The first obstacle that awaits us is getting through the entrance gate.  Since it was Memorial Day weekend, and the opening for the season of Trail Ridge Road, I knew that it would be no easy task.  However, being a former Park Ranger who worked at Rocky Mountain National Park gave me insider knowledge about the park.  It even gave me insider knowledge of how best to navigate through the town of Estes Park, or as my east coast friend calls it, Gatlinburg West because of its tourist trap feel.

Any local knows you never want to go through the Beaver Meadows entrance, the main entrance for visitors driving to the park from the Front Range cities of Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver.  The lines there can be more than a mile long on a busy weekend.  The lesser known, but scenic Fall River entrance is always less crowded and therefore much quicker and easier to get through.  But you have to somehow get through town to get there, which is where that insider knowledge comes in handy.  Instead of taking Highway 7 through the heart of town, we went via Mary’s Lake Road to Moraine Park Road, cut through a parking lot to Elkhorn Ave. up to Fall River Road.  Traffic jam averted, but only temporarily.

We had no sooner gotten into the park, when we came upon the classic animal jam.  Cars parked in the lane of traffic, tourons standing in the road, cameras pointed, eyes straining to see elk in the meadow.  I swear you could actually create a fake wildlife jam, by just parking your car cattywampus across the road, stand on the shoulder with your camera, staring into the bushes.  I never did see anything, so after 15 minutes of waiting, we went straight on through.

But the part that never gets old for me is the scenery.  The amazing, knock-your-socks off vistas of those craggy, soaring spires capped in snow as you rise above timberline.  The towering banks of 20 feet of snow are pretty impressive too.  One of the most commonly asked questions to rangers at Alpine Visitor Center is, “What are those big tall poles along the road for?”  Well, take a drive on opening weekend and you will soon understand.  Without those snow stakes that are 30 feet high, snowplow drivers clearing the road on the tundra could easily drive straight off the road.

Of course, being that is opening weekend, parking is no easy feat, especially at the ever popular Alpine Visitor Center.  Fortunately, it’s a mere pit stop of 15-30 minutes for most people to snap some photos, buy some gifts and use the bathrooms, so people are coming and going and if you’re lucky you’ll snag a parking spot fairly easily.

As we proceed onward and downward from the high point of the road, 12,200 feet, we encounter a curious sight that most visitors will never see during their drive over Trail Ridge.  On the descending road near the Continental Divide Sign at Milner Pass, we spot skiers coming down the hillside above, swooping and carving their turns on the 2-3 feet of snow that still blankets the ground.  Another only in Colorado moment….

As we head down to the Kawunechee valley below, the snow disappears as we catch sight of the Colorado River.  Just a few miles to our north, within the park boundaries, the headwaters of this most important western water source begins.  More jams ahead, but instead of people straining to see elk, they are instead looking at the moose that populate the western side of the park, or as my park ranger friends used to say, the “wetter, better side.” The copious amount of willow and grasses and the open meadows make it ideal for these 1000-pound creatures.  We only see females, and I’m not interested, because female moose have now taken up residence in our neighborhood in Nederland, and it no longer seems worthy to take the time to park and gape.

Soon enough we are exiting the park out to the quaint town of Grand Lake, and our drive of the magnificent Trail Ridge Road is over.  Our friends from Chicago seemed to enjoy it, but even as a local and former employee, the majesty of the Rockies has left me speechless as well.