Old Fall River Road is a must-see when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. This one-way, 9-mile narrow dirt road begins outside the entrance to the park and runs parallel to the Fall River. There are no guide rails and is very steep at times. The road starts at 8,558’ above sea level and ends at the Alpine Visitors Center which is at 11,796’above sea level.
We allowed a full day for our trip on Old Fall River Road. We drive a 23’ long crew cab pickup truck and at times we were not able to make the turns without maneuvering our truck several times. It is recommended that no vehicles over 25’ be on this curvy road and absolutely no trailers.
It felt like we were ascending into heaven with the steady climb, the beauty of our surroundings was magnificent.
Tips to know before you begin your trip:
- The road is 9 miles and is one-way only.
- Keep a look at your mileage since there are mileposts marks at every mile.
- Temperatures will get cooler as you get higher and weather can change at any time especially above the tree line.
- The roadway is narrow and vehicles over 25’ and vehicles with trailers are prohibited.
- Since you are climbing at high altitude, it is recommended to use low gear and no air conditioning to avoid overheating your vehicle.
- Once you start on this road there is no turning back.
It took 7 years to build this road which was completed in 1920. This journey up the road takes you into all the four ecosystems (life zones) starting with the Montane then to Subalpin, going into the Krummholz transition and ending at the Alpine Tundra. Each area has its own characteristics and plant and animal life. As you climb into the different sections, you feel the temperature changing; losing 3 to 5 degrees for every 1000’ you climb.
Montane Life Zone
At the beginning of the Old Fall River Road is the Montane Life Zone which exists at 5,500’ to around 9,000’. At this stage pine trees such as Douglas Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Aspen, and Lodgepole Pines grow along meadows and forest. Wildlife is plentiful with a wide variety of birds and mammals including elk, mule deer, rabbits, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion and squirrels. Water is also abundant in this area.
Places to Stop in the Montane Life Zone
At milepost 0.4 there is Chigquita Creek. It’s a series of d=small waterfalls. It’s a series of potholes at 0.7 and Charm Falls at 1.4 miles on your journey.
A short walk off the road is Charm Falls, 25’ high waterfall. There are several potholes in the surrounding area too. This waterfall is beautiful and worth the walk. There are numerous places to stop along the way and I would encourage you to stop at everyone to see all the different area.
At mile 1.7 you get to see the first signs of glaciers in the area. And thereafter you begin to see the transition as you head higher into the Subalpine Life Zone where the temperature starts to get cooler and you feel moister in the air.
Sunalpine Life Zone
In the subalpine trees grow very large and wide as they are not affected by fire, insects or weather. Trees in this area are dominated by Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir type with some limber pine and along streams Colorado blue spruce. Wildlife still is visible but much less than in the Montane zone.
At around 3.5 to 4 miles up the road, you begin to see signs of avalanches. On both sides of the road, you can see the area where trees just tumbled with the heavy snow down the mountain.
Each spring the road needs some maintenance and reinforcing before it is ready to open for the season, the road gets damaged by excess water runoff, freezing and then thawing but in July 1953 a massive slide caused extensive damage and the road was closed. After public outcry, Old Fall River Road was repaired by the National Park Service and reopened in 1968. The parks department used cages filled with rocks in two places to help reduce damage from these slides. They have worked very well to help reduce damage to the road.
Crossing over 10,000′ Above sea level
At mile 4 you are crossing 10,000’and are about 2 miles above sea level. A little past this you will begin to see rock spires, which are rocks that weathered by “frost-wedging”. This happens when water running into cracks in the rock freezes and pieces of the rock break loose.
You reach “little canyon” at mile 5.1, which is a series of waterfalls known at Cononcito. At 5.9 you are at Fall River Pass as you can see a glimpse of the Alpine Visitors Center. At mile marker 6.9 you have already gained another 1.000’ heading to 11,000’. There is a trail going to Chapin Pass and into the valley of Chapin Creek. You are now beginning to enter another ecosystem known as the Krummholz Transition.
Between the Subalpine and Alpine Tundra is the Krummholz transition. At over 11,000’ not much grows here just spruce, fir and limber pine but at much smaller levels then in the subalpine zone. Wildlife consists of bighorn sheep and in the summer elk will head up here for cooler temperatures.
Alpine Tundra Life Zone
This is the land above the tree line and seems very open between the dirt and the sky. In the heart of summer, with short no freeze days, you can see colors of many species of wildflowers. We were here at the very beginning of September and the land was already bare and the temperatures were cold. In this area, storms can come on fast and hard and winds can reach over 50 mph. The sunlight is very intense, 25% brighter with 2x the UV rays then sea level. Protection from the sun is much needed here.
At mile 8.2-8.4, watch for the very hard to see a yellow-bellied marmot. They live in the rock piles here and blend right in with the colors of the rocks. I was amazed by the way they conceal themselves that you can barely see them even up close.
At mile 9, you come to the end of the road at Fall River Pass, 11, 796’. Many people think they are at the Continental Divide (at the point that separates the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) but it is 4 miles west and 1000’ lower on the Trail Ridge Road.
At just under 12,000’ above sea level the air is thin with less oxygen making if difficult to breathe especially if you are like me that are not used to being in high altitude areas. You have reached the Trail Ridge Store and Alpine Visitor Center. Take some time to look around and see all the exhibits in the visitor’s center and if you are a National Park Passport holder, don’t forget to get your book stamped.
Trail Ridge Road
When leaving the visitor’s center you go onto Trail Ridge Road. You can either go 25 miles east to Este Park or 24 miles west to Grand Lake. These are the towns that border Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road is the shortest way between these towns. If you had to drive around the park, these towns are a 6-hour ride from each other. Trail Ridge Road is only opened seasonally and closes at the first snow.
When visiting Rocky Mountain National Park leave at least 5-6 hours to experience Old Fall River Road for yourselves. It’s like taking a journey through time and feels like another world. It’s a definite must-do experience when visiting the park. For more information about this road visit the National Parks Service website https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/old_fall_river_road.htm.
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3 thoughts on “Old Fall River Road”
Wow, this looks like such an incredible journey! My husband and I live for the great outdoors and would absolutely love all those beautiful views. Your pictures are stunning.
Beautiful place. The elevation wow!