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A Complete Guide to Driving Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

curve on dirt road on mountainside-Old Fall River Road
On Old Fall River Road, pullouts allow you to stop safely. /author photo

For three incredible months, Rocky Mountain National Park visitors have a rare opportunity to drive on a dirt road that climbs from the Endovalley picnic area (elevation 8,638) up to the Alpine Visitor Center (elevation 11,796) in just eleven miles. Old Fall River Road opened in 1920 and  Rocky Mountain’s staff have kept this road open to fulfill its original purpose for more than 100 years, plowing snow and smoothing ruts to optimize road conditions for the short time it’s open to vehicles each summer.

Driving Old Fall River Road can be tricky: it’s a one-way (up-only), narrow dirt road with steep turns and stomach-lurching drop-offs.  But on this road, wilderness is just an arm’s reach away and stunning photos can be taken from vehicles on the drive. There are several opportunities to pull out of the roadway to see the views or take a hike, and wildlife and wildflowers are plentiful. 

Every year, I eagerly wait for early July, when Old Fall River Road opens for the season.  It’s my favorite road trip in Rocky Mountain and I don’t think I’ve ever missed taking a drive up any year in the past 25 I’ve lived in the area.  Read on as I describe what you will need to keep in mind while driving this road, including vehicle requirements and great spots to stop along the way!

Graphic showing different features of Old Fall River Road
Twists and turns, drop-offs, and a narrow roadway are all features of Old Fall River Road. /NPS graphic

 Old Fall River Road Details

It took seven years to finish building Old Fall River Road. It was first championed by the Estes Valley Improvement Association, a grassroots organization that was instrumental in forming Rocky Mountain National Park itself.  The completion of this road changed the way people visited Rocky Mountain.  For the first time, visitors could drive up and over the Continental Divide and into Grand Lake.

It’s a dirt road, 11 miles long, with steep turns and drop-offs which may be very intimidating for those who are afraid of heights.  

My advice for a first-time trip?  Have a designated driver who is responsible for staying on the road, pulling over safely, and watching for marmots and other wildlife on the roadway. Everyone else can roll down the windows and enjoy the up-close and personal drive through Rocky Mountain’s wilderness. 

Vehicles over 25 feet long are strictly prohibited and there are no guardrails.  Four-wheel or all-wheel drive cars are not necessary, but a rear-wheeled vehicle may have considerable trouble on the climb. The speed limit is 15 mph, but depending on how many people are on the road, you won’t be able to go that fast.  People tend to stop in the middle of the road, but I don’t recommend that.  There are many pullouts where you can safely pull over, but you still need to be very careful.  Steep drop-offs are one of the main features of this road and you will need to watch your step at all times you are out of the car.

Map showing Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain

One-way up means just that – you can’t turn around and return the way you came.  Old Fall River Road travels through montane and subalpine forests until the views begin to open up over treeline.  The road ends at the back of the Alpine Visitor Center’s parking lot.  From there, you can take Trail Ridge Road east back down to Estes Park or west, over the Divide to Grand Lake. 

Due to the nature of this road and the short summer season in Rocky Mountain, the road is only open to vehicles from the beginning of July to the beginning or middle of October.  Consult Rocky Mountain’s website for information about all road openings and closures throughout the year.  Along with seasonal closures, weather may dictate temporary closures during the season. Find out The Best Times to Visit Rocky Mountain + 3 Times to Avoid.

View of Endovalley from Old Fall River Road
Looking back the way you came on one of the first pullouts gives a stunning view of Endovalley. / author photo
The first designated parking area is at Chasm Falls. In early July, Fall River is swollen with snowmelt. /author video

Visit Rocky Mountain with Confidence with
Our Complete Guide to the Trail Ridge Road

Guide includes reservation requirements, driving tips, and things to do along the way.

Where to Stop Along the Way

  1. Pull-Outs Please refrain from stopping in the middle of the road; there are plenty of pullouts to use safely, generally in the switchbacks, along the way.
  2. Chasm Falls Chasm Falls is a stunning waterfall that is worth the effort to get out of the car and walk down to see it. The short trail is very steep – I recommend taking hiking poles.
  3. Willow Park About six miles up Old Fall River Road is a beautiful subalpine park with an old ranger cabin, vault toilets, and picnic benches. It’s hard to find this stop since it’s not signed but look for a metal bar blocking the entrance. It’s located after the reinforced rocky hillsides, on the left side of the road.
  4. Chapin Pass Trailhead This trailhead gives access to several summit hikes – Mount Chapin, Mount Chiquita, and Mount Ypsilon. These hikes are considered challenging; even the first part of the trail is steep and rocky. Once you get above treeline, the views are spectacular, but watch out for thunderstorms!
  5. Fall River Pass Once you get above treeline, you will reach the beginning of Fall River Pass. Walking on the tundra is strictly prohibited from here all the way up past the Alpine Visitor Center. There are plenty of pullouts and paths to walk on in this area if you’d like to get out and take a look.
  6. Alpine Visitor Center The last part of this road as it enters the back of the Alpine Visitor Center is very rough, with deep potholes. You can then park in the parking lot and visit the facilities at the highest National Park visitor center in the country. At the APV, you can use flush toilets, visit an interpretive center about Rocky Mountain, shop for memorabilia and/or fine art, and even grab a quick lunch!
As you rise above tree level, you will see waterfalls created by melting snowmelt, feeding Fall River as it travels down. / author video
Elk in middle of glacier on mountainside
A lone elk walks on one of the melting glaciers at Fall River Pass on Old Fall River Road. / author photo
small pond and tundra in mountains
This small pond and the tundra beneath at Fall River Pass are beautiful areas. In 2019, Old Fall River Road stayed open until mid-October; this photo was taken on October 5. /author photo
marmot on rock on the side of Old Fall River Road
On Old Fall River Road, the wildlife and scenery can be photographed from the car, like this marmot on a rock! /author photo

Dos & Don’ts While Driving On Old Fall River Road

DOs:

  1. Drive slowly and watch the road carefully.
  2. Take your trekking poles, even if you don’t plan on hiking. These can come in handy at various pull-outs and give you additional stability for safety.
  3. Bring a picnic lunch and/or snacks and plenty of water. Bring a bag so you can take your trash with you.
  4. Stop anywhere you can safely (at a designated parking spot or pull-out) when the mood hits you – you can’t turn around and go back on this one-way-up road!
  5. Roll your windows down, open the sunroof, etc. to enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of the Rocky Mountain wilderness!

DON’Ts:

  1. Don’t feed any of the wildlife you may encounter on the drive. Besides being strictly illegal in Rocky Mountain, this makes the animals less able to forage for themselves in the harsh year-round climate.
  2. Don’t pick any wildflowers. You will see plenty along the way, but these delicate wildflowers will not survive being picked or pulled from the roots to transplant. It’s also illegal!
  3. Don’t ignore signs of altitude sickness. If drinking water and electrolytes does not make you feel better, you will need to descend to lower altitudes once you get the chance.
  4. Leave no trace. Leave nothing but footprints (but not on the tundra) and take nothing but photographs.

Related Questions

  1. Has Anyone Died on Old Fall River Road? Short answer: yes. But, if you follow the tips I’ve outlined above, you should be able to tour Old Fall River Road safely.
  2. Do You Need a Permit to Drive Old Fall River Road? No special permit is needed, but you will need to get a timed entry reservation if you visit between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Learn about Getting into Rocky Mountain National Park Without a Reservation.
  3. Can You Bike on Trial Ridge Road? No, not when it’s open to vehicles. But when it’s closed, you can hike, bike, snowshoe, etc. when it’s not closed for maintenance. Leashed dogs are allowed on roads in Rocky Mountain, too!
  4. What’s a Better Drive: Old Fall River Road or Trail Ridge Road? Both! You’ll have to drive a portion of Trail Ridge Road after you’ve completed Old Fall River Road to get back down.

Check out Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park: A Complete Guide, another scenic drive nearby.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Rocky Mountain is crowded!

Need a game plan to avoid the crowds? Check out our itinerary

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times.

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO
ROCKY MOUNTAIN

ROCKY MOUNTAIN TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Rocky Mountain National Park, check out our Rocky Mountain Homepage

THINGS TO DO: There is so much to do including hiking, swimming, taking a tour of the Stanley Hotel, and driving Trail Ridge Road and Bear Lake Road

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Explore some amazing cities nearby including Estes Park

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out about getting into Rocky Mountain without a reservation, if the park is too crowded, and all about altitude sickness

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Rocky Mountain YouTube Playlist

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