Road Notes: Cycling America’s Highest Road

Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, stretching from Estes Park to Grand Lake, Colorado.

Editor’s Note: Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, stretching from Estes Park to Grand Lake, Colorado. GP contributor Will McGough pedaled his way from end to end.

Drivers with Colorado license plates whiz by me without a second thought, but those from Florida, Texas, Quebec, and Louisiana pump their brakes and turn their necks as they slowly pass. I can hear the hum of the engines as they climb the steep grade of Trail Ridge Road, yet I refuse to make eye contact. My engine’s working hard, too, and I feel as if one lapse in concentration could result in a breakdown.

Trail Ridge Road is North America’s “highest-elevated continuously paved road”, stretching 48 miles from Estes Park to Grand Lake through Rocky Mountain National Park. Eleven miles of it runs above tree line, topping out at 12,183 feet. It was built in 1932 to replace the original single-file Fall River Road, which was deemed impassible after being built only 12 years prior in 1920.

So, naturally, Coloradans bike it, past the elk and moose that inhabit the hills, and the snow that still sits on the sides of the road here in August. I’m about three quarters up the 4,000-foot climb from Estes Park to the summit, and the out-of-towners are really starting to rubberneck. I’m part of the show, part of the scenery. Look kids, there’s a moose…and a moron biking above treeline!


If you’re planning to ride Trail Ridge Road from end to end, you’ll start or finish at Estes and Grand Lake. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Estes Park
Estes Park is the most accessible entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, just one and a half hours up the highway from Denver. It’s extremely popular for its population of elk that come down into town, which is properly celebrated each October with Elk Fest. Its spooky flagship hotel, the Stanley, inspired a guest named Stephen King to write a book called The Shining. You may have heard of it.

Grand Lake
Grand Lake, surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, is fed by mountain runoff, insuring that it sparkles all year round. This brings an otherwise lacking lake culture to Colorado during the summer, with sailboats, kayaks, paddle boards, and waterfront restaurants driving the town’s buzz. Small cabins and campgrounds are the best way to enjoy the natural beauty of the wilderness, either in the town itself or just up the road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Not that I can blame them, given that I had been questioning my motivation all along, as I imagine marathon runners probably do at mile 17 or 18. I had been warned that there was a false summit at the top of Trail Ridge; but no one told me there were false false summits, and no one prepared me for the mental challenge that comes along with turning the corner and seeing that the road continues to climb. And climb. And climb.

I’d like to drop my head, close my eyes, and pedal, but it’s too much of a risk with the lack of guardrails and steep, dramatic drop-offs. Passing a sign that tells me my elevation is now above 11,000 feet, my breathing intensifies, inhales coming through the nose (hhmmff…) and exhales through the mouth (…hhaahh). Whether it’s a slight change in the angle of my feet, a new position for my arms, or shifting my body weight around on the seat, small adjustments make all the difference and convince me that I can keep going, despite the small voice in my head that says it would be perfectly fine to pull over.

And the scenery doesn’t hurt. I’m completely above all vegetation now, and though the air has lost its pine scent, the sense of accomplishment begins to kick in as I realize just how far I’ve come. I’m no longer among the tall pines. I’m looking down on them. The peaks that I looked up to just hours before are now nearly at eye level out on the horizon. The sight of the summit is welcome, but it’s less about fatigue than I had imagined. I pictured that I would pedal into the parking lot in pieces, yet the closer I came to the summit, the deeper my body dug, the more energy it manufactured.

I flash a smile and a shaka, but they’re too involved in the climb to appreciate my enjoyment.

Taking a quick breather at the summit, the wind swirls the hair that hangs out the sides of my helmet. I start to feel cold. I’m soaked in sweat, and the temperature is a good 15 degrees cooler here than where I began in Estes Park. I look around. Most tourists are wearing sweatshirts as they walk from their cars to the visitor center. I know I can’t wait around too long, but I didn’t come all this way to let it pass me by. I look out over the western side of the slopes like a king above his kingdom. For these few moments, the park is all mine.

Now the fun begins: the 15-mile downhill sprint into Grand Lake, the temperature warming up with every biting turn, the tops of the trees growing bigger and, as I immerse in them once again, contrasting beautifully against the blue sky and white patchy clouds. The people in the cars are no longer looking at me funny: it’s the bikers who are coming the other way who now squint their eyes and harden their stares. I flash a smile and a shaka, but they’re too involved in the climb to appreciate my enjoyment. But I know how they feel, and soon, in a few miles when they reach the top, they’ll know how I feel, too.

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