Vail travel: No ordinary road work |

Vail travel: No ordinary road work

Rick Spitzer
Vail, CO Colorado
Rick Spitzer/Special to the Vail DailyVail travel: Eleven miles of the Trail Ridge Road highway is above treeline.

Milner Pass, seated on the Continental Divide, is located on scenic Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Nearby Estes Park has been a popular tourist destination since the early 1900s. There is plenty of history and high mountain majesty to explore when venturing to Milner Pass.

Trail Ridge Road, part of transcontinental US 34, crosses Milner Pass on the Continental Divide at 10,758 feet. Though the pass itself does not offer any spectacular vistas, a 6-mile drive east to where the road winds above treeline will reveal some of the most dramatic high-mountain views found anywhere in the United States.

At this point, about 29 miles west of Estes Park and 18 miles east of Grand Lake, Trail Ridge Road/US 34 reaches a high point of 12,183 feet, making it the highest continuously paved highway in the United States.

Due to wind-blown winter snows, Trail Ridge Road is closed from just after Labor Day to just before Memorial Day each year. Clearing the road for its annual opening ceremony takes about 35 days of plowing. Huge rotary plows cut their way through snow banks up to 20 feet deep.

In 1909, Enos Mills proposed that a national park named The Estes National Park and Game Preserve be established in this spectacular area of the Colorado Rockies. In his vision, the park would extend all the way from the Mummy Range, past Longs Peak, and down to Mt. Evans.

Many locals, the Denver Chamber of Commerce, and the Colorado Mountain Club supported the concept. The cumbersome name finally morphed into Rocky Mountain National Park.

The first official proposal for the park had it covering more than 700 square miles and encompassing not only the Estes Park area but also Indian Peaks to the south. After two years of hard work and a lot of compromise, the Senate finally passed a final version of the bill. On January 26, 1915, President Wilson signed the bill, making Rocky Mountain National Park a reality.

Today, Rocky Mountain National Park is considered one of the most spectacular high-mountain areas in North America. The 415-square-mile park ranges in elevation from 8,000 feet to 14,259 feet at the summit of Longs Peak. Hikers and climbers enjoy 359 miles of trail and 60 peaks over 12,000 feet.

The original road into Rocky Mountain National Park followed the Fall River to 11,796-foot Fall River Pass. Fall River Road, completed in 1920, continues to be popular with park visitors who enjoy navigating its many tight hairpin curves.

Now a one-way, uphill, dirt road, Fall River Road, provides the visitor with a first-hand understanding of what mountain roads were like in the 1920s. The original Fall River Road was rough, steep, and didn’t make for a very scenic drive.

Views from Trail Ridge, a mountain ridge to the south, were far superior, and a plan to construct a road there soon evolved. Construction of Trail Ridge Road began in September, 1929, and was completed by July, 1932.

This was not a normal road construction project. The weather permitted only four to five months of construction a year, and protection of the surrounding environment was a high priority.

Contractors built log and rock dikes along the roadway and minimized damage to rock walls during blasting. Stonemasons placed surface rocks lichen-side up and salvaged tundra sod to replace along the roadway. They used rocks from the surroundings to build guardrails along the shoulder of the road. All of this produced an aesthetic experience unlike that of any other roadway in Colorado. Trail Ridge Road ended at Fall River Pass where it met Fall River Road. Fall River Road to Grand Lake was not suitable for automobile traffic until 1938.

At 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park and carries the name of Stephen Long, who explored the Rocky Mountain National Park area in 1820. Its square-shaped top, as viewed from Trail Ridge Road, gives it an identity that cannot be mistaken.

The mountain gained some notoriety in 1866 when Jules Verne named it as the fictional site for a 280-foot telescope in the movie From the Earth to the Moon.

John Wesley Powell and newspaperman William Byers led the first recorded ascent of Longs Peak on August 23, 1868. Most people now climb the peak from the east, but Powell and Byers made the ascent from the Grand Lake side.

Today, it is one of Colorado’s favorite 14ers, and its steep east face, known as The Diamond, makes it especially popular with technical rock climbers.

Different maps place Longs Peak at 14,255 or 14,259 feet. The U.S. Geological Survey improved cartographic accuracy in 2002 and set the official heights of many Colorado landmarks as much as seven feet higher than before. Longs’ “official” height is now 14,259 feet.

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