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Rollins Pass - Better Than Disneyland, For A Railroad Buff

Trails Of The Iron Horse

Larry E. HeckPhotographer, Writer

No one seems to know what the Indians called Rollins Pass, but they used it frequently in the early years when mankind traveled across the Great Divide. Spanish explorers called it Corona Pass, meaning "Crown." For a while, it was called Boulder Pass. When Colorado became a state in 1876, John Rollins had already constructed a wagon road over the top. From that time on, it was known as Rollins Pass.

Parts of the original wagon road still exist, but most of it is locked away behind the gates of a federal Wilderness area to keep old folks like me out. Don't let anyone tell you Wilderness areas are roadless. Rollins built his road in 1873 and it was used until the gates went up. The railroad took a higher path than the wagon road, so another way to see the original route across the Great Divide is with binoculars while standing on the rail bed at Needle's Eye.

The first railroads in the United States were on the East Coast. Every year, the end of the tracks reached farther west. When the iron horse began pushing into the Rocky Mountains, a man named David Moffit picked Rollins Pass to cross the Continental Divide. His first train topped Rollins Pass in September of 1904.

Today, the Rollins Pass route is better than Disneyland for a railroad buff. Especially one that 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.

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. In fact, one must wonder why the builders bothered with a tunnel when they could have simply chopped that part of the mountain away like they did in so many other locations. The view from either end of the tunnel can be described as nothing less than spectacular.

Long after the last train passed through it, the Needle's Eye Tunnel became the focus of lots of attention and many thousands of dollars. The railway through it officially became a vehicle road in 1956. The tunnel first 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 1987 using funds obtained by the Rollins Pass Restoration Association. Apparently, they contracted the wrong company to do the work. The tunnel caved in again just three years later injuring a traveler in the process.

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. Winds at the pass frequently exceed 100 mph.

The tracks over the pass and at the station were covered by huge show sheds that are best described as wooden tunnels. Smoke and soot built up inside the sheds to the point that passengers and workers passed out. The decaying remains of those massive snow tunnels still lie beside the road today.

Access from the train into the buildings was by way of more snow sheds built from door to door. The train stopped inside the snow shed shielding the tracks and passengers walked through another snow shed to reach the station. During winter months, the snow sheds, the buildings, and most everything else at the summit of Rollins Pass could be buried under 30 feet of snow. Special engines were outfitted with huge rotary snowplows to run ahead of trains and clear the tracks in both directions.

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 section of the original wagon road requiring a vehicle with high clearance leads to within a short hike to the Needle's Eye tunnel.

The road to Rollins Pass is well marked and begins between mile posts 231 and 232 off Highway 40 south of downtown Winter Park. An informative guide to the Rollins Pass route has been made available by the National Forest and can be found on line at http://www.phantomranch.net/ghostown/articles/moffatroad.htm. We highly recommend you spend some time reading it before visiting Rollins Pass.


Trip Meter - Latitude (N) - Longitude (W) - Comments

0.0 - N39 53.2530 - W105 45.6465 - Scenic overlook for West Portal. This is the west end of the Moffit Tunnel. Fromhere, go north on Hwy 40 about four-fifths of a mile.
0.8 - N39 53.8600 - W105 46.1608 - Turn right off Highway 40 onto grand county 80. This is north of mile post 232. reset trip meter.

3.6 - N39 54.9539 - W105 45.4713 - Continue straight on FSr 149 at this intersection.
8.3 - N39 54.7937 - W105 43.4494 - The road makes a switchback but the track goes straight and is blocked off with a gate.
9.9 - N39 53.8991 - W105 42.5732 - Rifle Notch. The tunnel came out of the wall ahead. It circled around and passedover the trestle above the tunnel.
10.3 - N39 53.9324 - W105 42.4709 - Top of Rifle Notch Trestle.
13.3 - N39 55.9590 - W105 40.9951 - Turn right for Needle's Eye. Straight is corona Station.
15.0 - N39 56.2890 - W105 39.5393 - End of road at Needle's Eye.