7 Reasons to Drive Rocky Mountain National Park’s Oldest Auto Road: Old Fall River Road

When planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, it can be challenging to narrow down everything you want to see and do. The park boasts 415 square miles of mountains, rivers, and wilderness and has activities that are sure to entertain any visitor. From the most fearless adventurer who dares to scale the highest peaks to the laid-back tourist who prefers the comfort of air conditioning inside the tour bus, there’s something for everyone. 

One experience is sure to thrill any nature enthusiast and should be included on everyone’s “must-do” list. That is spending an afternoon cruising along the park’s oldest road in the high country, Old Fall River Road. Here are 7 reasons why this drive should be at the top of your list for your next trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. 

1. History 

Before Old Fall River Road was constructed, the route was used by Native Americans, such as the Utes, to track and hunt wild game. After the turn of the century and the invention of cars, it was decided this area would be ideal for a road that would connect Estes Park in the east and Grand Lake in the west. In 1913, a group of Colorado prison inmates began constructing the road. A few years into the project, the inmates proved to be poor civil engineers, and the work was turned over to experienced contractors. The road was completed in 1920 and became the first automobile road in the Rocky Mountains that accessed the park’s alpine areas. 

2. Scenic yet Thrilling 

The picturesque drive along Old Fall River Road begins at Horseshoe Park in the Endovalley region. Along the 11-mile stretch, your eyes will be in awe of what they see, and your heart is sure to skip a beat or two. The narrow, gravel road winds higher and higher into the mountains, with 16 hairpin turns along the way and nothing more than the metal of your car door separating you from the steep drop-offs. Rest assured, the road is one-way, and the speed limit is 15mph, which allows for a safe and satisfying ride. 

For those brave enough to take on Old Fall River Road, prepare to be treated with sights of endless mountain peaks, cascading waterfalls, broad valleys, wildlife, and more. Your awe-inspiring journey will end at the Alpine Visitor Center, which intersects with Trail Ridge Road, the nation’s highest paved road inside a national park. 

3. Chasm Falls 

One of the Rocky Mountain National Park’s most enchanting waterfalls, Chasm Falls, can be accessed from a few points along Old Fall River Road. Depending on how long you’d like to hike and where there’s available parking, the walk to the falls will range from .2 miles (from OFRR roadside parking) to just under 3 miles (Endovalley picnic area). 

If you choose to take the long trek, you can expect to see smaller, hidden waterfalls and beautiful foliage along the way. Once you reach Chasm Falls, you will be delighted at the 25ft waterfall plummeting over the granite rock formations. 

4. Alluvial Fan 

What is an alluvial fan, you ask? Alluvial fans are created in steep, hilly, mountainous areas when water from rivers or streams displaces rocks, boulders, sediments, and other debris. The debris settles along the base of the mountain and forms a fan-like shape. The Alluvial Fan along Old Fall River Road was created in 1982 when the Lawn Lake Dam burst, sending nearly 30 million gallons of water from the Roaring River rushing down to the valley. 

Today, you can access the Alluvial Fan easily from Old Fall River Road, with parking about a quarter of a mile away. From here, you can hike the rugged yet short trail to the surrounding falls. Feel free to spend 10 minutes or an entire afternoon admiring the falls, giant boulders, and the beauty of nature’s power. 

5. Hiking Trails 

There are quite a few hiking trails along Old Fall River Road, and whether you are a novice trekker or an experienced mountaineer, there’s a trail for you. 

Chapin Pass: This 3.9-mile, out and back trail is moderate in difficulty and does have some steep slopes, but if you can master the terrain, you will be rewarded with a 360-degree view atop Mt. Chapin. 

Chapin Creek: At 1.5 miles out and back, this is also a moderately demanding trail. Starting your journey, you will travel through a lush forest down to a grassy meadow. On the return, the trail elevation increases, so be sure to conserve energy early on. 

Ypsilon Lake Trail: For the more avid hiker, check out this 8.9-mile trail that boasts spectacular views both at the beginning and end of the trek. This trail is moderate in difficulty, so be sure to pack lots of water for this lengthy hike. 

*Like Old Fall River Road, the trails are often closed in winter due to harsh weather conditions. Be sure to check with the National Park Service before planning your trip to make sure they are open. 

6. Nature and Wildlife 

From bighorn sheep in Horseshoe Park, elk and marmot in the tundra, and beaver and birds frolicking in the river, there’s plenty of wildlife to see along Old Fall River Road. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to more than 60 species of mammals, roughly 300 bird species, and many types of fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Depending on the time of year, you can expect to see diverse wildlife along the route. 

Besides the abundant wildlife, a variety of plants, wildflowers, and trees grow along the road. In the alpine regions, look for Indian Paintbrush, Lupine, and Goldenrod. You won’t be able to miss the many tree varieties either. Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and lodgepole pines are just a few of the towering trees you will notice as you climb in elevation. 

7. Fun Facts 

  1. Old Fall River Road begins at an elevation of 8,516 feet and ends (at the Alpine Center) at 11,796 feet.
  2. The road crosses the Continental Divide of the Americas, also referred to as the Great Divide.
  3. The road is considered a “motor nature trail,” as it’s a scenic trail that can be traversed by car.
  4. Old Fall River Road is typically closed from October through June due to severe weather but is open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter.

From wildlife and waterfalls to slow drives and steep mountains, spending an afternoon cruising Old Fall River Road is sure to leave lasting memories of your time spent in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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