A nice fall day in Rocky Mountain National Park has plenty of ingredients for a memorable experience: crisp mountain air, golden aspen on the slopes, blue skies overhead and the bugling of elk in the valleys.
A drive on the park's Trail Ridge Road in the early autumn can be a bonus if the road is open. The highway runs for 48 miles between Estes Park on the park's east side and Grand Lake on the west. Eleven miles of this highway are above tree line, and the road tops out at an elevation of 12,183 feet.
At those elevations, weather can make "if the road is open" an important qualifier. The National Weather Service forecast for the area this morning offers a good example: "Early season storm may bring heavy snow to the mountains... late tonight through Wednesday..." In a few days, of course, it's possible travel will be back to normal, so current information before a trip is essential.
To help park visitors keep up with the latest conditions, Rocky Mountain National Park has set up a new phone line dedicated to the status of Trail Ridge Road. The line has been in service since June 29, and park staff will update the recorded message when the road status changes, both during and after regular office hours. The number is (970) 586-1222.
Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson notes,
This recording should be helpful for park visitors and the park’s gateway communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake, especially in spring and fall when the status of the road can change frequently.
If you're looking for general park information, the best phone number is (970) 586-1206.
Another essential element for trip planning is the weather forecast. The park website includes a link to the latest National Weather Service forecast for the area, but it's always good to remember that even the best forecast is just a prediction, and conditions in the mountains can vary widely based on the elevation and other factors.
Many people rely on the Internet for trip planning information, and the park has a webpage for the status of park roads, Longs Peak and trail & avalanche conditions. The site also includes a good reminder that keeping such information updated is a challenge:
This web page is not updated between 4:30 p.m. and 8 a.m. For the most up-to-date conditions on Trail Ridge Road (U.S. Highway 34), please call the park's Trail Ridge Road status line at 970-586-1222 for recorded information or click on the Colorado Department of Transportation link [for information on Colorado highway outside the park.]
These Trail Conditions reports are the viewpoints of the submitters, whether park staff, volunteers, or visitors. Conditions can change rapidly in the mountains. Use these reports only as guidelines. Be prepared for varying weather and trail conditions.
Horace Albright was the Director of the National Park Service during the construction of Trail Ridge Road in 1931. He noted, "It is hard to describe what a sensation this new road is going to make."
Mr. Albright was absolutely correct, and Trail Ridge Road has indeed been a sensation with visitors for over 65 years. Today's statement from park spokesperson Kyle Patterson offers a gentle reminder about the vagaries of autumn travel in these mountains:
Currently Trail Ridge Road is temporarily closed. We will actively plow the road up until Columbus Day [October 12] and then let Mother Nature decide after that.
That's a very practical application of "Mother knows best."