I made the turn in Rocky Mountain National Park to take the scenic drive up Old Fall River Road. I had never gone this way before. And I hadn’t intended to this day, either. But there I was, leaving the nice open expanse of West Horseshoe Park to head up the steep road through the valley to the Alpine Visitor Center. In the process I would gain more than 3,000 feet in elevation before arriving at 11,796 feet above sea level.
When I woke up in Denver that morning, I intended to go hiking around the lakes from the trailhead by Bear Lake before my stay at the Baldpate Inn. I had done this hike before and loved it, so I wanted to get out and explore more of the lakes in the area. But when I arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park I saw a sign that stated the road was closed and the only way to access the trailhead was by shuttle bus.
“Yeah, you have to go back down into Estes Park,” a ranger told me. “You can catch a shuttle down there to the trailhead, but it’s probably a two hour wait right now.”
“Um. Yeah, I think I’ll take that map now and skip the hike.”
I didn’t initially need the park brochure, knowing exactly where I wanted to go, but now that I had no idea of what I wanted to do I would need it to help me decide. And right there, jumping out from the page after opening the map, was Old Fall River Road. I had never been there before, I thought, so I may as well go check it out. After all, a good scenic drive might be just what I need right now.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continually paved road in the United States. It runs from one side of Rocky Mountain National Park to the other, lifting drivers and their passengers above tree line in the process. When it was built it replaced Old Fall River Road, which opened in 1920 and is now nothing more than a seasonal scenic drive, or “motor nature trail,” as the National Park Service calls it, up the side of Mount Chapin to the Alpine Visitor Center.
Like many roads in Colorado – Interstate 25, which goes from north to south through the state, was once the Cherokee Trail – Old Fall River Road is a route Indian hunters once used while looking for game. Now it is an 11-mile-long gravel road full of switchbacks and absent of guardrails. No more than 14-feet-wide, and much less most of the time, Old Fall River Road forces drivers to slow down as it climbs up through the montane and subalpine forests.
The road runs in the opposite directions of a stream, which falls down into the valley from high up in the mountains. Despite little traffic on the road itself, small pull outs were packed with the cars of drivers who were off for a noontime hike. I instead opted to continue on, passed the overflowing Chapin Creek Trailhead, and go up above tree line. It would be there I would reach my goal of the visitor center.
The views from above tree line looking back down the valley I had just driven up were stupendous. It even made me happy, having seen a part of the park I hadn’t visited before. But I still wanted to get out on the trails and not just enjoy the park from the seat of my car. So after a quick lunch at the visitor center’s cafeteria, I turned left and continued down Trail Ridge Road to the Beaver Meadows exit and my only option for a hike on the day that would not be overcrowded with visitors on summer holiday.
All day clouds threatened rain. The sun was shining, though, and made for a very pleasant morning. But by afternoon, once I had hit the Twin Sisters Trailhead by the Baldpate Inn on the southeastern side of Rocky Mountain National Park, the rain had finally caught up with me and it began to pour. I l turned around without bitterness, though. I had done several miles and had experienced something new and impressive that day, the drive up Old Fall River Road.