I’ve been hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park for years. We’re talking consecutive annual passes and hikes up there at least 3 times a month. While I’ve not even come close to hiking every trail, exploring every high alpine lake, and crossing every creek, I did think that I had at least driven every road. Well, I was wrong. Blame it on 2013 flood closures and it taking until 2015 to reopen, or the fact that it’s only open between July and September, or that my attention is usually on the Glacier Gorge side of the park – but I had never been on Old Fall River Road.
Opened in 1920, Old Fall River Road is the only dirt road in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a narrow 9-mile one-way in similar condition to what you’d find driving up to Pingree, but with a few deep ruts on sharp turning switchbacks. The turn radius of the switchbacks are sharp enough that large king cab trucks can’t make it around in one fell swoop – they have to reverse and back into pullouts. I’ve witnessed one particular truck lose traction on one side while doing this. With the narrow road and lack of guardrails, it can be a little exciting for some drivers, to say the least. Because of this and the the chance of rapidly changing weather, 4WD is a good idea especially on wet or muddy days, but it’s not required and you’ll find plenty of novice mountain drivers and minivans trying to make their way up. Just remember, whatever happens, the only way out is up.
The draw to taking this scenic road is the more natural setting in a popular National Park, the slower pace as the speed limit is only 15 mph and people drive WAY slower than that, less traffic than Trail Ridge Road, and access to some lower usage trailheads. There are beautiful sights to visit along the way, too.
There are various pullouts along the way where you can park your car (leaving enough room for others to get by) and stretch your legs a bit. You can take in the views of Horseshoe Park, walk along the river on unofficial trails, and pull out the binoculars for some wildlife viewing.
This waterfall stop is just 2 miles up the road. It’s not a hike at all in the summer, and in the winter you can snowshoe up the closed road to get there. You park your car in the very small lot right next to the falls and walk a few feet down a paved walkway to an observation deck. Fair warning, if you’re a solo hiking lady, you’re going to be asked to take people’s family vacation photos in front of the waterfall.
Chapin Creek Trail
As you near the Alpine Visitor Center at the top of Fall River Cirque, you’ll come to Chapin Creek Trailhead, the only park-official trailhead on the road. This leads you to a bit of backcountry hiking that sounds like it requires some competent navigation skills and basic mountaineering skills when working on getting to the summit of the pass. The majority of the trail is not maintained and leads you through bogs into the Mummy Range. It sounds like an adventure, and a place you’re not going to run into a whole lot of tourists on packed trails. As someone who’s not a peak bagger, it also sounds intimidating (but I’ll still try it! (?).
The end of Old Fall River Road spits you out into the parking lot of the Alpine Visitors Center, which kind of feels like entering civilization again, or at least a slap back into reality on how busy the park is. Stop for a few more tundra hikes, grab a bite to eat at the visitors center, and drive back down into the park on Trail Ridge Road to complete your high elevation exploration!
This is a great road to take in July when it first opens to view mountainsides filled with high alpine wildflowers, and in September to see a different side of the park and the changing leaves of fall. Just get there before it closes due to winter snowfall which can happen any time between September and October.