Alluvial Fan Trail (Rocky Mountain National Park, CO)

Mom and Jess at Horseshoe Falls, July 2013

Mom and Jess at Horseshoe Falls, July 2013

While the views of Horseshoe Falls and lower Fall River Valley are undoubtedly pleasant, perhaps the most intriguing part of this short hike is the story behind it: the gut-wrenching Lawn Lake flood of 1982. On a seemingly auspicious morning in July of that year, the 26-foot high earthen dam spanning the Roaring River several miles above failed, sending a wall of water rushing down toward Horseshoe Park. The water unleashed, in some places reaching 30 feet high, literally cast car-sized boulders, trees, and other debris down the mountain. The result, after the flood took the lives of three visitors and left parts of Estes Park soggy for weeks, was the deposit formation known today as the “Alluvial Fan.” The brief, family-friendly hike from East to West Alluvial Fan Parking Areas explores this unique historical and geological landmark.

Alluvial Fan snip

The hike

The entire Wojtanik family set out on this handicapped-accessible hike on a warm Monday morning in July. Starting from East Alluvial Fan Parking Area, however, we quickly found that slogging up this trail with a stroller is no easy task. Though paved, the trail almost immediately narrows as it winds up a series of reasonably steep grades before reaching the fan. Tree roots and erosion have noticeably chipped away at the asphalt. Fortunately, the 60 feet of elevation gain lasts only about a quarter mile, and the rest of the trail—beyond Horseshoe Falls—is quite level, and the pavement is better held together.

Also around a quarter mile in, the tall trees disappear, leaving only modest shrubs and an abundance of rocks. A mini-loop, very likely to be occupied by several visitors with camera in hand, provides a closer look at Horseshoe Falls, a reasonably impressive cascade in the open sun. Now racing between boulders cast down to this spot during the Lawn Lake flood, these falls assuredly looked quite different prior to 1982. Children will frequently climb along the Roaring River’s eastern banks to reach the top of the falls with relative ease.

Horseshoe Falls is really the only major point of interest for most visitors on this hike. But aspiring geologists with an affinity for sediments may enjoy examining the terrain as the trail crosses the river (more of a creek) and gradually descends to the West Alluvial Fan Parking Area. There are also some nice views of the Fall River Valley in this section.

Fall River Valley from near West Alluvial Fan Parking Area

Fall River Valley from near West Alluvial Fan Parking Area

Unless you have a ride waiting for you here, retrace your steps back to the East Alluvial Fan lot to retrieve your car. Allow ½ hour for a quick trip; more if you plan to explore Horseshoe Falls.

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