Old Fall River road is a gravel road that travels one-way from the Endovalley Picnic Area all the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park. Because of extreme weather conditions at this altitude, the road is typically only available to drive up during the summer months. In 2021, it is scheduled to close to vehicles beginning October 4 according to the national park’s website.
Driving up Old Fall River Road can feel treacherous because it is so narrow. Plus, once you start, you can’t turn back. However, the drive is slow paced (in fact the speed limit is 15 miles per hour). There are stunning views on the way up to the Alpine Visitor Center. Don’t miss Chasm Falls which I wrote about here.
Rocky mountain national park wildlife
We spotted wildlife on the tundra including fuzzy marmots basking in the morning sunlight. We noticed an unmarked trail on the final stretch of the drive and decided to pull over and explore.
Our kids who are ages 4 and 6 were able to hike this on their own. We all loved our new discovery! There is another short hike that leaves from the Alpine Visitor Center called the Alpine Ridge Trail. We’ve enjoyed that trail in the past, but I liked this one even more because it’s much less popular.
Getting back to Estes Park
After visiting the Alpine Visitor Center, you can travel back down the mountain towards Estes Park on Trail Ridge Road.
It has been a few years since I wrote out a suggested itinerary for Rocky Mountain National Park, so today I’m excited to share a mini itenerary that I think is ideal for families with young children.
Animals in Rocky Mountain National Park
If I’m honest, the person who gets the most excited about spotting animals in Rocky Mountain National Park is me. But our kids enjoy spotting wildlife too, and one of the best places to see wildlife is at Sheep Lakes which is located near the Fall River Entrance Station on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park (by Estes Park, Colorado).
When we visited the park in early June, we spotted more bighorn sheep than we’ve ever seen! We also saw a bull moose, elk, and a coyote in the field. Sometimes traffic on the road has to stop so the animals can safely cross. There is a parking lot where you will see excited visitors practicing their wildlife photography with impressive zoom lenses. Or you can be like me and pull out your iPhone to take a quick photo. Either way, it’s a really cool experience and there are usually park rangers stationed at Sheep Lakes to answer questions and help protect visitors and animals by ensuring no one gets too close. Remember, animals need their space.
Best Hikes in Rocky mountain national park For Families
Right down the road from Sheep Lakes you will find the Alluvial Fan which has always been one of our favorite kid-friendly waterfall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Thanks to recent renovations, this destination has become even more accessible and beautiful. According to a recent story in the Denver Post, ‘The trail surface is made of FilterPave, which feels solid underfoot — sort of like a backyard patio floor — but is porous to allow for drainage.’
The National Park’s website describes the Alluvial Fan as ‘a beautiful cascade of water flowing down through a boulder field.’ The Alluvial Fan was created when a dam broke at Lawn Lake in 1892.
3 great ways to add on to this adventure
Before arriving in the national park, consider stopping at the Fall River Visitor Center which is located right off Hwy 36. The visitor center has educational displays about the park and helpful staff to answer questions. The visitor center is attached to a huge gift shop and Trailhead Restaurant. This is a great spot to order breakfast and sit on the back deck that overlooks Deer Mountain. We also appreciate the fenced in playground next to the restaurant. At the Gateway, there is a stable where visitors can go on guided rides into Rocky Mountain National Park. I wrote about my horseback riding experience here.
Another way to add on to an outing to the Alluvial Fan is to bring a picnic lunch to the nearby Endovalley Picnic Area. Picnic lunches are one of our favorite family-friendly activities in Rocky Mountain National Park. We wrote about five more of our favorite picnic spots here.
My last suggestion for an add-on adventure is to drive up Old Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. This is a narrow, one-way road that starts at the Endovalley Picnic Area and winds all the way up into the tundra at Fall River Pass. Make sure to stop at Chasm Falls on the way up. Since it is one-way, you take Trail Ridge Road back down towards Estes Park. There are many pull-outs to take pictures and trails to go on breathtaking hikes on the tundra. Old Fall River Road is seasonal. It typically is open to vehicles July 4 through September, however even in the summer, it’s always a good idea to check on road and weather conditions before taking this journey.
When the road is closed to vehicle traffic, visitors use the trail for walking, jogging, and biking. Dogs aren’t allowed on trails in RMNP, but since this is a road, it is one of the few places that dogs are welcome to go on a hike with you inside the national park. We wrote about our hike up Old Fall River Road here.
This year I decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in teaching, and I also started working part-time as a preschool teacher. I love it, but I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and write on this site. Now, as the school year is winding down, I’m excited to start planning our summer and begin writing again. The first thing on our list is our annual Memorial Day trip to the mountains. It is hard to believe that we will be heading to our cabin in Estes Park, Colorado in just a couple of weeks.
This Memorial Day, we are excited to host our friends who have never been to Colorado before. As we talked through the new timed-entry permit and the restrictions on hiking in areas of the park due to recent wild fires, I realized that planning a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park feels pretty complicated this year. I’ve attempted to summarize the new system below:
Rocky Mountain National Park Timed-Entry Permit
What: 2 hour reservation to enter the park. There isn’t a restriction on how long you can stay. Parking is not guaranteed. Reservations must be made in advance.
Some of our favorite early season hikes such as Hollowell Park, Cub Lake and Fern Lake are inaccessible right now (as of 5/16/21) because of damage caused by wildfires in 2020. Before planning hikes, make sure to check out the latest information on closures here.
The Wild Basin tops our wish list because it wasn’t impacted by the wildfires and the elevation is lower compared to other areas in the park, which means typically there is less snow in May/June. There are also several beautiful waterfalls, and the trail is pretty easy for young kids to hike (ages 4- 7).
Gem Lake also avoided fire damage. Even though it is a short hike, it gains a lot of elevation (1,000 ft.). I’m not sure if we will make it to the top, but there are great views along the way and unique rock formations that the kids will love. Even if we make it half way, the hike will be memorable.
Lily Lake is our go-to hike. No matter what time of year or time of day, it’s always a great choice. We enjoy adding the Lily Ridge trail to lengthen the otherwise short hike around the lake.
Bierstadt Lake and Sprague Lake are in the Bear Lake corridor. This means they are popular attractions and require the Bear Lake corridor pass. These start at decent elevations, so it’s possible to encounter slush or even significant snow in May. We’ve spotted elk and moose in this area, and the views of the continental divide are truly spectacular at both destinations.
I can’t wait to share our favorite places with our friends. Even though it’s a little complicated, I know our trip will be well-worth the extra effort. I’m also hopeful that the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park that have been overused will benefit from less traffic, and that those impacted by fire will be soon on the road to a beautiful recovery!
This post was written by Eric after a quick solo adventure on New Year’s Eve 2020.
Sometimes when I hike, it’s easy to get so focused on the planned destination that I just put my head down and grind through the miles on the approach, paying little attention to the beauty along the way. So on New Year’s Eve a few months back, I set out on a hike with the specific intention not to reach any particular landmark on the Long’s Peak trail. I knew that I didn’t have the experience or gear to attempt a winter summit of the trail’s namesake on my own, nor did I intend to try to cross the steep ridge over to Chasm Lake without much knowledge of the conditions. I just wanted to get some miles in on a snowy trail through the woods, and pop above the tree line for as long as the typically blustery winter conditions would allow.
Below are some pictures from an absolute treat of a hike—the weather was perfect. Though the temperature was in the single digits at the trailhead, there was almost *no* wind, which again, can be quite rare on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park during the winter months. The trail was generally well-packed, so snowshoes were not required (yak tracks were helpful). It was also wonderful to be nearly alone on one of the busiest 14er trails in all of Colorado; a stark contrast from the parade of headlamps that ascend through the early morning darkness during peak “summit season.” With no objective to achieve, I was able to just soak in the incredible surroundings and be more present for the entire adventure.
I hope to build on this memorable experience and take a “destinationless” approach to hiking more often throughout the year.