July 23, 2023. It was my first full day as a married man. How did I spend it? Perhaps relaxing in my honeymoon suite with my bride, enjoying our hot tub? Maybe with a romantic dinner for two?
Nah, that’s not how the newly designated Meisters roll. We had a whole list of things to do with our Sunday, starting with breakfast in bed and cleaning our suite, moving on to an epic farewell brunch, and, while at the brunch, planning an afternoon trip into the national park to see Old Fall River Road. Originally, it was a thing we planned to do with my parents. Then Pam and Winston wanted to go, and she mentioned going to Shelly and Nicholas, and then James and Moriah and Sam wanted to go too, so we ended up with a mini-convoy planned. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Everyone met at the Fawn Valley Inn Parking Lot, which was a good place to meet since a lot of the individuals were staying there. Plus, it was right along the Fall River Entrance. Which is always a plus if you’re going to drive on Old Fall River Road!
We ran a nice little three-car convoy, with Elizabeth/myself/James/Moriah in the lead, followed by my parents, and Shelly/Pam/Nicholas/Sam running up the rear. Finding parking for 3 people at some of the spots in the park might be tough, but it was late afternoon, so hopefully everyone was flooding to Bear Lake.
To get to Old Fall River Road, you take Fall River Road into the park, then right at the apex of its quick sojourn through the Fall River Valley you make a right onto a small paved road. This took us past the Lawn Lake Trailhead, which we had all last visited back in the winter when trying to pick spots for wedding-day photos. Just beyond that was a little pull-through parking lot with no more than 20 or so parking spots. I really wanted to stop here, so I make the executive decision to park semi-legally on the side of the road in the parking lot away from the cars. There was still space for traffic to get through! The next two cars in the convoy squeezed in, and drivers got out and squeezed past the brush.
It was incumbent on me to explain why I wanted to stop. This was the location of what is known as the Alluvial Fan. The Alluvial Fan formed back in the 1980s. Prior to that, it was probably a pretty spot where the Roaring River came pouring out of a side canyon to meet up with the Fall River at the valley floor. But in the 1980s, a storm undermined a dam at Lawn Lake several miles upstream, sending a torrent of water and earth and boulders downstream. Where they hit the valley floor, all of this debris has since formed the charming hodgepodge of giant stones and cold water that Little Piggies have enjoyed ever since.
It was but a 5 minute walk to get there, although it was a bit uphill and I could practically hear Elizabeth thinking about how I better not kill my mother-in-law on the first day that she had that title. When we got there, opinion was split. There were those who pretty clearly thought it was just a pile of rocks. And then there were those, like me, who felt a sense of freedom now that the burden of wedding planning was over, and felt like this was sort of an exclusive club of what remained of the wedding enjoyers, and who were willing to just enjoy some pretty rocks and ice-cold water for what they were.
But hey, that’s just some people.
Right after the alluvial fan, there’s a seasonal gate that closes Old Fall River Road to vehicle traffic from October until July. I didn’t even realize it until now, as I was typing this, but we were probably very lucky in our timing that the road was even open.
I also recognized that Elizabeth and I were much more at home in this setting than most other people with us. It’s not like we’re the only travelers or national park lovers in the group, but if you’ve taken Michael’s rental through the Mosca Pass Road in the Great Sand Dunes Preserve, a winding dirt road isn’t much of a much. Maybe that’s why I felt much less apprehension than everyone else was showing when we reached our next (and final) planned stop of the drive at Chasm Falls, two hairpin switchbacks into the drive.
Chasm Falls was just off the road – a typical alpine cascade within the Fall River that concludes into a narrow gorge as it swirls by. I wouldn’t have called it anything spectacular on my own – Alberta Falls in RMNP certainly is more grand to my eye – but my mom *loves* waterfalls, so getting to visit one with her is a treat every time. And there was Sam, who was enthralled with a chance to take his new Canon lens out into Real Nature. And there was Pam, who didn’t look super comfortable going down each stair, but who clearly wouldn’t trade this evening for anything in the world. And there was me, and there was my brand-new wife. When you put all of that at the foot of Chasm Falls, it’s pretty hard to conclude that you shouldn’t be smiling.
Nobody got hurt on the treacherous steps on the way down or back up, for which I was duly grateful.
Elizabeth and I switched drivers after Chasm Falls. Originally she had asked me to drive so she could look out and enjoy the view unencumbered. That lasted all of two switchbacks before her compulsive need to be in control took back over. That was fine by me: now I could look out on the fine views of the Mummy Range without feeling bad about jeopardizing everyone’s safety.
Someone objected to Elizabeth leading our little convoy uphill, though.
This marmot was like most of the breed; it *really* did not want to move.
Neither did some of the Little Piggies who were driving the road. A few of them went at ridiculously slow paces; others stopped in the middle of the road to gawk at things. Elizabeth steadily got more and more annoyed with other drivers until they one by one found wide spots on the road to get out of the way. Which wasn’t easy, because Old Fall River Road is pretty narrow and steep and the drop-off is sheer most of the time.
As we rose higher and higher up the north bank of the Fall River Canyon (Old Fall River Road terminates at the Alpine Visitor’s Center at 11,796 feet), we started to get clearer views of the surrounding mountains. Across the gulch, there were still pristine-looking patches of snow that were vigorously melting in the July heatwave. James pointed to one hanging up near the top of the ridge and asked, “Is that a glacier”? Which no, it wasn’t. In fact, I’m not sure the snow was going to last more than another week before melting. But it gave me a chance to talk about glaciology, which pre-Iceland Nolan was *always* happy to talk about.
There were more switchbacks as we got higher, and the slope got a little less steep as the canyon widened out. Big trees came back in front of our sightline. Elizabeth made a comment that she was hungry. Well, fortunately for her, there was a bag of Voodoo potato chips that Elizabeth had purchased a few days ago in Limon and then never eaten. It was sitting in front of me in the passenger seat of the rental car, and it was *extremely* pressurized. We’ve all eaten a bag of chips at 7,000 feet and seen how pressurized the bag was. Well, at this point we were probably approaching 10,000 feet, so when I gave a little bit of a squeeze the whole bag exploded with a loud “BANG”. There were screams in the car, and then there was laughter. Having good friends is a precious thing.
Now we were getting up toward the treeline, and then passing by it. Being in the tundra never fails to give me this sense of wonder – I am one of the highest-altitude people in the world at that given moment. There aren’t many more expansive views than this. And if I had the sense of wonder, one can only imagine what James and Moriah felt in the backseat. They’re even less used to views like this than Elizabeth and myself. James, at the very least, was enthralled.
Even better: we’d finally beaten the heat. Estes Park had been disappointingly hot the whole time we visited, but up here 55 constituted a hot day. And it was breezy.
That ridge in the distance, of course, is Trail Ridge, along which the Trail Ridge Road crests the Rockies. The Alpine Visitor’s Center is just on the right side of the image. From here, where the terrain actually smooths out quite a bit, the road no longer had to go through the tight switchbacks that make Old Fall River Road so legendary. Instead, there’s a sweeping set of two switchbacks through a meadow and up the side of the ridge until the road literally empties into the Visitor’s Center parking lot. What a magnificent time of year it was to be there, too. The last snowfields were melting in gushing waterfalls, the fields were full of lush green grass and little rills and little tarns. We found a wide spot in one of those switchbacks to pull the car in. Winston followed shortly behind. My parents were supposed to be bringing up the rear, but they only paused long enough to let us know that their engine was overheating and that they felt like they needed to drive up to the Visitor’s Center to give it a chance to cool off. The rest of us took a minute to drink it all in.
That’s the stuff.
James was excited when Sam and I pointed out the glacial cirque right below the rim of the ridge. *Everyone* was excited when we spotted some elk up by the Visitor’s Center.
(The above photo is courtesy of Samuel Emmerson and The Big Dog).
It was now getting into the early evening by the time we all made it past the elk and up to the Visitor’s Center. There, we found my parents doing a quick diagnostic on their rental car. To Elizabeth’s great chagrin, the center itself had already closed for the night, making this her second stop here without getting her beloved stamp. But it was such a beautiful afternoon that someone suggested we take the short Alpine Ridge Trail from the parking lot up to the top of the prominence just north of the parking lot. Moriah and Pam opted out; everyone else looked at each other and nodded.
Winston didn’t just nod – he took off at a sprint up the steps. I gave him a head start, then took off with all of a former distance-runner’s confidence that nobody could possibly keep up with me. It’s maybe only 400-600 yards to the top of the false summit along the trail, so you don’t have to sprint that long. The caveat: I’m way out of shape. The even more important caveat: we were at 11,900 feet. It’s absolutely crazy how quickly you go into oxygen deprivation up there; even as I passed little old ladies and went flying past Winston, I was gasping for air. The two of us stayed gasping and wheezing for the five minutes until everyone else got to the top of the trail, at which point we had to feign nonchalance.
Above the false summit, the trail goes gently up to the crest of the prominence, with sits at almost exactly 12,000 feet. For many of the people up here, this was the highest elevation they’d ever been at (not the Meisters, of course). We had an almost 360-degree view of the Rockies from Elizabeth’s beloved Never Summers to the west to my beloved Medicine Bows to the north to the myriad parts of the RMNP Front Range.
I suggest everyone get a friend like Sam to be your personal photographer.
On the way back to the Visitor’s Center, nature decided to pay us a call:
This elk actually walked across the trail, briefly getting tangled in the guardrails before getting through and heading to the other side of the hill for dinner. Some Piggies ended up getting a lot closer to it than I would want to be to an elk that is struggling. That is their choice.
And that pretty much did it for our trip up Old Fall River Road. It was so cool to get to share this experience with friends and family in a slightly more intimate setting than the Dream Lake extravaganza from a few days prior. It was awesome to see people who didn’t do what Elizabeth and I do as often get to enjoy the sights and scenery. We took Trail Ridge Road back, which gave a whole other set of incredible views for all of us right at sunset.
And then we headed back to Ed’s to celebrate our last night all together with some bison enchiladas. Of the many hectic, incredible, stressful, amazing memories I have from the weekend of my wedding, I hope this is one that doesn’t fade away.