Due to its high elevation and severe weather conditions, Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) has to carefully manage snowfall on the park roads. In this process, they do massive amounts of snow removal, and lately, they are assisted by Mother Nature and the sad fact of climate change, which produces less critical snowpack each year. This year, the crown jewel of RMNP roads, Trail Ridge Road, opened all the way across the park on the Thursday before Memorial Day. But the original road, known as Old Fall River Road, didn’t open to vehicle traffic until June 23rd to accommodate grooming of the gravel.
Old Fall River Road opened in 1920 as the first auto route to access the high elevations of RMNP, following a route previously traversed by Indian hunters. It was then, and remains, a very narrow gravel route, with tight switchbacks and no guard rails, offering the visitor a totally different view of the park from Trail Ridge Road. It begins in the Horseshoe Park area, near the Fall River park entrance, and leads upward to the Fall River Pass at 11,796 feet in elevation, and the Alpine Visitors Center. For about a week in June, the road opens solely to bicycles and hikers in both directions, but once open to vehicle traffic, it is one-way uphill only, due to the narrow and twisty conditions. It took us until July 19th to get there this year! And boy, we wondered why we waited so long!
We headed up Old Fall River Road about 2 PM on a Thursday, hoping to avoid some of the early morning crowds. We were partially successful. 😉 There was traffic, but not too heavy. It helps that vehicles over 25 feet are prohibited.
As you begin the ascent, the road is carved out of a massive rock wall. The gravel is smooth and easy to travel.
Further on, the evergreens press right up against the road, and the experience is much quieter and more natural. The road follows the path of the Fall River, and it can be seen, and heard, in many instances along the way. Our first stop was at a river access point just below Chasm Falls. Not as dramatic as the falls, but scenic nonetheless.
The view from the road widens just a bit before the parking area for Chasm Falls.
Park just past the trail to Chasm Falls and experience this special sight where the Fall River cascades 25 feet down a narrow granite chasm, thus the name. 🙂 Feel the cool mist from the falls from a viewing platform a short downhill walk from the parking area. Of course, you do have to walk back up…eventually!
And a brief video so you can hear the falls!
Above the trees, jagged peaks to the north and southwest pop into view, but you have to be careful to pull off the road to get the best shot. It is a sight to behold, and these views cannot be seen from Trail Ridge Road.
Some of the switchbacks are so tight that you are actually looking back east from whence you came.
Once you reach about 11,400 feet, you drive above the treeline and reach the alpine tundra. You have driven into the Fall River Cirque, the ancient home of glaciers that once worked their way up and down the mountain valleys.
The road follows the edge of this amphitheater-like formation before joining Trail Ridge Road near the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass.
I highly recommend a soul-calming drive on Old Fall River Road. Especially in the busy summer season in July, it is a respite from the crowds and provides a new perspective on Rocky Mountain National Park.