A 28-foot RV with a splashy mural painted across its side flashed around the curve in front of us, headed in our direction. It was straddling the yellow center line.
I glanced out the passenger window of our car: A 1,000-foot precipice loomed. There was no shoulder. No guardrail. No vegetation to break our fall. I swallowed a scream and croaked, "We're near the edge, Hal."
He didn't acknowledge the comment. He was too busy trying to keep our SUV from plunging into the void. I closed my eyes and held my breath.
When I looked again, the road ahead was clear. We'd made it.
"I guess that's why they call this a white-knuckle trip," I said nervously.
Photographer Hal Stoelzle and I were driving Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved highway in America, 48 miles of thrills and chills in the Colorado Rockies. The road, a major attraction in Rocky Mountain National Park, climbs to 12,183 feet — "the roof of the sky," park employees say. The views on the trip up are daunting, the panorama from on high spectacular.
But getting there can be tricky.
The highway — two narrow lanes — winds around 10 switchbacks, ascending 4,000 feet in minutes. Drop-offs of 1,000 feet or more are common.
"People get halfway up and panic," said ranger Michael Edwards. "A lot of them drive in the center of the highway not because they want to. They're too scared to do anything else."
And sometimes, he said, "they get to the point they can't move at all. We have to escort them down."
But those who brave the highway to the sky are rewarded with sights found few other places in the Lower 48. Glaciers, alpine tundra, midsummer snow flurries. "It's like driving north to the Arctic," Edwards said.
The road begins in a high-country valley, where elk graze in lush meadows and beavers build homes on small ponds. It climbs through thick aspen, fir and pine forests to the tree line — 11,500 feet — the point at which trees no longer can survive.
Then it climbs several hundred feet more, snaking along the barren crest of the continent for 11 miles. The air at this altitude is thin; temperatures are usually below freezing, and the wind often tops 100 mph, gusting to 150 mph in winter. It's a wild place, ravaged by the elements year-round. The low-growing vegetation is the same as that in the Arctic tundra.
The highway connects the communities of Estes Park, on the east, and Grand Lake, on the west. About a million people drive the twisting route during the five months it is open annually (Memorial Day to mid-October, weather permitting), but it's not the only draw in the Rocky Mountain park. There also are hiking trails, historical sites and glacial lakes. Hal and I explored Bear Lake, where snow still lined the banks during our late-May visit.
The loop tour
We had started our road trip that morning in Denver: Trail Ridge Road was the goal, but along the way, we would see a couple of scenic byways, explore some onetime frontier towns, cross the Continental Divide twice and cover about 400 miles of sweeping, high-country terrain.
Our loop tour took us first to Golden, Colo. (15 miles west of Denver on U.S. 6), where the smell of hops filled the mountain air. Adolph Coors set down roots here in 1873 when he arrived from Germany and launched Coors brewery. Today's visitors can still tour the factory and sample the product.
I was more interested, though, in popping into Foss General Store, a one-acre "shopping emporium," where I could buy an antique Texaco gas pump for $3,195, a Golden Nugget slot machine for $2,995, or a bag of potato chips for 99 cents. I took the chips.
Our next stop was upscale Boulder (24 miles north on Colorado 93), which bills itself as "the city nestled between the mountains and reality." I pondered that as we strolled the lively downtown pedestrian mall, stopping in bookstores and watching the city's cafe society as residents sipped lattes and ate veggie sandwiches at outdoor restaurants. A few miles farther, we turned north onto Colorado 72 and picked up the Peak to Peak National Scenic Byway. We took it into Estes Park, marveling at thick stands of pine and aspen.
From the moment we started planning the trip, I'd looked forward to visiting Estes Park and the famed Stanley Hotel, an elegant turn-of-the-last-century inn that inspired Stephen King's "The Shining."
When I asked for a haunted room, the clerk smiled and said, "I think they're all haunted."
I saw no ghosts that night, but I wasn't disappointed. The hotel was a gracious reminder of a different era, beautifully furnished and well maintained. My room had a high-poster bed and a wonderful view of the Rockies. And when I looked at the empty rocking chairs on the wide hotel veranda, I had the feeling that specters of long-ago guests may have been there, slowly swaying.
Voices of bygone eras seem to be everywhere along our route. We saw ghost towns and mine tailings that told of the rough-and-tumble gold rush days; pioneer wagon trails that spoke of hardy frontier folk; and Native American place names and legends that reminded us of Colorado's first residents. We visited resort towns, some dusty and authentic, like Grand Lake, a onetime stagecoach stop; some shiny and new, like Winter Park, where skiers bed down in high-rise condos.
But the best part of the trip was Trail Ridge Road, despite the scary drive.
Near the top of the road is a park service center and store. We arrived at 10:30 a.m. on the last Friday of May, just as the front door opened for the day.
"Welcome to the Alpine Visitors Center," boomed a ranger cheerfully as we walked in. "You're the first visitors of the season. About 400,000 people will follow you before we close the center for the year."
Was he talking to me? I looked around. People had pushed in behind, rushing to a viewing area that overlooked this high country. The ranger was staring at me. I must have seemed confused.
"Sorry," he said. "But there's no prize for being first, other than being here."
That was prize enough.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, United, American and Frontier offer nonstop service to Denver, and America West, Alaska, Northwest and Continental offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $202.
WHERE TO STAY:
Stanley Hotel, 3333 Wonderview Ave., Estes Park 80517; (800) 976-1377, http://www.stanleyhotel.com . Charming historic hotel built in 1906 and recently renovated. Doubles from $169 in season.
Black Bear Lodge, 12255 U.S. Highway 34, Grand Lake 80447; (970) 627-3654, http://www.blackbeargrandlake.com . Inexpensive roadside motel is tidy and clean. Some kitchenettes and family units. Pool. Doubles from $84.
WHERE TO EAT:
Grand Lake Lodge, P.O. Box 569, 15500 U.S. Highway 34, Grand Lake 80447; (970) 627-3967, http://www.grandlakelodge.com . It's worth a visit to this historic lodge just for the panoramic view of Grand Lake and the surrounding mountains and forest. Open June 3 to Sept. 6. Dining room open for lunch and dinner. Lunch entrees: $3.50 to $9.95; dinner is buffet only, $19.95 for adults.
Rapids Restaurant, P.O. Box 1400, Grand Lake 80477; (907) 627-3707, http://www.rapidslodge.com . Fine dining and excellent service at this riverside restaurant. Seafood, pasta, game, steak. Entrees from $18.