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Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Miami
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Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

My wife and I are planning a first-time road trip to RMNP for 3-4 days in mid-June. After that, Grand Teton and Yellowstone.

Maybe you could offer your thoughts on acclimatizing, since we're at or near 0 altitude here. Supposing we're leaving St. Louis on a Sunday, seems we could arrive by Monday afternoon or evening without driving crazy. Would you recommend stopping Monday overnight at an altitude of 5000-5500 ft, such as Denver or Boulder, and then proceeding to RMNP on Tuesday and staying in Estes Park around 7500 ft, or simply to continue to Estes on Monday? We read about hiking at high and sleeping at low altitude, but don't know whether the 5000 level would prepare us better for the higher altitude or not have much effect. We intend to defer the highest elevations, such as Trail Ridge Rd. until Thursday.

Would it be an important consideration to arrive during the daytime, whether for reasons of scenery, or safer driving through unfamiliar mountain roads that may be dark, winding, lacking guardrails or other safety features? (We do have a bit of experience with driving Blue Ridge, Smokies, Going-to-the-Sun Rd., Mt. Rainier, etc. in various conditions such as night and fog.)

The NP website lists 2 routes for driving Denver to RMNP, one through Boulder on Hwy. 36, and one through Loveland on Hwy. 34. It seems that another possiblility would be Hwy 72 to Hwy 7. If the scenery is a consideration in considering these options, what would be your suggestions?

Regarding Trail Ridge Road, would we miss very much by just doing the eastern portion, perhaps going as far as the Alpine Visitor Center, or the Continental Divide, and then returning? How dangerous is the short but steep and elevated Alpine Ridge Trail for most sea-level people?

Thanks.

Lewes, United...
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1. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Altitude sickness, seemingly your main concern, is one of those weird things that affect some folk and not others, for no obvious reason. Young, athletic types can suffer and older, out of shape individuals not be bothered for a moment. So I'm not sure there's much point worrying too much as you may never suffer.

That said, I'm one who does suffer - and I live normally at just under 100 ft above sea level. It tends to hit me once I go over about 8,000 ft, but sometimes I need even higher elevations before I notice any of the symptoms. I usually find that I'm over them after the first 2 days. Being active will cause me to be out of breath quite quickly, even though I'm fairly fit. However, the worst affects are the headaches, short bouts of nausea and the inability to sleep for the first few nights.

Drinking lots of water and avoiding alcohol really do help, and eating small light meals, too.

I had no issues in Estes Park itself but only when hiking inside RMNP at higher elevations. I never noticed anything at all driving GTTS road except when we stopped at the pass at the top, so if you've done that and had no issues, you're unlikely to have serious problems in RMNP, but that's just my view.

Trail Ridge Road is neither dangerous or steep, It climbs pretty slowly and you only notice you are high by looking down at everything.

I wouldn't recommend you drive at night, but that would be because you'd miss all the wonderful views and scenery and might encounter wildlife on the roads, not because the roads themselves are scary to drive!

Have a great trip,

SWT

Ohio
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2. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

The typical elevation where people do not have altitude issues is below 8000. We've been to RMNP and surrounding area 4 times now, I think? Coming from central Ohio so like you in elevation. Not sure the 5000 feet will make a difference? but you won't want to miss the scenery, so I'd stay in Denver that first night.

At any rate-- we stopped en route somewhere the first night-- 2nd night, in Denver. Did not want to miss the scenery, so did not drive at night. Went to the west side of RMNP to Grand Lake for a day and night. Hiked to some waterfalls-- expect to get more easily out of breath in the elevation. Headed over Trail Ridge Rd the following day. Hiked a couple of miles around the 10000 elevation. Definitely felt it going up hill! lol but nothing bad-- just feel out of shape.

Only time I've had any issues with actually getting "sick" was one year heading up Mt Evans. Over 14000 feet-- and felt woosy at the top. I sat down and drank some water-- took it easy and walked carefully. It passed, but I did not do anything but walk a bit and watch the mountain goats.

It just takes a little bit to acclimate to the thinner air. Generally it takes me several days to not get out of breath more easily, but aside from that-- no issues at all.

As for going only as far as Alpine, that's fine. It's the more picturesque drive-- the east side-- but I do like Grand Lake and it's beauty. Not to mention moose on that side :)

N. Idaho
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3. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

We had a long thread on adjusting to the elevation last summer on the Yellowstone forum. Some good information, and IIRC we deteriorated into some silliness as well, but there is some useful information there.

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g60999-i481-k51188…

I agree with both Wings and SWT. SWT is right on the dot about not really knowing who it will affect. Last time I went over Beartooth Highway (10,000 ') neither my SIL or I felt ill, but my brother, who is younger than me, in better shape, and always hydrated felt ill. We live at 2800'. He is a forester and routinely works/hikes at 4000' to 5000'. He felt sick without any hiking, just riding in the car. (Well, I was driving so maybe that was it!! lol). I often feel sick the first night when I get to the Yellowstone area, going from my 2800' to 6,000' at West Yellowstone. I attribute that to me not hydrating enough on the drive over (yes I know better, but I just hate to stop).

I always thought driving made it easier as you are gradually adding elevation, but the time my brother got sick we had driven, stayed a couple of days in Butte MT at 5,000' then left for Beartooth, so no rhyme or reason to that.

I recommend you not worry too much about it. Hydrate, lay off the fermented beverages and have your painkiller of choice nearby. I am not giving medical advice, but I have read some results of medical studies (you can google them) that indicate ibuprofen taken in advance is helpful.

Pam

Chula Vista...
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4. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Hi,

When I went, I stayed in Boulder (fun, youthful, healthful vibe to it with the University of Colorado there), and then went up US 36.

I didn't really suffer altitude sickness on the Trail Ridge Road, but I definitely labored for air at the summit with even modest exertion.

Fun, silly, inadvertent science experiment: When I was at the summit, I finished off a bottle of water, put the cap back on, and put it into the garbage bag in the back seat of my truck. When I got back to Indiana, the pressure differential from the bottle being sealed at 12,000 feet and now being back at 900 feet caused it to be crushed. Pretty cool. (I'm easily amused. :-) )

Enjoy your trip.

Zed

Atlanta, Georgia
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5. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Had no problems the past times we were there. We stayed in Loveland and then headed to Estes Park thru Big Thompson Canyon and then on to RMNP.

Drink plenty of water and that really helps!!!

Miami
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6. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Thanks.

As a science prof. I appreciate the experiment. Maybe had the container been thin glass, it would have shattered.

Aubrey, Texas
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7. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Everyone's right about altitude affecting people differently. I have no problems, but my son found staying a night in Denver helpful in adjusting to the altitude on the way to our Summit County ski trips where we slept at 9000'. Just take it easy the first day in RMNP whatever you decide to do.

As for Trail Ridge Drive, I recommend you do the whole thing. There are some fine views on the western side. Plus if you're like me, you'll always wonder what you missed if you don't do it all.

Indy
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8. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

We flew from Indy into Denver and immediately rented a car and drove most of the day to Rapid City, SD. The following days were spent driving to Glacier, YNP, part of Grand Teton, and finally in the Denver area for a couple of days. The only time altitude sickness ever got to me was when we rode the cog railroad up to Pike's Peak. At no other time, driving up and down mountains, did I ever feel sick. It actually felt like a sinus headache, just more powerful than what I normally get. I ended up taking some pills and it was OK after a while. I thought the warnings at lower altitudes about drinking water were silly. I laughed at them. Then about 3/4ths or so up the mountain, when I started feeling pressure in my head, I wish I would have drank some water and maybe taken some sinus pills.

Edited: 07 March 2013, 21:58
9. Re: Acclimating to Altitude in Rocky Mountain Road Trip

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