Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road is located in the Rocky Mountain National Park.  It starts at the Fall River entrance and travels  eighteen miles up to the Fall River Pass and Alpine Visitor Center .  The climb to the visitors center with the exception of two drops in elevation near the top is an uphill ride.  Twice you climb just over 12,000 feet to finish at the Visitors center at 11, 396 feet of elevation.
My ride started early on a Thursday morning in Estes Park.  My family and I stayed at Silver Moon Inn which is located on the west end of main street.  

I was up and ready to go at 6:45 and headed out of the parking lot of the hotel and took the first right turn onto Highway 34.    This road continues up hill for 6 miles before entering the park and turning into Trail Ridge Road.  The temperature was in the low 50’s and the starting elevation in Estes park is 7,527 feet.  The traffic was light and I had no problem riding along the right side of the road.  The grade leading up to the park entrance is 5-7 percent and makes for a pretty challenging warm up.  The trees and overhanging rock formations on this road are excellent and it’s a great ride just up to the park entrance.

At the Fall River Center you will need to purchase a park pass.  Since we get a vehicle pass for the week we are there I just use that to get into the park.  I used the opportunity to remove my jacket and switch out water bottles while I was stopped.  The park was very quiet to start and I doubt if I saw 5-6 cars the first hour of climbing.  The road is very smooth and most of it is either new asphalt or in the process of being resurfaced.  I did see a few mountain goats but the wildlife seemed to still be asleep.
The grades are very consistent.  6-7 percent is pretty much what the road is from bottom to top.  There are no sharp, tight switchbacks and lots of long straight sections with gradual turns.  The road on the lower sections is pretty much just cut into the mountain and the tree line is generally on both sides of you until you climb out of the tree line.  Since you are in a park, there are a lot of small parking lots with excellent views of adjacent mountains and ranges in the distance.  Rainbow Curve is one of these overlooks and worth the stop if you need a break.
The upper 5-6 miles begins to climb out of the trees and the views open up around you.   Many of the peaks nearby still have snow on them and the temperature begins to fall.  Soon you have a cliff on the inside of the road and there are sharp drop offs on the outside.  There is very little in the way of a guard rail and it’s very normal to have some gusty winds as you climb between Rock Cut and Lava Cliffs overlooks.  

I have found this section challenging going both up and down as the winds can blow you into the rocks or towards the edge.  Add a fair amount of traffic and it can make you uneasy pretty quickly.Here you will also find short descents followed by 300-400 foot climbs as your elevation jumps around 12,000 feet.  The air is thin, the road is straight with gradual turns and the grade is generally 5% or less.
Once through Lava Cliff’s Overlook the drop off is much less, the winds although still gusty have less affect on blowing you on the road.  From Gore Range Overlook you descend down the Fall River Pass & Alpine Visitor Center at 11, 360 feet.

At the visitor center you can refill your water bottles or stop in and have a meal.  There is one bicycle rack and bathrooms are available as well.  A good section of the road that you came up is visible on the east view.  I arrived at the center around 8:30 and the temperature was back in the lower 50’s.  I could tell after I stopped that I was going to cool off pretty quickly so I took a quick break while also putting on my jacket.

Climbing out of the Alpine Visitor center is a challenge.  The 700 foot climb is along the mountain and the wind was right in my face.  A left turn towards the top is the end of this climb for a short time as you descend several hundred feet before climbing again.  This repeats several times more and if you’re not prepared for these short climbs they can wear on you both physically and mentally as you are riding between 11,600 and 12,100 feet.  Once you reach Forest Canyon overlook the road is all downhill and the tree line helps cut down the gusty winds.  From here the ride is fast and smooth.  Most switch backs are gentle and you can easily maintain upper 20 and lower 30’s through the turns.  Long straight sections it is very easy to reach the low 40’s.  Much of this road has or is being resurfaced so there are very few potholes.  There are always a few small rocks to be found on the road so you do want to watch for these as they could quite easily turn a great ride into a disaster.
My ride down the mountain was uneventful.  There is a separate exit lane out of the park and as I rode by there were 3 lines of traffic each about 20 vehicles deep waiting to get into the park.  I would imagine my entire trip up I was passed by 30-40 cars but on the way down I easily went by several hundred coming up the road.  Getting an early start and riding on a weekday not a weekend morning is the best time to take on this ride.
Estes Park has a Starbuck’s on the east of main street that has an outdoor seating area that overlooks Fall river and this is where my ride ended.  I enjoyed the morning with a little caffeine and a muffin and enjoyed the sounds of light rapids.  Temperature was in the mid 60’s and it was going to be a beautiful day after what was a great morning ride.
I have now ridden up Trail Ridge Road three times to the writing of this review.  It is a favorite ride of mine and a very challenging ride in both the length, elevation, winds and the climbing back out from the visitor’s center.
When purchasing your park permit take the time to ask the rangers about any road construction or weather advisories.  They are very helpful and at 12,000 feet and above the tree line the weather can turn nasty quite quickly.
The trick to this ride being enjoyable is starting out very early and avoiding weekends.  I start between 6:00 and 7:00 o’clock which puts me at the top around 8:00.  I will have 40-50 vehicles pass me on the way up.  On the way down I will see hundreds of cars coming up the mountain.  By 9:00 the visitor entry centers are usually three lines across and several blocks back.  Although I have not ridden this on a weekend I was warned by a Ranger that the traffic through the park is very congested.
The times that I have gone up I wear a thin base liner with a cycling jersey and then a wind jacket to start out.  Either standard bike short length or the knickers work well.  At some point I will remove the jacket on the way up.  Starting back down I had one occasion where I needed the jacket and the full finger gloves that I had put in one of my jersey pockets.
My bicycle is a full carbon trek madone with a double chain ring and an 11-28 cassette.  There are times I wish it was a compact when the percent grade goes over 8% but this drive train has worked pretty well for me most of the time.
My base mileage consists of usually around 500-800 miles on rolling hills in Nebraska at 900 feet above sea level.  I work on high cadence and often repeat hills on my training rides.  I don’t acclimate myself to the altitudes before attempting these rides.  I do find that my rides later in the week are generally a little easier but I have found that my body determines how fast I climb these passes and not the lack of oxygen.  The lack of humidity in Colorado also plays a big part in my ability to ride the different passes in Colorado and I find the lack of oxygen a great trade off for the high humidity that drains me so quickly in Nebraska.