If you go
What: Trail Ridge Road opening for season
When: Friday, weather pending
Where: Rocky Mountain National Park
More info: For road conditions, visit nps.gov/romo/ or call the Trail Ridge Road hotline, 970-586-1222
A few weeks into plowing Trail Ridge Road, a perennial effort that usually starts the second week of April, a plow driver from the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park meets the driver from the west side somewhere along the 11 miles of road above treeline.
“I gave Arnie a big hug,” said Sue O’Connor, who was plowing from the east side when she met Arnie Johnson, the park’s west-side plow driver, earlier this month. “I don’t know what the guys do.”
Every spring, a crew of seven national park employees puts in long hours clearing 20-foot drifts on Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the United States, reaching 12,183 feet at its high point.
Driving bulldozers, graders and rotaries — which churn through compact drifts and spew snow into the air to the roadside — the crew has been working from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the past two weeks to get the road open in time for Memorial Day weekend, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said. Weather permitting, this year’s road opening will be Friday.
On Monday, during an escorted media day at the site, only the roofs of the buildings at the Alpine Visitor Center were visible, and the plows had just nicked the 5-foot-tall edge of snow in the parking lot. The buildings are not always buried so deeply; the drifts vary every winter with wind patterns.
The park’s roads foreman, Chuck Stalker, said a 50-foot cornice had piled up behind the buildings this year, too. He’s not sure whether the visitor center will open by Friday.
As if to underscore the difficulty of plowing (and re-plowing after spring storms and wind drifts), as the media caravan paused at the parking lot, temperatures dropped below freezing and winds kicked, causing white-out conditions.
The drivers had started plowing Monday morning under blue skies and warm temps.
So far this year, no plow drivers have been stranded on the road for a night. But it happens.
Stalker once spent a night in a bulldozer after a shift plowing the road.
“The storm came in so fast,” he said. “It drifted 3 or 4 feet onto the road.”
Asked whether he got cold parked at the Alpine Visitor Center (11,796 feet) that night, Stalker confessed: “I left it running.”
Trail Ridge Road opened in 1932 after three summers of construction. The road was built to improve upon the narrow and steep Fall River Road, which is unpaved and follows a shady valley. The snow on Fall River Road was such a challenge come spring, said Patterson, the park spokeswoman, that it was sometimes dug out by hand with shovels.
Even now, “a lot of what they do is five steps forward, two steps back,” Patterson said.
When the crew begins clearing Trail Ridge Road, they follow the snow poles and find the center line. Four plows operate at a time; two mechanics bring the better part of an auto shop up the hill for maintenance and repairs on the spot.
O’Connor, who has been plowing roads in the park since the mid-1980s, said she never gets lonely driving plows in the park.
“It’s thrilling and dangerous and exciting and fun, all in one piece,” she said.
The only woman to have done the job, O’Connor is retiring after this year.
“The time goes so fast,” she said. “Maybe it’s the beautiful views.”