National Parks photography road trip

Elk High in Rocky Mountain National Park

Highway 34 across Rocky Mountain National Park is somewhat of a harrowing drive as you ascend from about 8,000 feet in Granby, Colorado on the western side of the park to 12,183 feet in elevation at the high point of the 62-mile stretch of road. Highway 34 exits Rocky Mountain National Park in the resort town of Estes Park on the eastern side.

We started our drive in Craig, Colorado – elk hunting capital of the world – and passed through the ski resort town of Steamboat Springs as we continued east on Highway 40. The road east of Steamboat Springs rises from 6,700 feet to peak at 9,426 feet as the highway crosses over Rabbit Ears Pass.

We drove next to and over the Colorado River several times as we traveled 120 miles to Granby, Colorado on U.S. Route 40 east.

Granby, Colorado is the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake is a resort area on Highway 34 before entering the park.


Grand Lake, Colorado.

One of the disturbing aspects of entering the park was the abundance of dead pine trees on the mountains. The Mountain Pine Beetle has resulted in the death of thousands of trees within the park boundaries as seen in my photo of the trees behind the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance sign.


Our first stop was the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, a few hundred yards before the entrance fee station. The elevation here is 8,720 feet.

July is a great time to see colorful high mountain wildflowers. There were butterflies all over the place.


Butterfly on flowers.


Mountainside of dead pines.

The road travels several miles through the valley before the steep ascent over miles of switchbacks begins. One of the first vista points is Fairview Curve at about 10,000 feet.


A few more miles of switchbacks and the road passes over the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, 10,759 feet. There is a parking lot and trails in each direction with picturesque Poudre Lake on the east side.


Milner Pass Continental Divide signpost.


The road east of Milner Pass continues to rise into the alpine zone. This is where the road driving got a little nerve-wracking as the oxygen intake decreases, the head gets fuzzy and the road has no barrier to prevent the car from plummeting several thousand feet down the mountainside.


Around 11,500 feet on Highway 34 in thin air and no roadside barriers.

Alpine Visitor Center is located in the high elevation tundra at 11,796 feet and just a couple miles west of the highest point on Highway 34.

Kelley, the driver, asked me how much longer the road would be like this. Being my first time on Highway 34, I had no idea. She said her hands were sweaty with anxiety and she remained focused only on the road, afraid to look around at the mountains. I thought it was a good idea for her to keep her eyes focused on the road. I told her she could look at my photos of the surrounding landscape at a later time.


View from 12,000 feet on Highway 34, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Near the high point of Highway 34 all traffic heading east had come to a stop. A herd of elk were grazing on the tundra.


Park signs all along Highway 34 state cars must only stop at pullouts and not on the road. We crawled for 20 minutes as each car took its share of photographs. Unfortunately most of the time the elk were not visible as we crawled along at the rate of about 25 feet a minute. This gave me plenty of time to get my camera ready with a telephoto lens for photos.


Three bull elk resting in the alpine breeze.


Bull elk surrounded by alpine tundra wildflowers of July in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A couple more miles east is Tundra Communities Trailhead. A short hike at 12,050 feet allowed me to photograph another elk herd resting in the tundra.


What a joy to get elk high in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.


Elk cow with GPS tracking collar grazing in alpine tundra.


Ric Garrido, writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler, shares news and views on hotels, hotel loyalty programs and vacation destinations for frequent guests.

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  • DJP July 12, 2013

    Done ths park many times. I have also done the reverse f your route to Craig.

    I was in the park in mid June. The one way trail ridge road was not open yet.

    The above tree line part s the most difficult in part because of the very high elevation. The distance on this road is about a 15 min drive. The good thing for the most part is the fall is on the ascending part of the road thus you are traveling slower. Descending part is mostly on the far side of the fall.

    When I was there they were doing resurfacing work on the road to bear Lake so Monday-Friday it was closed to traffic during 9-5 time frame…thus this caused a headache for parking and buses to get to bear lake.

    There was a wildfire going on near the west entry point near grand lake in the park.

  • Ric Garrido July 13, 2013

    @DJP – Hard to believe that I have been coming to Colorado regularly since 1999 and this is the first time I have visited Rocky Mountain National Park.

    Seeing the elk herds was the highlight of this trip so far.

    I was amazed at the young children running around at 12,000 feet with seemingly no effects from the high altitude.

    The 67 F temperature was such a relief after several days of 90 to 100F.

  • Charles Clarke July 13, 2013

    Yes, driving along Trail Ridge Road isn’t for the faint of heart, even us native Coloradans. I hope Kelley enjoys your trip.

    Great photos.

    Could have bought you a beer at Oskar Blues if I had known you were coming through Lyons. For some reason I thought you were taking 40 into Denver.

    Have a great time in Colorado.

  • Charles Clarke July 13, 2013

    BTW, your photos show why there is such a problem once a fire starts. It has lots of ready fuel to burn. And the terrain makes it tough for the firefighters to get in to deal with it.

    Also, Estes Park is most famous for the Stanley Hotel where “The Shining” was filmed. They have horror flick weekends there.

  • Ric Garrido July 13, 2013

    @Charles Clarke – 12,000+ feet is definitely highest elevation Kelley has been at the wheel. In 2011 I did all driving at 10,000+ feet.
    Kelley did fine driving up and down the mountains through the park.

    Last year I had several of the Oskar Blues brews during the #tbex Keystone brewery road trip. I think that contributed to my fuzzy head at 11,500 feet for the opening night party.

    Now I know where Lyons is located. I saw a brewpub there on Highway 36.

  • DJP July 13, 2013

    There is a couple of places in Estes park you can get elk and buffalo meat. You can also find heards in the evening in the Moraine Valley along the road. When I was there the flowers were in bloom on the valley floor.

    The pass is one of the highest roads. The highest pass road is independence pass near Aspen.

    A great drive but the worst altitude sickness I got was doing US 212 into Yellowstone from red lodge.

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