Summer is finally staging an arrival at Rocky Mountain National Park, at least at the lower elevations, but park crews have had to hustle to complete the seasonal opening of Trail Ridge Road in time for the Memorial Day weekend.
As reported on the Traveler in recent weeks, late snows in mid-April and again in early May have posed some extra challenges for personnel working to get the park's famous road and top-of-the-mountain Visitor Center ready for summer's visitors.
Park spokesperson Kyle Patterson says Trail Ridge Road historically opens on Memorial Day weekend, and that will be the case this year, but that date can vary widely due to the weather. Last year the road opened to traffic early, on May 14, not too far shy of the earliest ever date of May 7 back in 2002. The latest opening date for the road was June 26, 1943.
Although the road has now opened to travel, at least during the daytime hours, Patterson cautions travelers that due to heavy melting on the road during the day and freezing temperatures at night, visitors should plan for likely nighttime closures. The Alpine Visitor Center and Trail Ridge Store are expected to open sometime next week, and as the accompanying photo shows, the staff still has plenty of work to do to get those facilities ready to use.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, climbing to 12,183 feet and connecting the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. The scenic drive officially closed for the season last year on October 17.
National Park Service plow operators normally begin clearing the snow in the middle of April, with crews from the west side of the park and crews from the east side of the park moving along the road and eventually meeting at the Alpine Visitor Center. The Visitor Center, which sits 11,796 feet above sea level, is the "highest" in the National Park System. Spring storms often impact plowing activities, and that was certainly the case this year, when plow operators encountered average snow drifts from 18 to 22 feet deep.
Park staff expect a busy Memorial Day Weekend, with the two reservation-system campgrounds in the park fully booked on Saturday and Sunday and the first-come, first-served campgrounds expected to fill as well.
There should be plenty of great scenery for weekend visitors. "From lower elevations the mountain peaks look majestic with blankets of snow," Patterson said. "The park’s backcountry still looks and feels like winter above 9,000 feet."
The current forecast calls for a beautiful weekend in the Estes Park area, but Patterson has some words of wisdom for travel to the mountain park: "Because weather conditions may change rapidly, park visitors should be prepared to adjust travel plans accordingly and are encouraged to call the park’s Trail Ridge Road recorded phone line at (970) 586-1222. Park staff will update the recorded line during and after regular office hours, when the road status changes."