Wednesday, June 8, 2016

See moose, elk on RMSP backcountry trail

Old Fall River Road. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain NPS.
Topo map of Chapin Creek Trail.

Old Fall River Road heads to mountain creek

All too often, national park visitors find themselves limited to the popular sites without easy access to the wild interior. The Old Fall River Road solves that problem for Rocky Mountain National Park visitors.

Built in 1920, the road was the first highway in the park to cross the Continental Divide. While the newer U.S. Hwy. 34 is now preferred, park visitors can travel 11 miles on the old route between Horseshoe Park and Fall River Pass.

A great hike to take from the road is the Chapin Creek Trail, which offers opportunities to see moose and elk on a primitive path. It can be hiked about 1.6-miles round trip to the creek crossing or 6.6-miles round trip on a mostly backcountry route to the Poudre Trail.

To reach the trailhead, from Estes Park, take Hwy. 34 – the modern Fall River Road – west into the park. After passing the Sheep Lakes Information Station, turn right/northwest onto Old Fall River Road. If you’ve crossed Fall River, you’ve gone too far.

The paved Old Falls River Road eventually becomes a one-way, one-lane gravel road, though 2WD vehicles can handle it. With steep drop-offs, tight turns, and no guard rails, the speed limit is 15 mph. It typically is open only July through September.

To the meadow
About nine miles from the Hwy. 34 turnoff, the Chapin Creek Trailhead appears on the road’s right/north side. Park along the side of the road but be sure to allow enough room for vehicles to pass.

From Chapin Pass, at 11,202 feet, the trail briefly ascends a ridge then through towering evergreens heads down the side of Marmot Point, dropping a couple of hundred feet. Along the way, Chapin Creek rises out of the mountainside, as it begins its course into the valley cut by the creek. At spots where the creek widens, a meadow forms.

Once at the first meadow’s edge, start watching for elk and moose. The meadows along the creek are a favorite hangout for them, especially at dusk or during the rutting season.

About 0.8 miles in, the trail crosses to Chapin Creek’s west side, paralleling it the rest of the way. This marks a good spot for casual day hikers to turn back.

Following the creek
If continuing on, from there you’ll need to make regular use of your navigation skills, as the trail thins and sometimes disappears altogether as crossing downed trees. The key is to simply follow the creek; stay on the west side for drier slopes.

The scenery is magnificent. To the east is the Mummy Range, from which several streams flow into Chapin Creek. The first stream runs off the side of Mount Chapin, whose summit reaches 12,454 feet. A second stream comes off the side of Mount Chiquita, which tops out at 13,069 feet, and Ypsilon Mountain at 13,514 feet. A third stream tumbles down from the Desolation Peaks to the east whose two highest points are just under 13,000 feet. A fourth stream spills off the north side of Marmot Point, which peaks at 11,909 feet.

When the trail reaches the intersection of Chapin and Cache creeks, it crosses the latter and junctions with the Poudre River Trail. That route continues north along the Cache Poudre River, formed by the merging of the two creeks. This marks the second good spot to turn back.

As driving home, you must continue northwest on Old Fall River Road to the Alpine Visitor Center. From there, you can pick up Hwy. 34 and head back to Estes Park.

Learn more about the park's day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at Rocky Mountain National Park guidebook.