Rocky Mountains Colorado: Fall River Road and Continental Divide with Pictures
Scenery near Estes Park, Colorado
Continental Divide in Colorado
As a part of my mother's and my Rocky Mountains vacation spent in the breathtakingly scenic State of Colorado one year, we decided to traverse the Continental Divide in two different ways. This time we would see it by taking the Old Fall River Road.
We had already taken the Trail Ridge Road which is one of the highest continuous paved roads in all of the United States and this is probably the most usual way that visitors to this part of the country take in this spectacular scenery.
We were about to end our stay in Estes Park and move our location to the other side of the Rockies to Grand Lake, so did not want to repeat the trip already taken.
Fortunately there was another way and it consisted of the first motor route to cross the Rocky Mountains built back in the years from 1913 to 1920.
Be forewarned. It is not for those who are in a hurry nor for the foolhardy!
Estes Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain Travel
We were once again in the Rocky Mountain National Park as we were headed towards the Old Fall River Road which would be our route over the mountains this time up to the Alpine Visitor Center.
The day was bright and sunny and we caught glimpses of wild animals such as the large deer (or probably elk) that had come out of the woods and into the open pasture such as shown in the picture below.
While we stopped the car to get a picture of the elk, a large and inquisitive black and white bird posed for its picture on the car's side mirror. He seemed as curious to look us over as we were him!
Seen throughout most of North America aspen trees are always a delight to see. They are particularly beautiful in the fall of the year when their leaves turn a glorious golden yellow color before falling to the ground for the winter.
The aspen bark is white and makes a dramatic and artistic counterpoint to the evergreen trees. When seen in groves such as the one we drove through it is a pretty site to behold.
Since it was in the summer at the time of our visit, the leaves were still green but the bark sets them apart from most other trees and we made a stop to take a picture.
Old Fall River Road
As my mother and I started the upward trek on what would eventually become an old narrow dirt road, we thought that the name given this historic highway was appropriate.
We would see many different waterfalls at different points along the road which closely follows the path of the Fall River.
Construction of this early road over the Continental Divide was done slowly using shovels and other hand tools in the beginning. Colorado State prison inmate's labor was utilized when this road building process began in 1913 and was finished seven years later.
It followed a path called the Dog's Trail utilized by Native Arapaho Indians long before the west was settled. The Indians utilized their dogs to pull sleds made by securing poles together with animal hides to transport things and people over the Rockies in this area.
Long before the Native Americans began using this trail, glaciers had sculpted this area over time since the uplift of the Rockies had taken place millions of years prior.
The Fall River Road today appears much as it did upon completion with the exception that it has been made into a one way road ever since the paved Trail Ridge Road was completed in 1932. The bottom third of it is paved but then turns into a graded and narrow dirt road that twists and turns its way up the mountain.
One should also follow the precautions of using the lower gears of one's vehicle and not to use air conditioning as this could cause one's car to overheat.
No vehicle over 25 feet is allowed due to the narrowness of the road.
While the Fall River Road is only 9 miles in length, the hairpin curves and dropoffs as well as elevation changes demand strict attention from the drivers and also mandates a leisurely pace.
At every mile there is a post and one can stop to read about what one is viewing as well as some of the geology and history of this area making this a particularly interesting way to traverse the Rockies from east to west.
The Old Fall River Road takes one through different ecosystems as one ascends the Rocky Mountains in this part of Colorado.
Down at lower elevations we were traveling through what is called the Montane Ecosystem.
Starting at around 5,500 feet (1,700 m.) to about 9,500 ft. (2,900 m.) in elevation we passed through meadows, those aspen trees and many different pine trees.
It was here that we saw the Chasm Falls.
The Sub-alpine Ecosystem goes from around 9,000 ft. (2,750 m.) to about 11,000 to 12,000 ft. (3,350 to 3,650 m.) or at what is called the treeline.
There is no exact delineation between ecosystems and depending upon sun exposure or other conditions these can vary a bit.
In this sub-alpine ecosystem we saw spruce trees and others that can grow quite large. This was also an area where we viewed many different creeks and waterfalls.
In some of the meadows elk and deer were spotted.
Along some of this dirt road cages of rocks called gabions have been constructed to keep the hillsides intact and to help prevent landslides.
As you view these pictures just imagine traveling this road when it was still two way!
As one nears the upper limits of the sub-alpine ecosystem the trees become shorter and grow in a twisted and gnarly shape. The word for this is Krummholz which in German means "crooked wood."
It is the transition between the sub-alpine and alpine ecosystems.
From a distance we could see the Alpine Visitor's Center which we had visited earlier on our Trail Ridge Road drive.
The Alpine Tundra ecosystem is land that lies above any living trees but it does bear life. Conditions may be harsh but plant life still exists and the wildflowers in the summer make for a colorful landscape.
One should be careful if walking on tundra as it takes years for plants to reestablish themselves if harmed by careless foot steps! If paths are provided, please stay on the paths so that future generations of visitors can enjoy this unique beauty.
After reaching the Alpine Visitor's Center where we once again stopped to stretch our legs, get some refreshments and use the restrooms, we traveled 4 miles west back onto the Trail Ridge Road to Milner Pass where the location of the Continental Divide takes place.
It is actually 1,000 feet (300 m.) lower than at the Alpine Visitor's Center and it marks the spot where waters flow ultimately either to the Atlantic or Pacific oceans depending upon which side of the Rocky Mountains rain, snow and ice accumulates.
Descending the Rockies my mother and I planned our next stop and night's stay at Grand Lake which was another 24 miles away.
The air is rarefied at these upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains and the ultra-violet rays of the sun are intense. There are hikes one can take in these areas if one has the time and stamina.
During the winter most often these roads (the Old Fall River Road and the Trail Ridge Road) are closed due to snow. So plan visits to this area accordingly.
I'll leave you with a few additional pictures as we drove back down the mountain towards Grand lake.
Hope you enjoyed these pictures of our Rocky Mountains vacation and getting to travel along the Old Fall River Road and seeing Milner Pass at the Continental Divide. It was certainly a memorable part of our trip and I would suggest exploring this area for yourself if you ever find yourself in that part of Colorado.
Have you ever traveled the Old Fall River Road?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Peggy Woods