By Moon Rocky Mountain National Park author Erin English
Plan a scenic “Sunday drive” along Old Fall River Road on any summer day to explore the biodiversity of Rocky Mountain National Park. This approximately 35-mi (56-km) loop drive travels through the montane, subalpine, and tundra ecosystems. During summer and fall, both Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road are open. With no stops, the drive will take approximately 1.5 hours; with stops, it can take a half-day. Vehicles over 25 feet (8 meters) long are not allowed on Old Fall River Road.
To start, depart from the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station and drive 3.1 mi (5 km) northwest on Highway 36. Along this stretch of road, you’ll have great views of Longs Peak and many other mountain peaks to your south. At Deer Ridge Junction, continue north on Highway 34, passing Horseshoe Park (4.7 mi/7.6 km)). Take a left at the sign for Old Fall River Road (4.8 mi/7.7 km) and head west along Endovalley Road. The Alluvial Fan will soon be on your right (5.4 mi/8.7 km), and it is possible to get a good look at this natural feature without leaving your car.
At 6.2 mi (10 km), you will reach the historic one-way section of Old Fall River Road. The next 9 mi (14.5 km) offer great views, a fun driving experience (if your idea of fun is hairpin turns and narrow roads!), and at the height of summer, a chance to observe some beautiful wildflowers just beyond your bumpers.
At 7.7 mi (12.4 km) into the tour, get out of your car and walk a short distance down to beautiful Chasm Falls. Around 8 mi (12.9 km), note the many large boulders alongside Old Fall River Road; these are called glacial erratics. At 10 mi (16.1 km), pass by gabions—rows of cages of rocks that help protect the road from landslides. You’ll get your first look at the back of the Alpine Visitor Center and Trail Ridge Store at 12.1 mi (19.5 km); then at 13.9 mi (22.4 km), Fall River Pass comes into full view.
At 15 mi (24 km) into the drive, Old Fall River Road meets with the Alpine Visitor Center parking lot at 11,796 feet (3,595 meters) elevation. Park if you can and take a half hour to view the exhibits in the visitor center. Then exit the parking lot and head east on Trail Ridge Road. Along the way, take in the Lava Cliffs (17.2 mi/28 km), Rock Cut (19.2 mi/31 km), and the Forest Canyon Overlook (21.3 mi/34 km).
Two other superb overlook areas still lie ahead: Rainbow Curve (24.1 mi/39 km) and Many Parks Curve (28.1 mi/45 km). Continue driving back to Deer Ridge Junction (32.1 mi/52 km) and then along Highway 36 to your starting point.
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy Field Institute offers a guided tour of Old Fall River Road. Old Fall River Road Trip: An Educational Adventure by Bus (July-Sept.) winds all along the historic road to the Alpine Visitor Center, with a return trip on Trail Ridge Road. Transportation is via a 14-passenger minibus or 12-passenger van; fees include lunch and admission to the park. An educator provides commentary about area sights. Stops along the way offer ample opportunity for limb-stretching and photo-taking.
Wild Side 4×4 Tours use SUVs that turn heads because they are so unique. Open-air tours are offered in customized 4×4 vehicles with giant window panels that flip out and up. This family-owned business offers a Top of the World Tour that takes passengers up Trail Ridge Road or Old Fall River Road (available after July, when the road opens to traffic) and back on Trail Ridge Road. The emphasis of the 3.5-hour tour is photography. Snacks, water, and park admission are included. Tours are offered when Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are open.
Green Jeep Tours offers a Rocky Mountain Safari Tour that includes travel along Old Fall River Road (when open) and Trail Ridge Road.
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