The Trail Ridge Road: Colorado's Highway to Heaven - The Foodie Gypsy

6th Sep 2021

Trail Ridge Road at 12000 ft

Photo of The Trail Ridge Road: Colorado's Highway to Heaven - The Foodie Gypsy by Karishma Mayur

On the 7th of September 2021, I drove on Trail Ridge Road. It is the highest paved road in all of North America, at 12000 feet. The road is built, right on the continental divide of the USA, making the east drainage fall into the Atlantic ocean and the west into the Pacific. I was never much of a driver. In fact, I didn't learn to drive, till I had no other choice. But once I got the hang of it, I started loving it. It also opened a hitherto inaccessible travel category to me - road trips(driven by self). I drove through multiple city roads, numerous country roads, and even some dirt roads. I got quite the thrill from doing the famous routes; The winding Highway 1 - with mountains on one side and the glistening blue Pacific ocean on the other, a chunk of Historic Route 66 near Amarillo, the lonely roads of Big Bend, and now finally the Trail Ridge Road.

This one, in particular, has been elusive. I was only able to catch it on the 2nd day of my 3rd trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The first time I visited the park, I did not have enough time to drive the continental divide(probably a good thing, because I was a novice driver). The second time, mother nature decided to say no and the road was closed due to a wildfire. Finally the third time around, I could take on this big one. But to my surprise, it wasn't that scary. There were hairpin bends and ridiculously deep valleys, but the slow speed, the thrill of driving atop a unique geographical feature, combined with my love for driving made the process therapeutic. While we stopped at multiple points of interest the two hours back and two hours forth of driving on the continental divide, was the most beautiful trance I have been in, in a long time.

Stops along the Trail Ridge Road

1) Forest Canyon Overlook

The Forest Canyon Overlook is right before the highest/midway point of Trail Ridge Road. It is exactly as the name suggests; miles and miles of towering mountains, deep canyons, and green forests. A moment, I witnessed, in my last visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, at this very point, will be etched in my memory forever.

We timed our drive to witness the sunset on Forest Canyon Overlook. When we reached there, we couldn't go any further because of a massive forest fire. So we waited at that point, for about half of an hour, to see the sunset. For the entire length of that time, I could see this scene; a beautiful sunset over the mountains in the West, a wild forest fire birthing red and black clouds in the east and in between these two stark faces of nature, the bighorn sheep, grazing away, on a steep mountain cliff. "What else can they do?", I wondered, but carry on their daily path. "What else can we do?", I wondered. Be it the breathtaking beauty of nature or its haunting destructive power, we at best can be spectators.

Photo of The Trail Ridge Road: Colorado's Highway to Heaven - The Foodie Gypsy 1/1 by Karishma Mayur
Forest Canyon Overlook

2) Milner Pass

This is the point that I was most excited about on Trail Ridge Road. When I was younger I would read about places of geographical interest in school textbooks. I would always create an imaginary version of these places(there was no Google in those days). But I never thought I would get to physically them. Hence, when I realized that the drainage divide point of the USA lies on the trail ridge road, I had to make a stop. The Milner pass gives amazing views of the never-summer mountains and Poudre Lake. A magnificent Moose who had decided to call the Poudre lake his bathtub for the day greeted us here.

Milner Pass

Photo of The Trail Ridge Road: Colorado's Highway to Heaven - The Foodie Gypsy by Karishma Mayur

3) Harbison Meadows

The mountains always teach you something. As we crossed Milner pass and moved towards Grand Lake, I saw a different side of the glorious Rockies. Acres and acres of land, thousands of trees and grasses, dead, black, lifeless. This was the destruction caused by the same fire, that had stopped us midway last year. There was an eeriness looming in the air of these soot-covered mountains and hollow trees. It felt like hope was a word that had left the dictionary of this region of the Rockies. And in that lay the message of the mountains.

This time it wasn't a "hardships lead to success, at the end of a hard trail is a spectacular view" kind of a message. This time it was a message of acceptance. Acceptance of the fact that even something as strong as the Rockies, ecosystems hundreds of years old, can be destroyed in a matter of days. Acceptance that loss has happened and healing will take time, a long time. The mountains will have to stand patiently and welcome each ray of the sun, each raindrop, and rejoice in each new blade of grass and each new bird's nest. There will be tourists who will judge the mountains based on these recent scars and leave. Only if they would go beyond the surface, they would be gifted with expansive views of alpine lakes, the tundra, rolling meadows, and unique wildlife. But, I think, it's best for such tourists to leave.

Accept the loss, the mountains said, be patient, for healing is a long and slow process. Let people who only superficially see your scars and leave, go. You must learn to rejoice in every new blade of grass and every sunny day, for that my dear lost human, is the only way forward.

Harbison Meadows

Photo of The Trail Ridge Road: Colorado's Highway to Heaven - The Foodie Gypsy by Karishma Mayur

4) Rock Cut

Often when I visit a place, there are certain things that I surely want to do, which come from either books, friends, or some research. But while there, nature reveals something that makes me question with all the Dee Dee enthusiasm, "Oooo, what is that?". Often this becomes the reason for a second visit.

As I pulled over the rock-cut point, which is exactly what the name suggests, on the mountain across I could see a lake. It felt like the lake had come out of a fairy tale. Nestled between high mountains, water glistening like gold because of the sunlight, it felt like it belonged in heaven. I tried to read the map and tried to search the all-mighty internet, but I couldn't get an answer to what that lake is. That desire to hike up to that lake will surely be my reason for another visit or visits to RMNP.

5) Alpine Visitor Center

The Alpine visitor center is the highest point on Trail Ridge road. It is also the highest visitor center in the National Park System. A 0.5-mile hike takes you to the highest point on the ridge road at 12,000 ft. While the hike is only 0.5 miles, at the elevation, with the thinning air, it is definitely not an easy one. While the views are great from the top, I couldn't help but notice the ropes on the side of the trail. These are there so that, people stay on the trail and don't step on the adjoining region. Why so much protection? Because at 12,000 ft you are basically in the Alpine region with tundra vegetation growing all around. To weather such extreme climatic conditions, the plants miniaturize and hug the ground. You will see thousands of short grass-like plants, which take many years to establish themselves but are so fragile that can be destroyed by one-foot step.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo of The Trail Ridge Road: Colorado's Highway to Heaven - The Foodie Gypsy by Karishma Mayur

The Rockies run all the way from Canada to Mexico. Rocky Mountain National Park is a very small portion of it. Even with a 5-day visit, I could barely scratch the surface of the entire park. But even the little that I saw, was enough to heal and inspire.

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