Driving Old Fall River Road In Rocky Mountain National Park

Driving Old Fall River Road In Rocky Mountain National Park

Old Fall River Road opened in 1920 as the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park to provide visitors access to the park’s high country and alpine tundra.

Unlike the widely-traveled, two-lane, paved Trail Ridge Road with several improved scenic overlooks and parking lots, Old Fall River Road is a relaxing nature drive that demands a much slower pace.

The road connects with Highway 34 and is open to two way traffic at the beginning as it provides access to the Alluvial Fan waterfall and the east and west Alluvial Fan parking areas. Once past Alluvial Fan, the paved road ends, the dirt road begins, and you’ll see signs for the beginning of the 9.0 mile one-way drive (no turning back) from montage meadows and woodlands through subalpine forests to the alpine tundra.

Following the steep slope of Mount Chapin, Old Fall River Road is a narrow, 11 mile dirt and gravel road, with numerous dropoffs, 16 tight switchbacks, and steep grades. Just wide enough for one vehicle, it has a maximum speed of 15 mph and no guard rails.

You may be hesitant to make the drive, but the road is safe for regular vehicles as long as you go slow, and the scenery that surrounds you will make the drive worth every minute.

Driving Old Fall River Road

The road follows a route traveled long ago by Indian hunters. The drive starts at Horseshoe Park and Endovalley at 8,558 feet elevation, and ends at Fall River Pass and the Alpine Visitor Center at 11,796 feet elevation, with the temperature dropping 3-5 degrees for every 1,000 foot gain in elevation.

As you drive Old Fall River Road, through the U-shaped Fall River Valley that was cut by glaciers, you’ll pass through the montane, subalpine, and alpine tundra ecosystems, and get a glimpse of the riparian ecosystem along Fall River.

If you picked up the Guide to Old Fall River Road at one of the Rocky Mountain National Park visitor centers, don’t forget to set your odometer to 0 at the beginning of your one-way drive. The guide points out interesting sights, facts, and history at specific mile markers like Chiquita Creek at 0.4 miles, avalanche locations at 3.5 and 3.7 miles, Chapin Creek Trail at 6.9 miles, and Chapin Creek Pass at 8.4 miles.

Some of the best things to see along Old Fall River Road include:

  • The Pothole: A large, circular hole in a boulder next to the road that was created by stones revolving in a whirlpool created by water flowing beneath the glacier.
  • Chasm Falls: A short trail to a 25 foot waterfall on Fall River that crashes through a granite chasm into a narrow gorge.
  • Glacially Polished Rock: A flat rock outcropping alongside the road that has been polished until shiny by glaciers.
  • Gabions: Violent weather and a massive landslide in 1953 caused so much destruction that Old Fall River Road was nearly abandoned. To reduce damage and cut road repair time, gabions were installed in 1967 at two locations where landslides were common. Gabions are wire-mesh cages filled with rocks that act as retaining walls.
  • Rock Spires: To the north, you can see stunning rock spires towering above the road. The spires, located above the glaciers, were sculpted by a weathering process called frost-wedging. This occurs when water runs into cracks in the rock, freezes and expands, and breaks loose pieces of the rock.
  • Willow Park: A wide, open meadow that was once the site of a small glacial lake. This is a good place to view elk and deer in the early morning and evening hours.
  • Fall River Cirque: The birthplace of the Fall River glacier. A cirque is a semi-circular, bowl like area that is created as a glacier quarries out the surrounding rock. Cirques form at the head of glaciers and are open on the downslope side.

Finally, Old Fall River Road entered the parking area for the Alpine Visitor Center and Trail Ridge Cafe and intersected with Trail Ridge Road.

We took our time, drove slow, and made a point to take in all of the sights and sounds and explore as much as we could. On our drive, we saw stunning waterfalls cascading down the mountainside across the canyon, marmots scampering from rock to rock in the alpine tundra, and spectacular views — and Carter even saw a herd of elk from the top of a huge rocky outcropping.

It was such a cool experience!

Construction Of Fall River Road

The construction of Fall River Road began in 1913 before the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park. The first three miles of the road, from Horseshoe Park to Chasm Falls, was built by 38 Colorado state prison inmates with no more than hand tools at their disposal. The convicts made little progress and contractors completed the road in 1920.

Fall River Road originally climbed from Horseshoe Park up the steep Fall River Valley to reach Fall River Pass at 11,796 elevation. From there, the road continued down the west side of the mountains to Grand Lake. While the route was popular with travelers and tourists, it was difficult to traverse and maintain. During the winter, avalanches often buried the road forty feet deep, and during the summer, automobiles had trouble mastering the steep grade and tight curves. In fact, early vehicles had to travel the road in reverse because of weak engines and gravity-fed fuel systems.

Trail Ridge Road, which opened in 1932, was built over the western half of Fall River Road, and the eastern half became the one-way scenic drive that exists today.

Know Before You Go

  • Old Fall River Road, the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park offering access to the high country, is an 11 mile, steep, narrow, one way, 15 mph, gravel road that stretches from Horseshoe Park and Endovalley to the Alpine Visitor Center in Fall River Pass on Trail Ridge Road.
  • Download the Fall River Area Trail Guide.
  • Old Fall River Road is open to vehicles from July to October. It is closed to vehicles in winter but open for snowshoeing and cross county skiing. Bikers and hikers with pets may use the road through November.
  • The road is safe for all normal vehicles, but is closed to trailers and large recreational vehicles because of the 16 tight switchbacks and and no guard rails
  • Before driving Old Fall River Road, stop in one of the Visitor Centers and grab a copy of the Old Fall River Road Guide for $1.00. It will point out everything you need to know about the sights along the drive and where they can be found.
  • One of the only stops along this historic road is Chasm Falls, a 25 foot plunging waterfall. Stop at the bottom for a short hike and beautiful view upstream at the falls, then drive further up the road to a roadside parking area for a short hike down to an observation platform.
  • Old Fall River Road was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
  • Leashed pets are allowed on Old Fall River Road.

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