of your Colorado motorcycle tour couldn’t be better, and this will be the epic ride of your lifetime riding on top of the world upon North America’s highest paved through-road, Trail Ridge Road.
How to Get to Rocky Mountain National Park
After nearly a month of perpetual rain in Denver metro last year, on a random mid-week late spring day, the weather forecast was a high of 90. I called my BFF Vicki and asked her to play hooky with me. She agreed, and we set off early morning to ride the Trail Ridge Road, a 200+ mile round trip “loop” from Golden to Estes Park, through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, to Grand Lake.
Since I’m located minutes from this highway, I prefer to scoot north on Highway 93 toward Boulder and Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
First stop via Highway 93 is Boulder, the University of Colorado college town, with its distinctive personality described as “seven square miles of reality” and the “Republic of Boulder.”
Stay on Highway 93 / Broadway through downtown to the Pearl Street Mall, the four-block, brick-paved, pedestrian only heart and soul of the city. Home to dozens of independent shops, outdoor cafes, and award-winning restaurants, the four-block Pearl Street runs vertical to the mountains cutting through historic downtown. A stroll here is priceless for its living stage filled with street performers (licensed by the city) and people-watching.
Continue north on Broadway until it dead ends. Turn left onto the Ute Highway (US-36W). Stay on US-36W, a beautiful open drive past farms and Boulder Reservoir in the horizon to the right, to Lyons (isolated by the 2013 floods). Stop at the popular brewpub Oskar Blues Brewery on the left, after the roundabout. Turn right onto US-36 W/5th Ave/W Main St toward Estes Park, about 20 miles.
You’ll follow along the mighty Thompson River, which overflowed its beds in a historic flood, most recently just two years ago.
And this is where the fun begins, another stunning mountain ride through the Colorado Rockies to arrive in Estes Park, the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Estes Park: Eastern Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park is full of tantalizing diversions, and my favorite is a stop at the historic (and haunted) Stanley Hotel. Take a haunted tour. Dine at Cascade Restaurant or find a seat on their patio.
Then it’s time to leave the world behind. Enter Rocky Mountain National Park ($10 per motorcycle) to ride Trail Ridge Road (US-34), designated as an All-American Road, an often cliff-hugging road that slices through the heart of the park. Mountain peaks and stunning vistas surround you and loom in all directions, accentuated by alpine beauty, meadows, crags, wildflowers, random wildlife sightings (elk, moose, deer, and bighorn sheep). Our mid-June Trail Ridge scoot featured snow, stacked 20 feet or higher, melting snow, sometimes wet roads, and high winds.
From Estes to Grand Lake may only by 48 miles, but the distractions are many – and worth numerous stops along the ride. Go ahead, take your time, and capture the moments on camera. Be sure to stop at the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest at 11,769 feet for extraordinary alpine tundra views.
NOTE: While riding your motorcycle in the park and on byways, use caution and watch for stray wildlife, water, rocks and even ice on the mountain roads; beware of sand and loose gravel along the switchbacks (even in the summer).
Trail Ridge Road will drop into Grand Lake, with the largest natural body of water in the state with a postcard backdrop of the 12,700 foot Mount Baldy and the snowcapped Never Summer Range.
This is as authentic Colorado small town as it gets, with its wood planked sidewalks, cowboy hats, quaint bookshops and galleries, and independent stores. The locals gravitate toward the Lariat Saloon, while the best lunch in town is a homemade sandwich at Cy’s Deli. NOTE: You still have a 2 hour ride (100 miles) to Golden.
The last leg of your US-34 ride runs parallel to the shorelines of Echo Lake about 15 miles. Turn left on US-40E through Granby and Winter Park, and over Berthoud Pass. Your final ride is (unfortunately) I-70 toward Denver, approximately 26 miles.
2016 is the big centennial year for National Parks, and Colorado is home to four of these National Parks. I invite you to #FindYourPark and take your family! What’s your favorite National Park?