As we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, we stopped at every scenic lookout we passed, including Farview Curve Overlook, the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, Medicine Bow Curve Overlook, the Alpine Visitor Center, Gore Range Overlook, Lava Cliffs Overlook, Rock Cut Overlook, Forest Canyon Overlook, Rainbow Curve Overlook, Many Parks Curve Overlook, and even the Hidden Valley Beaver Ponds Boardwalk.
But Rock Cut stood out… and not just because it’s where we saw bighorn sheep!
At 12,178 feet elevation, Rock Cut Overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park features stunning views of Longs Peak, the Never Summer Mountain Range, the blue Gorge Lakes, Hayden Gorge, and the pristine alpine tundra above the treeline.
Rock Cut scenic viewpoint sits at the top of Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States, that stretches 48 miles along US Highway 34 from Grand Lake to Estes Park, Colorado. Eleven miles of Trail Ridge Road traverse the mountain ridgeline above 11,000 feet elevation, which means that it’s a summer-only highway that closes in the winter due to snow.
This spectacular overlook has parking on both sides of the road and more parking than many of the other Trail Ridge Road scenic vista points, but if animals are present or it’s a summer weekend, you may still have trouble finding a parking spot!
Animals At Rock Cut Overlook
We were lucky enough to snag one of the last parking spaces at Rock Cut Overlook when two bighorn sheep were out on the mountain’s downslope and the entire road was jammed with cars and lined with people snapping photos, including us. It was amazing to see these majestic animals for the first time without needing binoculars!
We passed Rock Cut three separate times and every time we had animal encounters! In addition to the bighorn sheep, we saw elk grazing and lounging on the fragile alpine tundra, coyote wandering along the road, and marmots scampering around the rock outcroppings — the kids had a blast marmot spotting.
SIDE NOTE: I kept waiting for the one jerk that doesn’t think the rules apply to him/her to hop the rock walls to get closer, but it never happened. Throughout our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, we all noticed how much more respectful visitors were of the rules to stay on the trails and roads than they typically are in California.
About Rock Cut
Getting around the huge rocks at Rock Cut was a struggle for early travelers. In the summer of 1932, during the construction of Trail Ridge Road, workers blasted through the solid rock so visitors could drive all the way through the park. Workers were careful to protect and save the giant stone monoliths on the side of the road, using wood walls to protect them from rocks thrown from the blasting. Rocks that flew outside the Trail Ridge Road construction area were removed to maintain the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Today, driving through Rock Cut just east of the parking area, is a part of every visitor’s experience when driving Trail Ridge Road through the national park.
Tundra Communities Trail
At the Rock Cut Trailhead, you’ll find access to the Tundra Communities Trail, also called the Tundra Nature Trail, the Toll Memorial Trail, and the Tundra World Toll Memorial Trail — clearly they need to get the name of this short hiking trail straight!
The Tundra Communities Trail is a 0.5 mile, paved, accessible, out and back trail, to the top of the hill above Rock Cut that totals 1.0 mile.
This trail climbs from 12,178 feet elevation to 12,304 feet elevation, and while many say it’s an easy trail, if you’re not used to the elevation it will feel more moderate to difficult. Luckily, interpretive signs along the trail provide not only an introduction to the plants and wildflowers founds in the alpine tundra ecosystem above the trees, but the perfect opportunities to stop and take a break.
The Tundra Communities Trail is named for Roger Wolcott Toll, former superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park from 1921-1929. At the top of the trail on a large rock outcropping, you can see the Roger Wolcott Toll Memorial plaque commemorating his service. You’ll also enjoy views of Mushroom Rocks, Longs Peak, and the Mummy Range, and if you’re lucky furry marmots and majestic elk.
Mushroom Rocks are rock formations that look like giant stone mushrooms and completely out of place in the flat rolling hills of the Rocky Mountain alpine tundra. What’s even more odd, is that the mushroom tops are dark-colored and the stems are light-colored. Apparently, the dark schist was originally sand, silt, and clay in an ocean bed. But molten magma rose up into the schist and cooled into a light granite. The mushroom shaped rock formations seen today are the result of the granite stems eroding faster than their schist caps.
Know Before You Go
- Rock Cut Overlook is a scenic viewpoint sitting at 12,178 feet elevation, making it one of the highest points on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. From here you can access the 0.5 mile, paved Tundra Communities Trail that climbs to 12,304 feet elevation and offers views of Longs Peak, the Never Summer Mountains, and Mushroom Rocks.
- The parking area (on both sides of the road) is located 12.9 miles west of Deer Ridge Junction (where HWY 34 and HWY 36 meet) and 4.1 miles east of the Alpine Visitor Center.
- The fence at the Rock Cut parking area protects an ecological research plot established in 1958 by alpine botanist Beatrice Willard (1925-2003). The plot was added to the National Register Of Historic Places in 2007 and is the first research plot in the country to be so recognized.
- Accessible vault restrooms can be found at near the parking area and Rock Cut Trailhead.
- Wear layers and bring a jacket! As you ascend Trail Ridge Road, temperatures drop 30 degrees and there can be high winds. Also, be prepared for changing weather. At high elevations it can go from sunny and beautiful, to dark and cloudy with thunderstorms and lightning very quickly.
- Trail Ridge Road is a stretch of US Highway 34 that passes through Rocky Mountain National Park, connecting the town of Grand Lake in Grand County and the town of Estes Park in Larimer County, Colorado. Also known as the Beaver Meadow National Scenic Byway, Trail Ridge Road closes from mid-October to June because of snow.
- Other things to do along Trail Ridge Road include: the Holzwarth Historic Site, Farview Curve Overlook, Milner Pass and Lake Poudre, Medicine Bow Curve Overlook, the Alpine Visitor Center, Gore Range Overlook, Lava Cliffs Overlook, Forest Canyon Overlook, Rainbow Curve Overlook, Many Parks Curve Overlook, and the Hidden Valley Beaver Ponds Boardwalk.
- Set aside at least a half day to drive Trail Ridge Road — longer if you plan on doing any hiking or sightseeing at one of the many overlooks.