There is a small window of opportunity to bike Rocky Mountain National Park’s (RMNP) Trail Ridge Road with virtually no motor vehicles.
This brief time frame is after the huge snowblowers have cut their way through the massive snowdrifts across the top but before the gates on the Estes Park and Grand Lake sides of the park have opened.
Bicyclists call this temporary opportunity heaven. There is a trick to pulling this ride off, and of course, it’s called timing.
Video: 2021 Trail Ridge Road Ride
Each year RMNP opens Trail Ridge Road to all comers around Memorial Day. Passenger cars, Sprinter vans, huge motor homes, trucks with tow-behind trailers, and all manner of vehicles in between will soon be driving up and over this beauty of a road.
Once the gates are open to motor vehicles riding a bike on Trail Ridge is a gamble at best. Distracted drivers, narrow lanes, no shoulder, not many guard rails, steep drop-offs, and if you happen to have the bad-luck timing of one car passing you with another car oncoming this three-way-squeeze-play is harrowing at best!
Plan for Changing Weather
Weather has everything to do with timing this ride. I like to have the road completely plowed all the way across from Grand Lake to Estes Park before starting up. This gives me more options as far as how much elevation I want to climb and how far across I may want to ride.
So once the road is cleared the next thing to do is watch the weather reports.
When your weather window of opportunity appears don’t delay. You may not get another chance.
Last year a late May snow storm rolled over RMNP dumping and drifting a couple feet of fresh snow across Trail Ridge. By the time the road crew had cleared the road a second time it was already past Memorial Day. The gates opened and I missed my (mostly) vehicle-free chance to ride.
(Note: You may encounter a handful of official RMNP vehicles on the road as they prepare to open Trail Ridge. Rules of the road apply to bicyclists. Do not cross the double yellow lines no matter how secure and motor vehicle free you feel).
In years past when the stars aligned and I’ve ridden Trail Ridge the ride has always been a highlight of my biking season. I look forward to it every year.
Every Year Is Different & Exciting
The best way to describe biking Trail Ridge Road is it’s always an adventure. Each time is different and an opportunity to experience the subtle nuances and dramatic power of RMNP.
The one given is to be prepared for everything. Bring plenty of warm/breathable layers for the climb up.
Pack windproof shells for the ride across and descent. Have plenty of water, some energy snacks, gloves, a hat to fit under your bike helmet, front and rear safety lights, and tuck in a measure of endurance. You’ll need all of this gear and plenty of resolve, as well.
From either side of the park you’re looking at a minimum of 4,000 feet of lung sucking climbing to get to the top.
Temperature & Elevation
The higher you climb the colder it will become. As you leave treeline behind count on the winds to pick up. They will swirl and gust from all directions and try their best to blow you off your bike. As morning turns to early afternoon watch for the clouds to build blocking any warm sunshine and perhaps containing snow and thunder and disappointment as you see your idyllic day turn potentially hazardous.
Make a few mental notes of where running rivulets of water from melting snow are crossing the road. On your way back down what was once water may have returned to ice. Check your speed because narrow bike tires on black ice is a prime spot to send you sliding.
Thankfully, I have never dumped my bike on my descents on Trail Ridge but I have experienced winds so strong I’ve been blown from one side of the road to the other.
I’ve ridden up there leaning my bike into stout crosswinds struggling to keep myself upright only to have the wind suddenly let up causing me to swerve into empty air and just as quickly crosswinds from the opposite side hit me accelerating that swerve to the edge of the road and a drop off. Unnerving to say the least!
I’ve also ridden in cold sunshine with snowflakes flying and my fingers so numb I couldn’t feel my brake levers.
And then there are the rides on Trail Ridge with endless blue skies and warm chinook breezes and horizon to horizon beauty that makes me want to ride Trail Ridge again and again.
In all my previous rides I have started on the Grand Lake side at the Timber Lake Trailhead parking lot.
I’ve climbed up the numbered switchbacks, over Milner Pass and the Continental Divide, pedaled 180 degrees around Medicine Bow Curve while catching my breath and checking my motivation seeing all the climbing and elevation gain yet to come, paused for a weather check at the Gore Range Overlook, felt great at Tundra Curves and Iceberg Pass, free-wheeled through the impressive Rock Cuts, and then begin the turn around calculation. How much farther across should I ride before I have too much climbing to do to get back up?
Wish me weather luck. If we’re both up there wave to me as we pass riding our bikes on Trail Ridge Road above 12,000 feet elevation practically motor vehicle free… That’s pretty darn close to heaven.
More National Park Rides
Side Notes: Here is the link to RMNP’s website page on biking the park: https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/biking.htm
The tips and cautions provided here are worth the read if you are thinking of giving this ride a go.
Also, Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park offer similar biking opportunities on their iconic roads. Make a road trip out of it and ride all three this spring.
Yellowstone NP: https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/spring-fall-bicycling.htm)
Glacier NP: https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/bicycling.htm
This article was previously published in Hike Rocky Magazine. An online subscription magazine. Click the link to see more!