The wind blew from the west with a crisp bite to it and was so damp you could smell the moisture which could only mean one thing – snow was on the way. I’d spent the last few weeks checking websites, weather reports, webcams, road condition recordings, and calling the ranger station an embarrassing number of times to narrow down a day for this ride. Now, with an 8 hour weather window between storms, I’d decided today was the day…
Trail Ridge Road corkscrews it’s way through Rocky Mountain National Park and is notable for being the highest continuous paved road in the U.S. Topping out at 12,183 ft above sea level, the road crosses the Continental Divide connecting the towns of Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west. Only 46 miles long but climbing 4,000 feet, Trail Ridge Road is one of Colorado’s most spectacular feats of engineering and showcases jaw-dropping views of what seems to be the entire state and beyond. To say that Trail Ridge Road is one of Colorado’s most iconic road rides does not do justice to the staggering amount of beauty it encompasses.
The road closes each winter but once the snow stops falling, somewhere between late March and early April, two snowplows rise to the challenge of clearing this high alpine ribbon of asphalt. One plow starts from the west, the other from the east, and they eventually meet somewhere in the middle. Opening day is tentatively scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend but before it opens to cars, the road is open to bicycles for as far as the plows have cleared. The tricky part is figuring out where the plows are, how much more they have left to clear, and crossing your fingers you can get out there before the cars show up. That, plus the weather…
Park roads are by definition narrow, twisty affairs with shear drop-offs, few guardrails, and no shoulders so being able to pedal without cars is a big deal. Having the whole road to yourself on the descent allows you to maneuver through the turns by hugging the inside or swinging wide as needed and makes you feel like a Tour de France pro careening down the hill. (Although I do hit the brakes a little more than I used to after my Pearl Izumi teammate hit a deer on a downhill doing 30mph last year. She was OK but her bike and kit were history and she spent most of the summer recovering.) The Search & Rescue team happened to be training on this day which added to my peace of mind – if I needed it, help was close by.
I’d chosen to make my cycling summit in mid-May. The weather had been all over the map, 80s one day and snow the next. One storm cycle had just come through and the next was predicted to hit within 24 hours. I knew if I wanted to get this ride in I’d have to go even if conditions weren’t perfect. There will always be an excuse not to do something – weather that’s too cold/hot/windy/rainy/snowy, schedules that don’t match up, social obligations – but I had dreamed of this ride for years; it was my heart’s desire and I wanted it badly. When things are less than perfect, (and things are rarely ever perfect), I try to imagine how they could be worse, (ok, so it’s cold and windy but at least it’s not snowing or raining or hailing…), and that helps get me through.
I started at the Fall River Visitor Center and headed west through Sheep Lakes (keep an eye out for bighorn sheep here), West Horseshoe Park (yes, I saw cowboys on horseback here), Many Parks Curve (astounding views of the Continental Divide and Longs Peak here), and Rainbow Curve (look down at the road you’ve just conquered here). The road was well protected as it wound it’s way through pine forest but after Rainbow Curve you reach the alpine tundra. From here the wind picked up and the temp dropped as I rounded the bend riding the rollers heading for Rock Cut and Iceberg Pass. I would have given anything for a down jacket and heavy gloves to cut the bitter cold, next time I think I’ll bring a backpack with extra gear. The highest point on the road is just past Lava Cliffs but it’s unmarked (too many people stopped to take pictures which caused traffic jams and made for dangerous driving situations). The Alpine Visitor Center is located 23 miles from the start. If you’re riding an out and back, this is your turn around point or you can descend the west side to Grand Lake.
This ride was everything I’d hoped it would be and more – beautiful, challenging, and exciting. I’d love to ride it again!
NOTE: I made it back to my car at 1:30pm just as it started snowing up on top. The storm would go on to dump 3 feet of snow over the next 2 days. Timing is everything…)
For high altitude spring riding, bring a thermos of hot tea or soup and leave it in your car. You’ll be cold/frozen/near-hypothermic by the time you get back and a hot drink will be a life saver.