Planning a ride to the Estes Park, Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park region? Ready to reach the Continental Divide? Well, this is the episode for you!
Here in Part 1, we’ll discuss When to go, Where to go, and How to reach those exceptionally amazing locations. In Part 2 next time, you’ll get even more details on the history, wildlife, and geology of the area. I’ll also talk about recent construction projects and the timed entry program, which is very important to know. Most importantly, I’ll share my opinion on best coffee shops, restaurants and haunted hotels in the area. Ha ha
I’ve motorcycled in and around this area for 25 years. I’m also a Tour Guide in the National Park so I have some secrets to share with you that will make yours a trip of a lifetime!. It’s a fantastic place to see, especially from the seat of a motorcycle. After literally hundreds of journeys through both Estes and Rocky, as we locals call them, I think that I’ve learned the best times to ride there, where the best destinations are and best routes to reach them by motorcycle.
After these two podcasts, you should be well equipped to have a fantastic trip. Also, I’m planning to offer a free live Zoom meeting where you can ask your questions about traveling by motorcycle out here, and we can have a nice chat. More news coming on that!
So get out your map and stay tuned! Thank you for joining me today!
When you look at a map of Northern Colorado, one of the first things that you’ll notice is Estes Park is right next to Rocky Mountain National Park. Some folks think that Estes is within Rocky, but Estes Park is the city or village as some call it, and Rocky is a National Park owned by YOU, the taxpayer, and managed by the National Park Service. When you leave the Estes city limits on either highways 34 or 36 going west, you will immediately reach either the Beaver Meadows entrance of Rocky, or the Fall River entrance. As you exit the Western side of Rocky, you enter the sister village of Estes, which is called Grand Lake. More to come on all this.
Let’s begin with “When”, when is the best time to ride to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park? Some say that because of icy roads, motorcycles can only ride in Estes or Rocky in the Spring through September. Well, that’s not completely accurate. Far from it really. My friends and I have ridden through Estes and the lower elevation parts of Rocky in every month of the year. Granted, the roads in the upper elevations are not plowed during winter, and therefore closed, but many roads remain accessible year-round.
The reason that you can typically ride in any season is because it's very sunny and dry here most of the time. Even after it snows, the lower elevation roads can become clear and dry very quickly due to the intensity of the sun at this elevation. You always need to be cautious of shady spots, but overall, many roads are rideable throughout the year. Granted, it gets cold. Do you need to have warm clothing? Yes. One of the best motorcycling investments I ever made was in electric jacket liners that get their power from the battery on your bike with a heat adjustment on the handlebar.
Granted, planning your trip in the winter season can be tricky because you never know when the weather may change, but if you’re flexible, the colder months are a great time to see the area without the tourist traffic.
Another important factor related to when to ride into Estes and Rocky is tourist traffic. Don’t get me wrong, the locals love tourists and need them for financial survival, but riding a motorcycle is traffic is probably the last thing you want to do on vacation. So, there are some simple rules of thumb that I always recommend:
Avoid holidays! The full time population of Estes is about 6000. Rocky receives 4.3 million visitors each year. The great majority of those visitors arrive through Estes. The vast majority of those 4.3 million will come between June and September. I recommend avoiding all holidays during this span, especially the week around July 4th.
Mid-week is almost always less crowded. I always recommend visiting the area Monday through Thursday. In Estes, you’ll have more opportunity to talk with the locals and in Rocky, you should be traffic-free for the most part.
Early mornings and evenings are best for photos and wildlife. Want to see the most animals and avoid the crowds? Ride through Estes and Rocky before 10AM and after 5PM. Most pictures look best when the sun is at an angle rather than directly overhead. We have long summer days so an evening to sunset cruise can be the very best times.
Be watchful of storms any time of year. The weather can change from sunny and warm to snowing within hours at these elevations. Experienced motorcycle riders will always wear a quality helmet, so you’re always prepared there, but be sure to pack rain gear if you’re not already water-proof and warm layers.
Now, let’s talk about Where to ride. It depends on the season, but the roads to and around Estes are open year-round. The upper elevation roads in Rocky close in winter because there can be too much snow to plow.
The highlight of any motorcycle ride in Rocky are three roads. Fall River Road, Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road. Let’s talk about each of them.
Fall River Road is a narrow one way dirt road. It is the original road originally created as a trail by the Native Americans. The Arapaho called it the Dog Trail.
It’s is only open while free of snow from early July to until mid-October. There are no guardrails and few shoulders. It can be dangerous, and it’s awesome! Life is too short not to give it a try. We drive Jeep tour through here in the summer. This is a fantastic road to motorcycle. It’s ideal for duel-sport bikes, but an experienced rider on a road bike can make it fine in my opinion, as long as it’s dry. It’s seldom muddy for long after a rain due to the dry climate, so watch the weather reports. Sometimes there can be deep ruts, so, yeah be careful and you’ll be fine.
Trail Ride Road is the #1 reason to motorcycle in Rocky. I can’t stress it enough how important it is to travel the full length of this road if you’re ever in the area. It’s mind blowing. I cannot begin to describe the views. From the seat of a motorcycle, it’s like riding to the moon.
Trail Ridge Road was built to be an easier route to the same place for Fall River goes. It’s a two way paved road fully open from around May through October. Trail Ridge is the highest continuous paved road in the United States, reaching an elevation of over 12,000 feet. That’s 2 and a half miles above Sea Level. The weather can change quickly at these elevations. A warm summer day can turn to sleet or snow and high winds in a matter of minutes.
Bear Lake Road is beautiful and very popular. It’s a one way journey through the central portion of Rocky ending at, drum roll, Bear Lake. Along the way, I always recommend stopping for a short hike around Sprague Lake. Many wedding pictures are photographed here. Bear Lake is indeed beautiful. The lake with Howlett Peak in the background is one of the most photographed locations in the whole park. As I mentioned, it’s popular which also means crowded, especially on weekends and especially during holiday weeks. Although a timed entry system is in place, it can still be a traffic jam. So, remember, avoid holidays and summer weekends to steer clear of traffic. Monday through Thursday, early morning or after 5pm are best.
Cross from Estes Park on Trail Ridge Road, you will reach Grand Lake, which is considered the sister city of Estes. Here you’ll find the deepest natural lake in all of Colorado. The population of Grand Lake is only about 400 people, but here you’ll find a very peaceful setting by the lake, excellent restaurants and coffee shops. Here they have a hidden gem. It’s the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater. More on that in Part 2 next week.
Ok, I know this was a lot, but this info will also be in the Episode transcript.
Estes and Rocky are indeed beautiful places with some of the nicest locals you’ll ever want to me. Take your time, relax, talk with a stranger. Use your imagination, watch others carefully, and do a random act of kindness, whatever that may be.
Tune in next week for a tour guide’s tips on specific recommendations for things to do for entire family.
Thank you for listening. I wish you peace, I wish you love.