Old Fall River Road is now closed to vehicle traffic until the summer of 2023. (Oct 3, 2022)
Old Fall River Road was the first road built to the top of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was opened in 1920, but not without considerable challenge. The steep walls seemed to fight the idea of giving space to a road and would continually degrade or be subject to landslides and avalanches. As a result, Trail Ridge Road was later built along a route less prone to these issues. While the road is well-maintained and is safe, it usually doesn’t open until early July to give time for the snow to melt and the park service to repair the road prior to opening it to the public.
Old Fall River Road is an 11-mile (17.7 km) one-way, uneven dirt road with a speed limit of 15 miles per hour (24 kph). It winds steeply up the mountain with numerous hairpin turns and steep drop-offs, so RVs and vehicles towing trailers should not take this road. Because the road is well-maintained, it can be driven by any standard car, though it can get a little bumpy at times and very dusty. Plan on the drive taking about an hour to reach the top.
The drive up Fall River Road begins in Horseshoe Park on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park so you may find it easiest to enter the park via the Fall River entrance. Drive to the end of Horseshoe Park and you’ll see a small road heading off to the right. Follow this road through Endovalley. You’ll first pass the trailhead for Lawn Lake which is a 6-mile (9.7 km) hike each way. Next, you’ll pass the Alluvial Fan and the Roaring River. When seen from above the debris coming out of this river spreads out like a fan. This area was created as the result of two major floods. The first was in 1982 and the other was in 2012. There is now a wheelchair accessible walkway that will take you through the area and explain what happened. If you have time, it is well worth the stop.
Continue onward through small meadows filled with aspen trees. This area is beautiful in the autumn and at almost any time of year you may see elk grazing in the meadows. The meadows soon turn to willows and then you’ll arrive at the start of Old Fall River Road. It is the dirt road leading upward. Once you start on this road there is no turning back, as it is an 11-mile (17.7 km) one-way road. The return journey starts at the Alpine Visitor Center and follows Trail Ridge Road back down to Estes Park or in the other direction to Grand Lake.
As you head up this steep road remember that the speed limit is 15 mph (24 kph). If you see a view you want to enjoy, find a section of the road that is wide enough for you to safely pull off and for other cars to pass you.
In 1.5 miles (2.4 km) you’ll reach a parking area on your left. It is well worth stopping here to take the very short and steep trail to view Chasm Falls. Chasm Falls is a beautiful little waterfall that passes through a steep cut in the rocks. There are several flights of stairs leading down to the viewpoint.
As you continue up the road, you’ll eventually reach a series of steep switchbacks with an open view to the south. At the top of these switchbacks, just after you enter the trees and before the next switchback, you’ll find a pullover on the left with a large flat rock from which you can see a small waterfall coming down from the back side of Sundance Mountain across the valley. It is a seasonal waterfall and so only runs during the early summer. Just beyond this point you’ll see a number of other small waterfalls beside the road.
As you continue your drive up, there are numerous little scenes of Fall River winding through the forest. At about 5.5 miles (8.9 km) from the start of this dirt road the forest will open on your left. You are arriving in Willow Park, a moist meadow just below tree line. This can be a beautiful spot to step out of the car and take in the many fragrances and peace of the meadows. Sometimes elk are found grazing here.
Next continue up a series of steep switchbacks. You’ll pass the Chapin Pass Trailhead which leads up Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon Mountains.
Soon you will be above tree line. There will be several gorgeous views on your left side. Please resist the urge to stop in the road; instead, park in a designated pull-over. Use your feet to reach the best views rather than trying to see them from your car. From here you should be able to see the Alpine Visitor Center above you. This is your destination.
Just before the final ascent to the Alpine Visitor Center, you will see a small pond on the left side of the road. Elk frequently can be found here. In just a few minutes more, you’ll arrive at the parking lot of the Alpine Visitor Center.