Live, Play, Travel

How not to ride Rollins Pass

July 21, 2015


There are a couple ways to get from Boulder to Winter Park. The usual route is to drive I-70 to the town of Empire and then go over twisty Berthoud Pass. This is the fast, easy way to get there. During the summer you have the option of driving Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park and then taking the highway down from Grand Lake. This will use up a lot more of your time but it takes you right through the heart of a national park, and that definitely counts for something.

And then there’s Rollins Pass which, depending on your perspective, is either the hard route, the scenic route, or the best route.

Rollins Pass traverses 35 bumpy miles up and over the Continental Divide between the towns of Rollinsville and Winter Park. Were it not for a tunnel near the top of the pass that is sealed up and a couple railroad trestles that can no longer support the weight of a vehicle, cars would still be able to drive the road in it’s entirety. These days, if you want to see all of Rollins Pass, you’re going to have to burn calories, not fuel, to do it.

Rollins Pass has been on my bucket list for a long time. This is partially because we spend a lot of time in Winter Park and riding to it instead of in it had a certain appeal. But mostly it was because of the trestles.

A hundred years or so ago, Rollins Pass was home to the Denver and Salt Lake Railway. The old route was abandoned in 1928 when a tunnel was blasted through the mountain and the Moffat Tunnel was born. Many of the old railroad trestles fell in to disrepair but some are rideable today. When you do Rollins Pass the right way, you ride over things that look like this.

Those trestles are the main reason I wanted to do this ride.

Late last week we found ourselves with a rare free weekend ahead of us. We decided to head to Winter Park to spend the weekend camping, hanging out, and soaking up summer mountain goodness. I had been wanting to ride Rollins Pass for a while but due to the logistics involved I hadn’t gotten around to it (I have the legs to ride to Winter Park, but not to get all the way back home). When I realized that this may be my opportunity for a shuttle, I knew I had to seize it.

I’ll meet you guys out there, I said to the husband and kid. It’s time to scratch another item off the bucket list.

The ride up the road toward the top of the pass isn’t super hard. The route climbs 3,000 feet in around 15 miles but it’s never very steep. It’s just bumpy. As I set off up the road the sun was shining and the humming birds were buzzing around over head. The four-wheelers were friendly when they passed me and only kicked up a little dust. I was on my bike, with visions of railroad trestles dancing in my head. Life was looking good.

After 15 miles or so you reach the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, which is the first obstacle that keeps cars from driving all the way to Winter Park. The tunnel is closed to vehicles but a steep hiker trail goes up and over it. Hike-a-bikes are not my favorite thing (are hike-a-bikes anyone’s favorite thing?) but the section was short and the views were stellar. And I knew that the trestles lay just ahead.

I dropped down from the hike-a-bike section on the other side of the tunnel and continued up what I thought was the road. I noticed a turn off to my right but didn’t think much of it. I was sure I was on the right path. As the road I was on got worse, I found myself hiking again. I don’t remember reading about two hiking sections, I thought. But I trudged on anyway, thinking that maybe I was just in piss poor shape and everyone else makes easy work of this section of road.

Eventually I reached the 11,000-foot summit of Rollins Pass itself. When I saw a couple pickup trucks coming up from the other side, I started to have my doubts. How could those cars get up here and over the trestles? That’s not possible. I considered retracing my steps and taking a different road but knew that my family would be waiting for me in Winter Park and that the price for rolling in later than expected would be having to ride all the way to our campsite.

I reassessed my goals and reminded myself that Goal#1, all along, was to arrive in Winter Park in one piece. Goal #2 was to ride the trestles. I pushed on down the road.

I did pass a few trestles on the way but none of them were anything that could be ridden. A few days later I pulled up Google Earth and clearly saw where I went wrong. That nasty hike-a-bike that I didn’t know was part of the ride? It’s not. While I was sweating and cursing my way up the hill, the road I was supposed to be on was just out of sight on the hillside below me.

It wasn’t all a bust. I still got in 35 high altitude miles and a good bit of climbing. I got to ride my bike above treeline and chat with friendly (if not somewhat incredulous) ATV drivers (You RODE all the way up here? You must have good legs …”). And I still got to stuff my face with burritos and bourbon and go camping with my family and friends when the day was done.

And now I have an excuse to go back and do it again.

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