As summer winds down, one of the best roads in Rocky Mountain National Park will be closed in just a few more weeks and you will have to wait another eight more months to enjoy it again by car.
One of the best ways to enjoy this magical road is by taking a Green Jeep Tour, which you can book in Estes Park. That way, you don’t have to worry about driving and can just enjoy the spectacular views.
If you have never experienced this amazing pass up to Trail Ridge Road, (the highest continuous paved highway in the continental U.S.), here is a detailed description of what’s in store.
Beginning on Hwy. 34, about two miles on the right from the Fall River Entrance Station and ending at its summit at Fall River Pass, this “motor nature trail” was the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park, offering access to the “top of the world”.
A word of caution here!
This road is only meant for vehicles under 25′ in length. With grades as steep as 16%, many sharp switchbacks, a width rarely exceeding 14’, and a speed limit of 15mph, this gem of a road is definitely not for those in a hurry. On the contrary, it is meant to be treasured for its up-close and intimate access to nature, giving travelers a classic taste of auto travel of days gone by.
Though the road itself is safe, there are no guard rails. Obviously, the speed limit should be observed. After mile 5 or so, the Engelmann spruce and subalpine furs are so close on either side of the road that motorists and passengers could literally reach out and touch them along the way, adding to the magic of the forested journey.
Old Fall River Road is a 9-mile drive featuring adventuresome twists and turns through Precambrian granite. Along the way you will experience three consecutive eco-systems, (life zones) – from Montane to Sub-Alpine to Alpine, all the way up to the top. (Four, if you count the Riparian wetlands that follow Fall River most of the way up the mountain.)
The road begins in Endovalley, and ends at the Alpine Trail Ridge Road Visitor Center “at the top of the world”. Winding its way up through a series of sharp switchbacks overlooking the valley and following Fall River, you’re sure to encounter a variety of wildlife, waterfalls, and amazing views.
Begin at the Fall River Entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park (Hwy 34) and follow it approximately one mile, passing Horseshoe Park and Sheep Lakes. After the road curves sharply to the left around Sheep Lakes turn right on to Fall River Road. Follow it back past the Alluvial Fan into Endovalley. Continue on until you see a dirt road heading up the mountain.
Before you begin your journey up Old Fall River Road, if you’re in a particularly peaceful, thoughtful mood, (since you are already here), you may want to take a left at the fork in the road and stay on the pavement and drive through the Endovalley Picnic Area loop before making the climb up Old Fall River Road.
This little picnic area is one of the best-kept secrets in the Park. No matter how busy the season, or how crowded the Park is, the Endovalley Picnic Area always seems to have open picnic tables. You can point out to your guests that it’s great place to bring the family for a picnic – cool and shady, with a rest area and plenty of picnic tables along the river if you like, as well. Back here you will often see delightful Stellar’s Jays with their alluring iridescent blue feathers, along with other “camp robbers” such as Ravens, Magpies and Gray Jays.
After enjoying the peaceful, shady picnic setting, you are ready to head on up Old Fall River Road, one of the most spectacular and memorable drives in Rocky Mountain National Park. Now make a sharp 180 degree turn and head up the one way dirt road.
Begun in late July of 1913, the road was initially constructed by 38 convict laborers from a Colorado state penitentiary. Using only hand-tools – shovels, pick-axes, sledge-hammers, and horse-drawn carts, these prisoners carved out the first stretch of dirt road up to about Chasm Falls.
The first phase of construction lasted seven years, and was finally opened and dedicated September 14, 1920. This was of major significance, due to the fact that up until that time since the first settlers started coming to these mountains, Estes Park had been a “dead-end place”.
If you google Old Fall River Road Images you can find pictures of Model A and Model T Fords, (and even Stanley Steamers), lined end to end around sharp curves and even in high snow banks along the treacherous-looking road. At its creation, the course was a two lane, two-way road, but now is only one lane, one-way. The width of the road hasn’t changed, only the width of our cars.
Due to their weak engines and gravity-fed fuel systems, some early automobiles had to climb the road carved out of the side of Mount Chapin in reverse.
As you first begin your ascent, (just after the One Way sign), you can see a boulder that looks like the head of a lioness. She has a slight smile and a little tear falling on her cheek. One could possibly think of her as a type of “guardian” of Fall River Road.
Just a little further up there is another interesting rock shape on the right that looks very much like an Indian chief or warrior’s head. He’s looking from right to left with an eye, nose, down-turned mouth and even black war paint.
A very short distance after the Indian rock the road curves to the left over Chiquita Creek. This begins at the base of Mount Chiquita (13,069), (next to Mt. Chapin), and winds its way down to Fall River. Some believe that the name Chiquita may have originated form the Parish version of Chipeta, who was the wife of Ouray, a chief of the Uncompahgre Ute Indians.
On a hot summer’s day this is a refreshing little stop, as you can usually feel a slight temperature drop from the cool of the stream here.
As you reach mile marker 1 you are now above 9,000 feet above sea level, which is a transition zone from Montane into the Sub-Alpine. Wherever you see aspen and lodgepole pine here, you can most likely deduce that the are has experienced either a fire or an avalanche. Eventually, these trees will be replaced by Douglas-fir, spruce and other high-altitude, shade tolerant species.
At about the 3-mile mark you can pull over to your left to park, and walk down a (mostly) stair-stepped path that leads to a refreshing viewing spot of Chasm Falls (pronounced ‘Kaz-em). It’s about 150 steps down (and feels like 300 back up, due to the altitude).
Here, you can feel the light spray from the nearly 30’ falls, which are one of the most beautiful and accessible falls in the Park.
Watch for the water ouzel, or American dipper, a little grayish-brown bird, characteristically bobbing up and down on rocks along the shore. It is North America’s only truly aquatic song bird. If you watch closely, you can see them bob up and down along the shore before they dive into the stream or waterfalls hunting for aquatic insects and their larvae, including mayflies, mosquitos and midges. They also eat dragonflies, worms and even small fish and their eggs. They actually flap their wings underwater, in a two-step fashion and then pop up again after several seconds. Similar to ducks, the American Dipper has a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capacity in its blood, and a thick coat of feathers covered with extra oil. The importance of this unusual species is that it is a good indicator of water quality, only dwelling along the purest of streams and rivers. Fun and fascinating little birds!
From Chasm Falls the drive gets a bit quieter as you proceed up a series of switchbacks continuing to parallel the river. When the trees make an opening on your right, look for a long ribbon-like waterfall on the side of the mountain, many hundreds of yards to the south, (your left). Notice the lush green vegetation along its path down the mountainside. This is a year-round water feature, but is at its best during the snowmelt in the spring and early summer.
Driving up the road, if you look up (north), you begin to get a good view of the rocky spires on the south side of Mt. Chapin (12,454’). These spires and rock that are located above the level that was reached by glaciers were sculpted and formed by a process called “frost-wedging”. This is the result of rain and snow running into the cracks and openings in the rocks, and then freezing and expanding, breaking loose pieces of the mountain.
And to your right you will see the result of a huge landslide that occurred in 1983, forever changing the south side of the mountain slope.
About another half mile up you will round a corner and see what I affectionately call “Machu Picchu of the Rockies”, built by the ancient “Rocky Mountain Mayans”. It actually is an impressive set of gabions (wire-mesh cages rock cages), built to reinforce the road, and hold the side of mountain together after a huge landslide destroyed it on July 30, 1953. As a result, this historic motor route was nearly abandoned. Thankfully, public support encouraged the Park Service to build these fortifying structures, and Fall River Road was reopened in the summer of 1968.
These gabions you see here are a similar to the ones that were first used for road construction in the Italian Alps. (So much for the Rocky Mountain Mayan theory…)
As you round the corner after this, try to make sure there are no other vehicles coming behind you, as you are about to take advantage of a gorgeous photo op! Right at mile marker 4, you have an awesome view of Horseshoe Park and the whole Endovalley that you have just been driving through. You can even see a little bit of the Alluvial Fan to the left .
Here at the 4 mile marker you are sitting at 10,000’ (nearly 2 miles above sea level). As you wind on up towards the top of the hill, you will see a two or three more waterfalls, (mostly snowmelt) on the north side of the mountains to the south (your left).
As the road levels out at the top of the rise, at mile marker 5, you can stop and look over your left shoulder and see the beautiful Cañoncito (pronounced ‘kan-yun-see-toe) below. Over the past 7,500 years, this “little canyon” was cut by the steady flow of Fall River following the retreat of the last glacier. This is “river cutting”, different from glacial cutting which is made by glacial flow and creates more of a U-shape vs. the V-shape you see here.
As the trees open up you can now catch a glimpse of the Alpine Visitor Center and the gift shop on top of the mountain straight ahead.
At this point where the road makes a sharp curve to the right, (just before mile marker 6), there is a barred gate in front of a path that leads back to Willow Park. You can park here and walk down the trail beyond this gate.
At Willow Park you’ll discover a beautiful, tranquil moraine setting, featuring an old cabin, happy little stream (which is still Fall River), and a plethora of wildflowers of every color, (depending on the time of season), as well as willows and scattered spruce and sub-alpine fir.
This is a great place to spot elk, moose, mule deer and even black bears. The meadow and surrounding woods are rich with tracks and scat. Listen closely and you’ll likely hear the woodpeckers pounding for bark beetles.
This wide open valley was left behind after the glacier pushed its way down the mountain. For centuries it had been a glacier-fed lake and river slowly morphing into the meadow you see today. In years to come, it will eventually become a subalpine forest again, unless the pine bark beetle or fires destroy it before its time.
As you walk down the trail through the gate/bar across the path you’ll see a single outdoor restroom on the right. Just beyond this on the same side of the path is a little shelter that used to be a stable, but is now used to store the bark beetle timber that has been cut for firewood.
Just beyond this point you can see a patrol cabin that was built in 1929 to house the road workers.
If you walk around behind it and peek in the windows and view a rustic, yet inviting, homey setup inside. I find it humorous that the cabin has 2 wood stoves and a stack of firewood all cut and ready to go with a sign above the door which reads, “No camping, no fires please”. It’s kind of like putting up a “No fishing” sign next to a baited fishing pole beside a river jumping with fish. The other side of the cabin is the “bunk house” with bunk beds.
This cabin has many uses including – a shelter for research, and as a staging area in case of fire or lost hikers, etc. The rangers can also reserve it for their families as a retreat cabin just for fun and relaxation.
As you face the cabin from the trail, you can see a little wooden door under the apex of the roof about ten feet up. A ranger told me that in the dead of winter the snow gets so high back here that when they snowshoe in, they have to use this feature as an entrance into the cabin.
Back in the 1930’s there was a famous ranger named Jack Moomaw. He was a bit of a rough and crusty character, perfectly suited for the job. He was also a writer and storyteller. For a time in the early 30’s he stayed in this patrol cabin and tells the story of a big old 300-pound black bear that kept harassing him and trying to break into the cabin to get to his food. Night after night it would claw and scratch and make a general nuisance of itself until he finally got fed up and did something about it. With the help of another ranger, he trapped it in the back of a pickup truck and had it hauled it away to Chapin Pass about a mile up the road. The ranger watched it wander away north, lumbering up over the pass to the other side of the mountain. When it had gone out of sight and they were satisfied the pesky bear was gone for good and the problem had been resolved they drove back down to the cabin. The following night five smaller bears began skulking around the cabin. Apparently the bigger bear had kept the others out of that area. Moomaw discovered he had traded one large problem for five smaller ones. (You just can’t mess with Mother Nature!)
You can follow a loop trail south (opposite the cabin) down to Fall River (now a small creek), about fifty or sixty yards away. During the snowmelt you can’t cross the creek very easily without getting your feet wet, but after August you can step on the rocks in the middle of the stream and get to the other side. In July there are at least 2 dozen species of wildflowers gracing this area. Including Little Pink Elephant Heads, King’s Crown and Parry Primrose. It’s like a little piece of paradise. You can follow the loop back to the trail you used from the parking lot.
Once you’ve had as much beauty, serenity and wildlife you think you can stand here at Willow Park, hop back in the Jeep and continue up the final stretch of road.
About another mile up you will see Chapin Pass on the right (where Ranger Moomaw had the big black bear released). This is the Cabin Creek Trailhead (10,640’). You are now over 2 miles high and nearly at timberline. Hikers can obtain an overnight parking permit and park here, rather than having to start at the base of Fall River Road. The hike takes you on a 2,874 foot climb up to Ypsilon Mountain (13,514). The first part of the trail passes through a subalpine forest for a short distance and then climbs above timberline. It is a bit of a steep climb across the tundra and up some rockslides to the summit.
From Chapin Pass the road winds around bringing you to timberline, where you encounter a whole other world.
At this point you are viewing some of the highest of the tree growth, which ranges from 3,000 year-old tall firs, to short springy spruces only 2 or 3 feet tall that could be 300 or 400 years old. This is due to a very short growing season. They may only grow tenths of inches per year. The average annual temperature way up here doesn’t get above 50 degrees!
Right about where the treelike begins to open up and there is a rock cluster going down on the left and up on the right, you will often encounter a marmot greeting committee. About the size of a ground hog or small beaver the Yellow-bellied Marmot is the largest member of the squirrel family. These mountain cousins of the eastern ground hog are sometimes called “whistle pigs” because of their peculiar habit of standing on their hind legs and letting out a high-pitched “Chee!”
Like the elk, one male may protect a harem of females in a colony. They feed in the mornings and evenings, and will typically spend the middle of the day and nights in their burrows. They are omnivores, eating grasses, flowers, insects and even bird eggs!
On this drive, they are quite easy to find, because they love to come out into the road to soak up the warmth of the sun and lick the salt and minerals found there.
These cute, fat little guys don’t start out this size. In the late spring and all summer they will eat and eat and eat, doubling their weight until just before winter. Then in September or early October, they stop eating all together, empty their digestive system, and hibernate all winter long, (roughly 200 plus days), until the following April or May, spending about 80% of their lives underground.
They share their rocky habitat with a smaller, gray creature, about the size of a large hamster, called a Pika. Pikas (also called conies or rock rabbits), are the smallest member of the rabbit family with short rounded ears, and lack a visible tail. Because of their size, and the fact that they’re about the same color as their rocky environment, they are a bit harder to see at first. Keep staring at the ground though, (especially at the Rock Cut), and you’re likely to see the ground begin to move as they pop in and out of the rock crevices they call their home.