Scenic drives through national parks create memorable experiences, with breathtaking panoramic landscapes frequently the highlight of these journeys. The drive through the heart of the Rocky Mountain National Park is no different, and given the elevation that you reach during this epic experience, it’s no surprise to hear that this route is recognized as the “Highway to the Sky”. Whether you are traveling from Estes Park westbound, or returning from a visit to nearby Utah exploring the Mighty 5 national parks in the Beehive State, this drive is worth adding to your itinerary, especially given that there are only limited times of the year when this is actually accessible.
Visitors to the Rocky Mountains may associate this area with mountain towns such as Vail, Aspen, and Telluride, but its the Highway to the Sky drive that certainly offers landscapes unlike anywhere else in the US. At its highest point, the Trail Ridge Road, as it is also known, peaks at a staggering 12,183 feet in elevation which is the highest continuous paved highway in the U.S. Visitors venturing out from either Estes Park or Grand Lake climb around 4,000 feet in elevation in a few minutes, starting in a montane ecosystem comprising of aspen and pine before entering sub-alpine forests.
Let’s take a look at what makes the Highway to the Sky road such an epic experience, and why we encourage you to pay a visit here sooner rather than later to enjoy these incredible landscapes as much as we did.
Highway to the Sky – Grand Lake to Estes Park
If you are heading to the Rocky Mountains from the west, the quaint, historic town of Grand Lake is surrounded on three sides by the national park. Located just a mile from the park’s west entrance, Grand Lake, offers incredible family friendly activities from paddle boating and nature walks to awesome theater productions.
The gorgeous lake is perhaps the highlight of the town and is also the largest and deepest natural alpine lake in Colorado, but many also associate Grand Lake with the start of the Highway to the Sky drive!
During the winter months and when the Highway to the Sky road is closed, the drive between Grand Lake and Estes Park, Colorado can take over 3 hours via I-70. However, during the summer months, visitors can enjoy the spectacular 48 mile drive through the heart of the Rocky Mountains and experience breathtaking scenery unlike anywhere else in the US.
The scenic drive requires at least 2 hours of driving but visitors can extend this dependent on how much time you want to experience the myriad of attractions and viewpoints along this route. Crossing the Continental Divide at Milner Pass at 10,759 feet, this drive encompasses a series of hairpin curves, steep inclines, and various spots where you can pull to the side of the road to enjoy the epic panoramic views.
The road is usually open from around Memorial Day through mid-October but always check ahead of your visit to ensure you are not left disappointed and a fairly substantial detour to connect between two of Colorado’s iconic alpine towns.
Alpine Visitors Center
Regardless of which direction you are traveling, this drive is certainly worth packing a picnic so that you can enjoy an epic relaxing lunch (or dinner) with spectacular panoramic views. One of the perfect spots to either enjoy your picnic or to learn more information about the Rocky Mountains is the Alpine Visitors Center near the highest point on the road. This is the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park system at 11,796 feet above sea level.
Visitors can use the restroom, head inside the visitor center to learn more information, and then head out to hike some of the trails where you may well feel like you are on top of the world. The scenery around this part of the drive is beyond breathtaking, and while pictures will never do this experience enough justice, we hope you are inspired to add this drive to your next Colorado itinerary.
With sweeping views of the valleys below, this is also a great opportunity to see some of the infamous Rocky Mountain wildlife such as bighorn sheep, bobcats, mountain lions, deer, coyotes, among other species.
The Highway to the Sky drive offers ample scenic overlooks, but two of our favorites are the ideal spot to capture magical sunset shots if you are visiting the area during the Golden Hour. Both Many Parks Curve and Forest Canyon Overlook offer near 360 degree panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains with little to interfere with the inherent beauty of this incredible national park.
The first true hairpin curve along Trail Ridge Road, Many Parks Curve is undoubtedly one of the most popular spots for visitors to pullover to enjoy the incredible scenery. Some of the highlights of this view include Bighorn Mountain (standing at 11,465 ft.), and Horseshoe Park below to the east. Admire this scenery before venturing on towards Forest Park Canyon, which we have to say was our favorite spot.
Peering down into Forest Canyon nearly 2,000-feet below the viewpoint, visitors can take a short walk from the parking lot to the overlook and pick out some of the Rocky Mountains’ most iconic landmarks. On a clear day, visitors will enjoy epic views of Longs Peak, towering into the Colorado sky at 14,259 feet. Other peaks include Stones Peak (12,922 ft.) and Terra Tomah Mountain (12,718 ft.).
Regardless of your desire to be able to pick out certain peaks, you should allow yourself to indulge in the beauty that surrounds you. The scenery is unlike anything else we have experienced, and these overlooks (along with several others) allow you to be transcended into the heart of the Rocky Mountains without having to hike miles into the national park to experience the sight of alpine vistas, and towering peaks.