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Alpine Ridge Trail – How to Experience Breathtaking Rocky Mountain Tundra

The short but steep Alpine Ridge Trail on Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road will take your breath away – literally! Nicknamed “Huffer’s Hill”, the paved out-and-back delivers epic views of Rocky Mountain’s peaks from above 12,000 feet. Although the elevation is intense, Alpine Ridge Trail is the easiest high-altitude hike in the park, providing the unique opportunity to hike above the tree line across the alpine tundra with relatively low effort.

We love Alpine Ridge Trail for its effort-to-reward ratio, easy parking access at the Alpine Visitor Center, and the seriously impressive views you get the whole way. Plus, if you’ve never hiked at altitude before, the Alpine Ridge Trail is a great way to check tundra hiking off your bucket list without having to commit a whole day to hike. In fact, Alpine Ridge Trail takes most visitors less than a half hour to complete!

This guide to Alpine Ridge Trail covers everything you need to know before setting off on this short but rewarding adventure in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park’s high-altitude Trail Ridge Road.

Alpine Ridge Trail Fast Facts
Sarah stands on Alpine Ridge Trail

Where is Alpine Ridge Trail?

The Alpine Ridge Trail sits at 11,796 feet above sea level, near the summit of one of the tallest roads in the United States and just a few miles from the Continental Divide. The trail sits seemingly precariously on a ridge between two expansive valleys in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Note that Trail Ridge Road, where Alpine Ride Trail is located, is only open in the summer months.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado’s most famous destination, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to dozens of stunning hikes, including the Alpine Ridge Trail. RMNP is in Colorado, about an hour and a half drive west of the Denver Airport.

Rocky Mountain National Park Map
Rocky Mountain National Park Map courtesy of nps.gov

Where to Stay

Estes Park is the closest town to the eastern entrances of Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake on the western entrance to the park is also a popular base for exploring RMNP. We generally recommend Estes Park, though, since it’s closer to the main attractions as well as the Denver airport for easy access. Here are some recommendations for where to stay in Estes Park:

Luxury

Midrange

Budget

Click here to search for additional hotels in Estes Park or search below!

 

Entrance Fees

Everyone visiting Rocky Mountain National Park needs to pay a park entrance fee. This fee is $30 for one day per vehicle or $35 for a week. If you plan on visiting 3 or more national parks in a 12-month period, we recommend getting a national parks pass like the America the Beautiful pass. It grants access to thousands of national park sites throughout the US. We buy one every year.

Timed Entry Permit

In addition to the park entrance fee, visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park between May and October require a timed-entry permit. For access to Trail Ridge Road, you only need the basic access pass (Option 2) since you do not need to access Bear Lake Road to hike the Alpine Ridge Trail. If you aren’t able to get a timed-entry permit, you can enter the park before 9 am (advised) or after 3 pm (also okay, but watch for thunderstorms) without one.

Rocky Mountain National Park Timed Entry Information
NPS Graphic/A. Andreas

Trail Ridge Road

Trail Ridge Road, where the trailhead for Alpine Ridge Trail is located, is the tallest continuous paved road in the United States, reaching over 12,000 feet above sea level at its highest point. If you’re wondering what “continuous paved” means (we certainly were), it means that it is a paved road that ascends to a summit point and then descends down the other side. This distinguishes it from taller, non-continuous paved roads like Mount Evans, which ascends to 14,000 feet above sea level to the summit but goes down the same way you came up.

Trail Ridge Road is ONLY open in the summer months, typically from May to October. The official opening and closing dates vary each year based on wintery weather conditions, so check the NPS website for exact dates each year.

View of the Alpine Visitor Center from the Alpine Ridge Trail
View of the Alpine Visitor Center from the Alpine Ridge Trail

Alpine Visitor Center

The trailhead for Alpine Ridge Trail is just to the left of the Alpine Visitor Center. You can park at the visitor center, which is the highest in the entire US park system. The visitor center also has a gift shop and a cafe if you want to get some hot chocolate, a bite to eat, or some souvenirs before or after your hike! There are also nice bathroom facilities here.

Alpine Visitor Center sign
Alpine Visitor Center

When is the Best Time to Hike Alpine Ridge Trail?

We recommend hiking Alpine Ridge Trail before noon on a summer day. Trail Ridge Road, and thus Alpine Ridge Trail, is only open in the summer months, so that is really the only time of year you can hike here. You will want to hike Alpine Ridge Trail in the morning to beat the afternoon thunderstorms that roll in pretty predictably every day in the summer. Even if it’s not raining, you don’t want to be exposed to the tundra when there is lightning in the area. This is why we advise hiking Alpine Ridge Trail prior to noon.

Tim on the Alpine Ridge Trail on Trail Ridge Road
Alpine Ridge Trail at the Alpine Visitor Center

Alpine Ridge Trail History

Although Alpine Ridge Trail has existed for decades, the National Park Service didn’t begin to pave it until 2010, as a way to combat erosion on the fragile Rocky Mountain tundra. The project of installing the paved path, including 225 steps, took 3 years. The trail officially reopened in 2013 as the steep paved path you see there today!

Tundra closed stay on trail sign on Alpine Ridge Trail
Always stay on the trail when hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park (or anywhere!)
Alpine Ridge Trail
Alpine Ridge Trail

Alpine Ridge Trail Hike

Trail Description

The Alpine Ridge Trail is entirely paved, including the 225 steps that climb about 200 feet of elevation from the Alpine Visitor Center to the summit. Because of the high-altitude tundra environment, you can actually see the entire trail from the parking lot. You’ll notice there are no trees up here. At 11,796 feet above sea level, even the Alpine Ridge Trailhead is above the tree line. Take it easy on this climb. Even though it’s a short 0.7-mile round trip hike, the high elevation, and steady climb will make even very fit hikers winded.

Elevation sign on Alpine Ridge Trail
Elevation signpost on the Alpine Ridge Trail. Over 12,000 feet above sea level!

What You’ll See

On the Alpine Ridge Trail, you will often be able to see colorful summer alpine wildflowers. You also have a good chance of spotting Rocky Mountain National park wildlife like marmot and pika! From the summit of the Alpine Ridge Trail, you can see the Never Summer Mountains to the west and Mt. Chapin, Mt. Chiquita, and Ypsilon Mountain to the east.

Wildflowers at Alpine Ridge on Trail Ridge Road
Wildflowers at Alpine Ridge on Trail Ridge Road facing east

The informational boards along the trail are worth a stop to read more about the unique environment. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to pause and catch your breath!

Other Hikes on Trail Ridge Road

If you are looking for a longer hike on Trail Ridge Road, Marmot Point or the Ute Trail are good additions. Read more about all of the hiking trails on Trail Ridge Road in our detailed guide!

What to pack and wear on Alpine Ridge Trail

Even though you’ll be hiking Alpine Ridge Trail in the summer months, it can still be cold and windy on Trail Ridge Road. Because of the high altitude and extreme exposure of the Alpine Ridge Trail, we recommend packing layers and jackets. A rain jacket is also a good idea.

Here are some more recommendations for what to bring on your Alpine Ridge Trail hike:

  1. Day Pack: It’s so helpful to have a good day pack to carry everything you need. I’ve had the Osprey Skimmer 20 for Women for years and it’s held up on every adventure! And here’s the Osprey Talon 22 Pack for Men!
  2. Water: Either a water reservoir in your day pack or a gallon jug you can carry in your car. If your day pack doesn’t have a water reservoir in it already, you can buy one separately to slip into your bag. It’s absolutely NECESSARY that you bring water with you on every hike. Here are our favorite 2-liter reservoir and 3-liter reservoir!
  3. Sun Protection: This is so important year-round – even more so in winter when the snow can reflect the sun back up to your skin, multiplying your exposure! Sun Bum is our favorite sunscreen brand.
  4. Hiking Boots or sneakers: I hiked Alpine Ridge Trail in my Columbia hiking boots. I literally have these in multiple colors because I love them so much! You can’t beat the price for the quality, too. Tim always hikes in his Foxelli boots and swears they are the best hiking boots he’s ever owned. He also has multiple pairs on stand-by in his closet for when the tread on these finally wears out (though it’s been a few years and they are still going strong!). Since Alpine Ridge Trail is paved, you could also wear a basic pair of sneakers too!
  5. Socks: I started wearing these double-layer Wrightsock brand socks when marathon training years ago and have never gotten a blister with them! In winter, I might mix it up with merino wool socks, too.
  6. Sunglasses: I love these wooden frame sunglasses, so they are my go-to.
  7. Hiking pants: These hiking leggings are my favorite in winter. In summer, I usually hike in biker shorts or leggings. Because Alpine Ridge Trail is short and paved, you can get away with wearing any pants or shorts you are most comfortable in.
  8. Moisture-wicking layers: SmartWool is our favorite layering brand. I wear this pullover all the time (it went around the world with us in 2014 and is still in great condition) and their wool t-shirts are great base layers. There are also SmartWool t-shirts for men!
  9. Jacket: Even in summer it can be really chilly at high altitudes in Rocky Mountain National Park! I always pack my Columbia jacket when hiking in the mountains.
  10. First Aid Kit: An ultralight first aid kit is a must-have for every hike. You never know what can happen, and you’ll be glad to have a first aid kit if you need one!
  11. Camera: I always hike with my Sony a7iii. It’s a great full-frame camera for capturing all of our hiking memories!
  12. Snacks: Clif Energy Bars are our favorite hiking snack. It’s got the perfect mix of carbs, fats, and protein to power us through our hikes!

Click here for our comprehensive Rocky Mountain National Park packing list and sign up below to grab your FREE printable RMNP packing list!

Guided Tours

Check out these recommended tours in Rocky Mountain National Park if you want a guided experience!

 

Final Thoughts

Don’t miss our detailed post on every stop on Trail Ridge Road. You’ll be driving it anyway to get to the Alpine Ridge Trail so you may as well check out the epic spots along this iconic scenic road.

Whether you have a day or a week in Rocky Mountain National Park, we have an itinerary for you! Check out our RMNP itineraries to make your planning easier! And if you love hiking, you absolutely need our list of the best hikes in RMNP! Click here to check out all of our Rocky Mountain National Park guides.

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