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Cycling Trail Ridge Road, Colorado
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, traversing Rocky Mountain National Park and offering spectacular views along the giant switchbacks 20 miles below a summit that tops out at a whopping 12,000'. At 43.9 miles, Trail Ridge is also the second longest bike climb in the U.S. and the fifth longest in the world. Visit PJAMM Cycling’s Rocky Mountain National Park page for more information on climbs in this area.
“One of the most difficult climbs in Colorado, the east side of Trail Ridge northwest of Denver is a very spectacular ascent into Rocky Mountain National Park. Quite shallow to start, after several miles you will pass through the national park entrance gate ($5 for bikes). Mountain meadows with evergreen trees dominate the lower portion and you soon begin to switchback a bit up the mountain. The grade is fairly steady and never steep as the road soon begins to hug the ridge in places through the middle of the ascent. Near the top the grade eases and there is a false flat just before the true summit. The setting is tundra-like here with great mountain views and you soon summit at Trail Ridge (12,183 feet), one of the highest passes in the United States. This road keeps you above treeline for a greater distance than any other in the United States except for mighty Mount Evans and Pikes Peak. It is a long and shallow hill but don’t underestimate the elevation attained on this climb. Due to its elevation it has a pretty short window to ride and does carry a lot of traffic at times so ride early in the day if possible…” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike), 2nd Edition, pg. 166.)
The longer cycling route, which is the less popular version and the one featured on our climb page, begins on Highway 34 at Dam Store. This is a very long route at 43.9 miles, 7,710’ at 3.1% (Map). Please see Dam Store slideshow for photos of this climb from the start to where the standard climb begins just west of Estes Park.
When to Climb Trail Ridge by Bike: This bike climb tops out above 12,000’ so it is best to do it between June and September. Trail Ridge Road does close during the winter:
“It is open to vehicle traffic roughly from Memorial Day weekend in May through Columbus Day in October. Temporary closings may occur in early June or late fall because of snow. Occasionally it opens earlier in May. Average close date is October 23 (latest close date Dec. 2, 1933) when the Park Service gives up fighting the snow and turns the road back to Mother Nature for the winter. During winter it is closed between Many Parks Curve and the Colorado River Trailhead. Call (970) 586-1222 anytime for the latest Park recording of the status of the road” (Rocky Mountain National Park).
Though we’d say that the best months to ride Trail Ridge are June to September, there are never any “guarantees” . . .
Left photo: Marloes Dekkers near Rainbow Curve Overlook ~10,875’ -- May 29, 2019
Right photo: Tiemen van Boxtel near Forest Canyon Overlook, ~11,716’ -- May 29, 2019
How to Climb Trail Ridge by Bike: Since the high point of this climb is just over 12,000’ (36% less oxygen there than at sea level), it is best to acclimate to altitude if possible. However, we can say that the two times we climbed Trail Ridge by bike we did so on our first day in Colorado after traveling from nearly sea level in our Sonoma County Northern California home base. We suggest a road bike with compact chainring and at least a 28t cassette. While the average grade for this incredibly long climb is only 2.9%, the crux of the climb is above 10,000’ (the last 10 miles average 5.5%, which seems a lot harder as we approach 11 and 12,000 feet of altitude).
Before heading out to tackle the glorious Trail Ridge Road, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
Start of Longer Trail Ridge Route:
Start at The Dam Store on Highway 34 west of Loveland.
Ride 31 miles and turn right onto Trail Ridge Road for the final 23 miles.
This route is the second longest bike climb in the US, behind the Mauna Loa (longest cycling climb in the world at 62.2 miles) and fifth in the world behind #1 Mauna Loa, #2 Wuling Pass East, #3 Alto de Letras, Colombia (50.5 miles) and #5 Doi Inthanon, Thailand (46.2 miles).
Mauna Loa, Island of Hawaii -- longest road bike climb in the world.
The “shorter” (18 miles; map) and more popular route to the high point begins just three miles northwest of Estes Park, Colorado. We recommend staying in Estes -- it is a very charming town. Trail Ridge Road is the northernmost Top 100 cycling climb in Colorado, and can easily be included in a Denver Area Top 100 trip, which would additionally include #97 Magnolia Dr (Boulder, Colorado - 44 miles south) and #11 Mt. Evans (Idaho Springs - 84 miles south). You cold also throw in #5 Pikes Peak for good measure (Colorado Springs - 147 miles south).
The first nine miles of the climb are mild,
with nice views of meadows and forest surroundings.
Hold out until Glen Haven -- excellent fudge and more here at mile 15.4.
The highway is busy, but motorists are certainly alerted to our presence.
23 miles to Estes -- Claire’s Restaurant is awesome!
The Fall River Visitor Center is located just before the Fall River entrance to the park.
There is a store and restaurant next door to the Visitor Center.
Mile 27 -- enter Rocky Mountain National Park;
As of 2020, there is a $15 charge to get into the park on a bike, but . . .
. . . the park is cycle-friendly and environmentally sensitive.
Scenes within the first few miles of entering the park.
Signs near and just inside the park (enter park at mile 27).
First viewpoint at mile 30.
Mary Parks Curve Overlook at mile 35 (elevation 9,700’).
We turn right at mile 31 (staying on Highway 34), which is where Trail Ridge Road begins and takes us another 12.7 miles to the summit of this climb (gaining 3,305’ at 4.7% average grade).
The views transition to mountains and canyon as we ride the next seven miles and travel above tree line into more barren surroundings at around mile 16. Altitude is certainly a factor on this ascent as we exceed 12,000' which is rare (only seven of the Top 100 U.S. climbs are above 12,000').
Some awesome hairpins on this climb - big ‘uns!
Rainbow Curve Overlook at mile 40 (10,800’);
Roadway just traveled an part of giant hairpin across the ravine;
Lower portion of roadway also visible left-center of photo.
The giant 3.2 mile loop that ends at Rainbow Curve.
Top of the climb, but not end of the line!
Continue past the roadway finish/high point to Communities Trailhead which accesses Mushroom Rocks, THE summit, but ya gotta earn it . . .
Bruce on his way up Mushroom Rocks to the summit . . .
Mission accomplished at 12,300’.
The road passes the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (elevation 10,758’) which is about 8.9 miles down Trail Ridge Road after cresting the summit of our climb.
Continental Divide Top 100 US Bike Climbs:
Wolf Creek Pass (top photo) -- southwest Colorado (Pagosa Springs);
Steepest ¼ mile begins at mile 17.1 (1.5%) and steepest mile at 16.9 (9.7%).
Roadway Surface and Traffic Report: This road is in excellent condition with minimal shoulder, but also light traffic, particularly after turning onto Trail Ridge Road from Highway 34 at the 5.5 mile mark.
Due to the pandemic, the park required and was out of permits on the day in July 2020 we visited. The gate attendant told us to backtrack five miles to Estes Park and park in a parking lot there. However, the ranger in charge of the Visitor Center let us park the van in back, for a price!! . . . 🍦
The ice cream story: center photo -- our parking spot;
Upper left and upper center photo: the market where we obtained our parking fee.
Upper right: Visitor Center; Lower right and center: payment made.
Bottom left: well, just because . . . 😉