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Rollins Pass 4x4 Trail - Colorado

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on September 27, 2006
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Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the New World, American Indians had, for centuries, established migration routes across the Continental Divide of North America. One of these such routes, located high in the Rocky Mountains in north-central Colorado, was subsequently used by white explorers and dubbed "Corona Pass" ("corona" means "crown" in Spanish). Throughout the years, the route was also called Boulder Pass, but today it is best known as Rollins Pass.

In 1873, before Colorado was a state, a man named John Rollins finished building a wagon road over the pass and it was renamed in his honor. Much of that original road still exists. Some of it can be driven in a vehicle, but the passage over the top is locked away behind the gates of a Wilderness area and hiking shoes are required to follow it.

As rails for the iron horse began pushing into the Rocky Mountains, a Denver banker named David Moffat set his sights on Rollins Pass as the route for his Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway. He envisioned this railway reaching all the way to the West Coast, but the Continental Divide was a formidable obstacle. Although Moffat had always thought that a tunnel would be the best approach, he decided it would be faster and cheaper to lay tracks over the top. The first train topped Rollins Pass in September of 1904.

The railway over Rollins Pass, though a significant engineering accomplishment, was not the greatest of plans. Even it's builder, David Moffat, admitted it was nothing more than a temporary solution until funds could be raised to build a tunnel through the mountain. Rollins Pass is a very windy and cold place. Blizzards are frequent during the winter with winds approaching 100 mph, and thunderstorms are numerous during the summer. At the top of the pass, the entire railway was enclosed in narrow wooden snow tunnels where smoke and soot built up to the point that passengers and workers passed out. The decaying remains of those massive snow tunnels still lie beside the road today.

Just building the railway was an enormous task in itself - thirty-three tunnels had to be dug. In order to maintain a grade of less than 4 percent, valleys had to be filled in, trestles had to be built, and hills had to be flattened. Even with all that work, it took the builders only two years to complete the construction of the railway from Denver to Winter Park, Colorado.

Rifle Sight Notch tunnel was directly behind the Blazer.

Another problem was keeping the trains on the track. Apparently the braking systems on those old locomotives had a lot of room for improvement. There are still scattered remains of the ones that lost control and jumped the tracks. Of course, there was also the ever-present danger of forest fires. The huffing, puffing locomotives discharged a lot of soot; that soot was hot and could easily start a fire, so brush had to be continually cleared from near the tracks.

At the summit of the pass was Corona Station and Hotel, accompanied by another restaurant-hotel. The concrete foundations are still there, but everything else is gone. The cable supports alongside the foundations were used to keep the roofs from blowing off during the days when wind speeds exceeded 80 mph. The tracks at the station were covered by huge showsheds that are best described as wooden tunnels. Access from the train into the buildings was by way of more wooden tunnels built from door to door. The train stopped inside a tunnel and passengers walked through another wooden tunnel to reach the station. During winter months, the wooden tunnels, the hotel, and most everything else at the summit of Rollins Pass were buried under 30 feet of snow. The wooden tunnels only existed at the summit, so special engines were outfitted with huge rotary snowplows to run ahead of trains and clear the tracks in both directions.

The rails over the Rollins Pass route were used until the 6-mile-long Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1928. Although David Moffat never lived to see the completion of the tunnel and the problems associated with traversing the pass solved, Moffat Tunnel is still being used today, almost 100 years later, to transport passengers from the east side of the divide to the west.

Today, the Rollins Pass route is like Disneyland for a railroad buff, especially one who is healthy enough to do some hiking and climbing. The current vehicle road uses most of the original railway; on the other hand, for those who know where to look, the real treasures are along sections that remain hidden far away from the untrained eye. Tunnels, water towers, bridges, trestles, and much more are at the ends of long switchback routes that the new road bypasses. Of course, the tunnels are collapsed, the water towers are nothing more than scattered piles of lumber, and the amazing railway bed is overgrown with trees, but with a little imagination and some close observations, it is not difficult to put the pieces together mentally.

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A trestle near Rifle Sight Notch

Of the 33 tunnels built for this railway, the most famous was called the Needle's Eye. It's not really much of a tunnel and not much longer than a single locomotive; however, it stands out on a mountain cliff high above the valley below. The view from either end of the tunnel can only be described as nothing short of spectacular.

Long after the last train passed through it, the Needle's Eye Tunnel became the focus of much attention and many thousands of dollars. The railway through it officially became a vehicle road in 1956. The tunnel collapsed in 1979, closing the only vehicle route across the Continental Divide for many miles in either direction. The Needle's Eye was reopened in 1988 through funds obtained by the Rollins Pass Restoration Association. Apparently, the organization contracted the wrong company to do the work because the tunnel caved in again just two years later, injuring a traveler in the process.

A view of the ski slopes at Winter Park from Rifle Sight Notch.

The easiest way to visit Rollins Pass is from the Winter Park side. The roadway is graded and somewhat maintained all the way to the pass where the station once stood. From that point, a short rocky road requiring a vehicle with high clearance leads to within a few steps of the Needle's Eye Tunnel. The original wagon road and the railway also connect near that point. Both ends of the tunnel are blocked with huge concrete barriers to prevent curious travelers from entering.

Winter Park is best known as a winter playground. The ski train from Denver to Winter Park passes through the Moffat Tunnel, taking skiers to the resort without them having to deal with the slippery winter roads. Of course, Rollins Pass is not accessible during the winter, so if that is the planned destination, the journey will need to be made in August or September.

The Trooper is parked in position as if it had just exited the tunnel that passed under the trestle high above. The tunnel and trestle enabled the track to maintain a 4-percent grade by forming a loop.

During the summer, Winter Park is best known for its many festivals and is a destination for mountain bikers, hikers, and backpackers. The cool mountain air attracts a wide range of travelers.

The road over Rollins Pass is well marked and begins between Mile Posts 231 and 232 off Highway 40. From this point, the original railroad turned toward Fraser. About a quarter-mile south of that point is a turnout and overlook for the Moffat Tunnel designated as West Portal.

Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
0.0 39 53.{{{850}}} 105 46.150

Turn off Highway 40 north of Mile Post 232. The road is graded and in very good condition and continues to be suitable for passenger cars all the way to Corona Station.

The trestle at Rifle Sight Notch

2.8 miles - The original plan for a tunnel through the mountain was only 2.6 miles long, and this location would have been West Portal. That tunnel never got past the planning stages, however.

This area was called Pacific Siding and it served as the end of the track for two years after the track was laid over Rollins Pass. You may notice a marker on the side of the road with the number 25. A Rollins Pass guide, made available through the cooperation of the Historical Association and the Forest Service, is available in Winter Park. That guide uses the numbered posts as stopping points and also has some great photos in it.

Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
3.6 39 54.{{{900}}} 105 46.583

Follow FSR-149 through the intersection.The town of Arrow was located in this area. There is available parking but the land is private, so be sure to obey any postings. Arrow was the town serving "End of Track" for a while, then it became a stopping point when the track moved on. When the railway over Rollins Pass was closed, the town closed too. Nothing but foundations remains.

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A telegraph line once crossed Rollins Pass; these remaining poles mark the way.

6.6 miles - This point was called Forest Spur. It was a section of track that worked much the same way as the driveway of a home. It allowed for parking off the main track so others could get by. A short distance past Forest Spur was Morgan Spur, which was used for access to maintenance shops back in the forest.

7.2 miles - It will take getting out of the car and looking around to figure this section out. It was a turnaround point for snowplows called Ranch Creek Wye. The remains of a trestle can be found at the point where the road turns.

Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
8.5 39 54.800 105 43.417
Follow the switchback bypass route.
9.5 39 54.117 105 43.033
The Needle's Eye Tunnel from the west side. Concrete barriers have been constructed to keep curious travelers out of the tunnel.

The road on the left with post #19 provides access to trainwreck sites.

The track route is impassable from this point to the opposite side of Rifle Sight Notch, so a bypass route has been constructed. It connects back to the original route 1.6 miles ahead. Walking along the original route is especially interesting since it passes some of those trainwreck locations. The access road listed above will get you closer to the wreck site without walking the entire closed section. The hike is on a 4-percent grade, so the walk is not too strenuous unless you have trouble with thin mountain air. The elevation is about 11,000 feet.

Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
10.2 39 53.917 105 42.533

Loop Tunnel is on the left.The Rifle Sight Trestle and Tunnel were quite a sight. The tunnel has caved in. It was constructed to pass under the trestle. In order to maintain a grade not to exceed 4 percent, the builders constructed a loop. Going in this direction, the train would pass through the tunnel, then circle the mountain while continuing to climb, then pass over the tunnel.

This is a distant view of the Needle's Eye Tunnel taken from the east side near Yankee Doodle Lake.

From Rifle Sight Notch Trestle, the route climbs above the timberline and arrives at the location where the Corona Station once stood. The road continuing to Needle's Eye is about 1.5 miles and is best done in a high-clearance vehicle. The summit of the pass is also on that road and is marked with an elevation of 11,660 feet.

The Devil's Slide Trestles are a short distance from the point where the wagon route and the train route connect. They are still in pretty good condition.

The only way to get to the east side from the west side (legally) is on foot. We have done this many times just for the scenic views. Our most common approach to the east side, however, is from Rollinsville, which is on Highway 119 north of the Black Hawk Casinos. Rollinsville is not very big, so don't blink your eyes or you might miss County Road 16 branching off to the west.

There are two trestles making up Devils Slide. They were built on the edge of the cliff and seem to be clinging to the wall over open air.
Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
0.0 39 55.041 105 30.151

Turn west on County Road 16, also marked as 149.

Road 16 leaves Rollinsville heading west along the floor of the valley on a direct path aimed at the Continental Divide. If you look ahead, you might be able to pick out the three layers of track that were cut into the mountainside, also known as Giant's Ladder.

3.9 miles - There is not much left in the town of Tolland, although it is still occupied. At one time, it was the first tourist stop for the train after leaving Denver. There were numerous shops and restaurants with a wide range of outdoor activities.

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Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
7.1 (0.0) 39 54.317 105 37.833

East Portal is on the left and worth stopping for. After looking it over, come back to this location and reset your Trip Meter.

Moffat Tunnel is 6 miles long and is purported to be the second longest tunnel in the U.S. Before it went into operation, the average trip over Rollins Pass to Winter Park in a train was just under three hours, depending on the weather. That same trip can now be done in less than 15 minutes.

Construction of the tunnel cost 18 million dollars back in 1927 when even 1 million was an unimaginable amount of money for most people. At least 19 people died while working on the project. The tunnel was officially opened for business on February 28, 1928. It is best known today for the ski trains running through it from Denver to Winter Park.

Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
2.3 39 55.{{{100}}} 105 35.800
Rifle Sight Notch Trestle

There is a hiking trail here along the original rail bed.

The hiking trail going off to the right from this switchback leads to the site of a fallen square water tower and another collapsed tunnel. This is also near the point where the proposed 2.6-mile tunnel would have been. The idea was abandoned in favor of building the road over the top.

4.3 miles - In the valley below, a town called Ladora served as a home to railroad crews and lumberjacks.

Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
5.3 39 55.333 105 36.867

Stay to the left on the main road. On the right is Jenny Creek 502.

The Jenny Creek route is the original wagon road and is very difficult. Four-wheel drive is a must, and a winch may be handy for getting over at least one obstacle. This route follows Jenny Creek up the valley and connects back to the main road at Yankee Doodle Lake.

East Portal.

5.8 miles - Along this stretch of the railway, another train jumped the tracks and landed in the valley below. We did not find any remnants of the wreckage.

7.5 miles - This was the turnaround point for the snowplows used to clear the tracks. A snowplow consisted of a huge rotary blade mounted to a railcar and was pushed along the track by a locomotive. There are still scattered remains of the snowshed used to keep the turnaround clear of snow and remains of a building used as a telegraph office and shelter for workers.

Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
9.1 39 56.250 105 39.150

Yankee Doodle Lake (10,711 ft.).

The Jenny Creek Trail connects back to the main road at this point, then branches back to the right and continues across the valley on its own course toward Rollins Pass. That part of the wagon road was gobbled up by the Wilderness and is closed to vehicles.

Yankee Doodle Lake is the most popular spot along either side of Rollins Pass due to its scenic beauty, primitive camping spots, and fishing. The next lakes on the way to Needle's Eye are Dixie Lakes and were used as a source of water for the locomotives.

The Jenny Creek Road follows the original wagon road.
Trip Meter Latitude Position N Longitude Position W
11.8 39 56.933 105 40.250

The end of the road at Needle's Eye Tunnel

The last mile of the road is rocky and requires high clearance. Parking is limited at the end, and turning around can be a challenge if there are too many vehicles up there. It is a short hike to the tunnel.

Larry E. Heck is the author of numerous guidebooks, including the seventh volume of the Adventures of Pass Patrol series, which contains the Rollins Pass story and many others. The volume is also available as a DVD. In addition to books and videos, Larry also offers guided trips each year. For more information, call OutbackUSA at (303) 910-7647 or check out the website at Don't forget to check out the section called "Campfire Tales," which has stories dating as far back as 1993.

PhotosView Slideshow

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