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.
The drive up to the Alpine Ridge Trail is an adventure. If you begin on the East side of Rocky Mountain National Park, you have the choice of driving up Old Fall River Road or Trail Ridge Road. Both routes are inside of Rocky Mountain National Park, so you need to purchase a park pass.
Old Fall River Road
We opted for the Old Fall River Road route where you can go one-way, and that is up. The road begins near the Endovalley picnic area and leads to the Alpine Visitor Center and the Alpine Ridge Trail. The gravel road is eleven miles long. You can expect tight turns and slow speeds. (The speed limit is only 15 mph.) The road is open seasonally and can close at any time for poor weather conditions. It’s a good idea to check the National Park Service’s Road Status Report before heading up. You can avoid crowds and afternoon storms by starting early.
One of the highlights along the road is Chasm Falls which is hidden from view. There is a small pull-out with enough room for a handful of cars to park. The trail leading down to the viewing deck is short and steep. If you can find a spot, Chasm Falls is worth stopping for. I included it as one of our best waterfall hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
above tree line
Old Fall River Road takes you above the tree line. The views from this road are spectacular. Many times on our journey we have spotted elk. Eventually you connect to the parking lot of the Alpine Visitors Center where parking is competitive.
Alpine visitors center
The Alpine Visitors Center is a great place to use the restroom, shop for souvenirs, take pictures, grab a snack, and ask park rangers any questions you have about the tundra. It’s usually noticeably colder and windier at this altitude, so we add on a layer of clothing before walking around.
If you are looking for a fun and inexpensive activity/souvenir, my girls enjoyed picking out postcards for their friends back home at the gift shop. There is a post office in downtown Estes Park where you can purchase stamps and send them.
Alpine Ridge Trail
I’ve always noticed people hiking up the Alpine Ridge trail, but this was the first time we decided to make the hike up. It helped that we had a warm day with low winds.
The hike is only .3 miles each way. Concrete stairs climb to the top. You start at high elevation and end up at even higher elevation, so even the short distance is a cardio challenge. My 4-year-old was able to make it on her own, but my 2-year-old got to ride on her Dad’s shoulders. I appreciate that the National Park Service places educational signage along the trail to help explain what you are looking at, why you are out of breath, and what they are doing to protect the natural environment surrounding us.
From this perspective, you can see Old Fall River road winding up the mountain.
The wildflowers were blooming on the tundra which is a delicate landscape. This area is roped off to encourage crowds to stay on the path.
There were several groupings of large rocks that my girls enjoyed climbing on.
The elevation at the top is 12,005 ft. above sea level. You can see for miles! I’m happy we took the time to take the small trek up the trail. It was something our whole family enjoyed. If you like this tundra hike, I also recommend reading our post on the Ute Trail.
Trail Ridge Road
We took Trail Ridge Road back down the mountain towards Estes Park. This trail is far less rustic than Old Fall River Road. We enjoyed views of the mountains and spotting a herd of elk playing in the snow.