Biking Fall River Road, Rocky Mountain National Park (6/24)

by Ilana Stern

"Fall River Road is closed to automobiles and open to bicycles and pedestrians to mile 3.8, where it is closed due to avalanche danger," said the Park Service employee who was answering phones at Rocky Mountain National Park. Was it physically closed? Was it possible to go past 3.8 at all? "Fall River Road is officially closed at mile 3.8," she repeated. We loaded the mountain bikes into the truck and headed up to RMNP to see for ourselves.

Fall River Road was the original road through RMNP, from before the days of Trail Ridge Road; unpaved and narrow, it's open in the summers to one-way uphill car traffic, a little more than 9 miles from Endovalley near the Lawn Lake trailhead at about 8600 feet to the Trail Ridge Store and Alpine Visitor's Center which are just a few feet shy of 11,800. We'd never been on it, but the prospect of riding it sans auto traffic was irresistable.

We parked in the crowded lot at the Lawn Lake trailhead and hit the road at an embarrassingly-late 2 pm. The 2 miles or so to the beginning of Fall River are on fairly flat pavement, but since this road is just a spur from the main Trail Ridge, there wasn't a lot of traffic.

As soon as we dodged around the gate and hit the dirt, the road took a turn for the uphill. Moderately steep climbs alternated with easy grades, but none of it could be considered "flat". The road surface itself was mostly good dirt and gravel, with a few washed-out sections which will need to be repaired before the road is opened for car use. The road is quite narrow, and in many places it's a looooong way down (no guardrail) off the side. We saw three other groups of cyclists on their way down, and about as many hikers. There were also many elk and bighorn sheep tracks (and scat) clearly visible on the road.

This being a wet year in Colorado, the creeks were running high and there were many waterfalls to look at along the way. We stopped to look at the Chasm Falls overlook; the creek was howling through a narrow rock slot, which was undercut in such a way that the water slammed against the side and circulated up and over itself in a corkscrew, shooting back out into the slot with tremendous force.

Right at the 3-mile marker, a sign posted in the road recommended "against" further travel. Ha, and ha again. We continued up a muddy switchback, where we began to see patches of snow in the woods off to the sides. At what must have been mile 3.8, the road was almost -- but not quite -- blocked by a snowslide from the left; there was just enough room on the right to ride past it. A rockslide a hundred yards further was the same. The switchback just ahead had a bit of road damage (and a great view of the valley).

We rounded the switchback, and there at mile 4 was the upper part of the snowslide that we'd skirted before. Some heavy equipment had been there, because a path of sorts was cut across the snow, and there were lots of footprints. We carried our bikes the 15 feet or so across the snowslide; the uphill wall of snow loomed at least 12 above us but looked solid. Shortly thereafter we came across a bulldozer-plow and a snowblower, which appeared to have been driven down from above (we could see their tracks), so we figured it would be clear all the way to the summit.

The roadside snow increased as we rode upward. Once above treeline, we rode alongside great walls of snow where they'd cleared the road. The roadway, however, was fine, no snow at all, just bumpy dozer tracks and occasional mud patches. By the time we rounded the corner at the sewage treatment area just downhill from the visitor's center (and scared off a bunch of marmots), we were stopping frequently to breathe; the road got a little steeper toward the end, which effect was magnified by the extreme lack of oxygen at more than 11,500 feet! The blue sky had clouded over gradually, though, so even though we were working and sweating hard, the air was cool and pleasant -- for going uphill, that is.

We arrived at the Trail Ridge Store, grabbed our extra clothes, and headed in for some Snickers bars and hot spiced cider. I could feel the calories going into my poor, depleted legs. A sign announced that the elevation was 11,796 feet, but some tourists nearby were discussing what we had been trying to forget: this wasn't the top. The high point on Trail Ridge Road, our "descent" route, was still nearly 400 vertical feet up at 12,183 feet. Yipes. We finally psyched ourselves into continuing, put some extra clothes on (even though we were continuing up, it was cold, and Trail Ridge is windier and more exposed), and headed -- up.

As we passed the high point, we could see that the road descended for only a short while before going uphill again. We never notice these things when we're driving! So we delayed putting that last layer on until we were sure that it was downhill all the way. The weather had worsened, and it was quite cold, but the storm gave us a break -- we rode on wet pavement where it had rained recently, but we didn't get rained on at all.

Since Trail Ridge is paved, it was easy to keep close to automobile pace. We did pull off every so often to stretch and warm up, and to take in the views at the spectacular overlooks. The tourists at the overlooks never failed to ooh and ahh at us, which helped warm at least our egos. The drivers were almost without exception very courteous and passed us carefully and with lots of room. We also saw three other pairs of cyclists going in the opposite direction, which was kind of surprising since it was so late in the day (6-7 pm).

As we rode through the lower meadows, just before our turn-off, we saw lots and lots of elk. They stared at us; I think they're a bit more used to automobiles than to bicycles. We pulled back into the Lawn Lake trailhead lot, loaded the bikes, and headed back home.

Statistics: total distance about 30 miles (computer not adjusted properly for my mtb, so it's an estimate): 2 miles paved, 9 miles dirt, 19 miles paved. Total elevation gain: 3990 feet. High point on ride 12,183 feet.

Information: If this ride sounds appealing, I strongly recommend you do it soon, while Fall River Road is still closed to auto traffic. You can call RMNP at (303) 586-1399 for current status. I'd also recommend you get a little earlier start than we did, as it will increase your chances for a warmer descent (but perhaps increase the amount of traffic, if you take Trail Ridge down). Although this ride is nontechnical, the constant uphill at altitude is fairly physically demanding.