I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).
Continental Divide Roads
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 Trail Ridge Road. That road is probably the most frequented way for visitors to view the 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 we 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 1913–1920.
Be forewarned. It is not for those who are in a hurry nor for the foolhardy!
Rocky Mountain National Park
As we headed towards the old Fall River Road, we were once again in the Rocky Mountain National Park. That would be our route over the mountains this particular time up to the Alpine Visitor Center. The day was bright and sunny. We caught glimpses of wild animals that had come out of the woods and into the open pasture.
Seen throughout most of North America, aspen trees are always a delight to see. They are so pretty 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. It is a pretty sight to behold when seen in groves such as the one we drove through.
History of 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 waterfalls at different points along the roadway, closely following the Fall River's path.
Using Colorado state prison inmate's labor with shovels and other hand tools, this first road-building process over the Continental Divide began in 1913 and ended seven years later.
It followed a path called the Dog's Trail utilized by native Arapaho Indians long before the western settlement. The Native Americans used 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 one exception. It has been made into a one-way road ever since the paved Trail Ridge Road completion in 1932. The bottom third 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 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.
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While the Fall River Road is only nine 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.
1. Montane Ecosystem
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.
2. Sub-alpine Ecosystem
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.), known as 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 area is where we viewed many different creeks and waterfalls. In some of the meadows, we spotted elk and deer.
Along some of this dirt road, cages of rocks called gabions keep the hillsides intact and help prevent landslides. As you view these pictures, 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.
3. Alpine Tundra Ecosystem
The Alpine Tundra Ecosystem refers to 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 the tundra. It takes years for plants to reestablish themselves if harmed by careless footsteps! If paths are there, please stay on the footpath so that future generations of visitors can enjoy this unique beauty.
After reaching the Alpine Visitor's Center, where we stopped to stretch our legs, get some refreshments and use the restrooms, we traveled four miles west back onto the Trail Ridge Road to Milner Pass, where the location of the Continental Divide takes place.
It is 1,000 feet (300 m.) lower than at the Alpine Visitor's Center. It marks the spot where waters flow ultimately to the Atlantic or Pacific oceans depending upon which side of the Rocky Mountains rain, snow, and ice accumulate.
The air is thin at these upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains. Also, 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, the old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road are closed due to snow. So plan visits to this area accordingly.
I'll leave you with some additional pictures as we drove back down the mountain towards Grand lake.
- National Park Service: Fall River Road
- National Park Service: Rocky Mountain National Park Roads
- National Park Service: Rocky Mountain National Park
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