Sunday, August 12, 2018

Visiting Colorado--Old Fall River Road, Rocky Mountain National Park

alpine tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park
Almost to the top of Old Fall River Road
Old Fall River Road was the first automobile road to the alpine tundra in Rocky Mountain National Park; it opened in 1920.  It is unpaved and runs steeply up. It hasn't been continuously open: for almost a decade in the 1950-1960's it was closed by a landslide. Today it is open when (mostly) snow -free, about Memorial Day to Labor Day--until Oct. 1 in 2018. It is one-way, uphill only.

Long vehicles are discouraged. We were a bit concerned about taking a Prius but in fact having a compact car made the turns, some truly hair-pin, easier for us than for bigger vehicles. Had it been after a heavy rain, we might have regretted the Prius: there were muddy ruts in the road, some quite deep, but when we were there, dry and easily avoided.

So on a sunny morning we headed up Old Fall River Road.

Rocky Mountain National Park

There's a helpful brochure you can purchase at the base of the climb which points out highlights and is careful to warn you about steep grades, no guardrails and other hazards.

Speed limit: 15.  Road length: 9 miles. Elevation gain: 3,280 feet, to 11,796 feet above sea level.

We were pleased to find some wide spots to hop out.

Old Fall River Road

I wasn't thinking of writing about it the time, so I don't have pictures looking forward or back along the road. It was just a dirt road, occasionally with ruts to avoid.

subalpine forest, Old Fall River Road
Subalpine forest
The road climbs out of montane forest to the subalpine zone and finally to alpine tundra.  Montane forest has ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), with some aspen (Populus tremuloides) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). The subalpine is a spruce-fir forest (Engelmann spruce, Picea engelmannii and subalpine fir, Abies lasiocarpa), with tall slender trees. Both zones had spectacular views, mostly where we thought it unwise to stop. We were there early on a weekday morning so the road was not packed, but there were plenty of other vehicles ahead of and behind us.

Old Fall River Road

waterfall, Old Fall River Road

Thanks to the brochure, we noticed the transitions between zones as they happened, rather than saying, belatedly, "wait, didn't something change?"

All kinds of neat things were flowering under the trees in the subalpine (we didn't stop much below that).

subalpine wildflowers

This small goldenrod (probably the Rocky Mountain goldenrod, Solidago multiradiata) was only about 6" high, growing near or under the trees in the subalpine.


And there was this pretty little cinquefoil (genus Potentilla, rose family, Rosaceae). I don't know which species: Colorado has 30 species, most of them small with yellow flowers.


Then the road climbed some more, the forest fell away, and we drove through alpine tundra. An elevation too cold, frozen too much of the year, for trees. In my picture below, there is a big patch that is a knee-high fir tree. Trees keep trying to grow in the tundra. Warming will let them grow better but it won't be uniform: decent-sized trees will grow in sun-warmed areas, the exposed or deeply shaded spots will likely be tree-free for a long time.

alpine tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park
Alpine tundra, dwarfed trees in the middle distance.
The pole will be put back in the ground before fall, to
mark the road when the snow is deep.
In its brief summer, the tundra is ablaze in wildflowers. Alpine tundra is a very neat ecosystem full of really tough little plants. The area around Rocky Mountain National Park's Alpine Visitor Center is one of the most accessible places in all of North America to see it. whether you drive there on Trail Ridge Road or Old Fall River Road.

alpine flowers, Rocky Mountain National Park

The above is clearly a composite, aster family, Asteraceae. Perhaps it is Senecio amplectans, showy alpine ragwort.

Below is elephant's head, Pedicularis groenlandica  (broomrape family, Orobachaceae). There are many species of Pedicularis in Colorado, most called louseworts. This one, if I have the id right, is found clear to Greenland, as the scientific name imples, widely distributed at high elevations or in the far north.

alpine wildflowers, Rocky Mountain National Park
elephant head, Pedicularis groenlandica
In the photo below, we were just about to the top of Old Fall River Road. That is Rocky Mountain National Park's Alpine Visitor Center, seen from "the back."
Alpine Visitor Center from Old Fall River Road
Alpine Visitor Center from Old Fall River Road
This photo looks back down Old Fall River Road from the Alpine Visitor's Center. Since the road is  one-way going up, of course it is closed.

End of Old Fall River Road at Alpine Visitor's Center

One last look at alpine tundra plants. The purple is Whipple's penstemon, Penstemon whippleanus (plant family Plantaginaceae, plantain family) found from the montane zone up to the tundra, but varying in flower color (creamy yellow, white, lavender, maroon, blue, black-purple and violet: what's with that?!)

alpine tundra, Rocky Mountain National Park

We took Trail Ridge Road down and, having packed a picnic, stopped for a scenic lunch when we found an open picnic table.

Photo from the drive down Trail Ridge Road:
Rocky Mountain National Park
Along Trail Ridge Road

Comments and corrections welcome.

Check out the description on Rocky Mountain National Park's home page: link
I have the Colorado Rocky Mountain Wildflowers App link on my iPhone--very useful, especially because despite having half a dozen wildflower guides for Rocky Mountain National Park, half the time, like this time, I don't remember to grab one.
Plant naming is rapidly changing. I used J. Ackerfield. 2015. Flora of Colorado. BRIT Press, Fort Worth Texas.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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