Rollins Pass unveiled
Rollins Pass is located on the Moffat Line of the ex Denver & Rio Grande Western west of Denver. It used to be the connction between what now is East Portal and Winter Park, before Moffat Tunnel was built. It is definetly not the most visited place on the Rio Grande system and probably a lot of people do not even know it exists. Here the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific used to climb to an elevation of 11660ft to cross the Continental Divide which was anything but easy. During the harsh winters there were numerous snow drifts, avalanches, railjoints breaking open and derailments. The steam rotary was a common feature to keep the pass open. No wonder not too many railroaders cried a tear when the Moffat Tunnel was opened in 1928 and the rails were taken off the pass.
Ever since of that the Pass has become something of a secret, an obscure little road about which little is known and which has seen little traffic for the last 70 years. Even though it is still marked on nearly all major road maps as a passable through road in fact it is not.
But it is definetly worth a visit and if you have a taste for adventure and able to stand the thin air at high altitude you might like to give it a try. You can go up by car (about 3/4 of the way) or cross it by mountain bike or on foot. I have done all three on my visits to the pass and have been up from both sides.
Please look also at the Mile By Mile Guide on this page. And now: How to conquer Rollins Pass.
The history of Rollins Pass begins in 1865, when J.A. Rollins built a toll road for wagons to cross the great divide. About success or failure of this road little is known, but it seems almost certain, that the road was not operated year round.
In 1882 the Denver Utah & Pacific Railroad started construction on what was intended as a route similar to that of the DN&P about 20 years later. Even today traces can be found in South Boulder Canyon where rocks where blasted away and a roadbed was constructed. A crossing of Rollins Pass was not intended, instead the line would enter a tunnel at Yankee Doodle Lake to proceed to the next valley in the North and from there cross the "Continental Divide" by means of another tunnel. Construction work on that tunnel started but the tunnel was never completed. Today you can find remains from the excavation work at Yankee Doodle Lake, or to be more precise IN the lake. The entire project was cancelled due to lack of money.
The plans of the surveys were first sold to the Burlington and later to the Denver Northwestern and Pacific, the Moffat Road.
The Moffat Road really built the line due to a lack of money for a tunnel (like todays Moffat Tunnel). It was planned to build the tunnel as soon as money was earned by running the line. Plans called for a tunnel at MP 52.50. Since it was estimated that the Pass would only be "necessary" for about three years it was built as cheaply as possible, using 4% grades and high trestles instead of tunnels, iron bridges or fills. To complete the line as quickly as possible work continued through the winter of 1903/1904, a gruesome thought. Even at increased wages of 3.43 Dollars per day (instead of 2 Dollars) it was hard to find workers for the project.
When completed, maintainance of the line and keeping it open took away more than 41 percent of all revenues gained on the Moffat Road. This was far too much for the railroad and eventally it went bankrupt. At some point evry train had to be preceeded by a steam rotary between October and Mai. The stiff grades were cause to several runaways and the debris of locomotives and cars is scattered all over the mountainsides even today.
Twenty Five years after opening the pass the Moffat Tunnel was finally completed, built by the State for a bankrupt railroad. Rollins was just left in place as a backup and even used once, when some timber lining fell in Moffat Tunnel. That was on Juli 8th 1928 - the same day a fire started at Corona damaging the hotel badly.
On May 14th 1935 the ICC approved dismantling the pass and on July 18th trucks appeared to take off the rails. The line was in too poor a shape to allow a train to dismantle it. The right of way was handed over to the Forrest Service who transformed it into an auto road. However when Needles Eye Tunnel caved in the road was interrupted - and despite two efforts to restore the tunnel has continued to be so.
YOU will find a Mile by Mile guide on this site in the prototype section.
Still I recommend to buy the "Self Drive Booklet" either at the store in Rollinsville or at the Chamber of Commerce in Winter Park. The book contains a map and a mile by mile guide plus photos to compare to todays pass. At this point it shall be mentioned that the adress inside of the Friends Of Moffat should be worth a small donation to the society, as they have done a fine job in keeping the pass passable at all.
If you want to drive up Rollins Pass you need strong nerves and a good car, if possible a four wheel drive. As you can see it is possible with a van but in any case you should not go up alone as in case of a breakdown you will be very lonely for a very long time. Be sure to be down off the pass when it gets dark as the night is very cold and the road impossible to drive in the dark.
The road conditions can be described as rocky in the best places and a good look on the side especially when you have to drive close to the edge is always a good idea as the sides may be soggy in some places. If you are not in a four wheel drive vehicle with high clearance take somebody with you who will occasionally have to direct you around rocks lying on the road.
The road is maintained by "the friends of the Moffat Road". A venture which made one railroad bancrupt three times of course cannot procuce a perfect road by a group of volunteers. There are occasional signs to points of interest and numerous "Dip" signs, which I found quite sweet considering the state of the road. At some points there are even speed limit signs, for the average tourist something to make you smile rather than even dream of driving those speeds. At least somebody was there and posted that sign which is a comforting thought.
Going up to the pass there are two alternatives:
From the East drive from Denver via a beautiful scenic road to Rollinsville. There follow the signs to Moffat Tunnel until shortly before reaching the tunnel there is a fork in the road with a sign to Rollins Pass. If you thought the last mile was bad, think again. Here starts the rocky right of way which was once the trackbed for the Denver & Salt Lake. You will be rewarded with breathtaking scenery. All that is left of the railroad here are occasional ties lying on the side below. Even though the distance from Moffat Tunnel to the summit is only about twelve miles it will take you slightly more than one hour to get to a place called Yankee Doodle Lake, the place of the horseshoe curve. here is a little something to smile about again: A sign prohibiting the use of motorboats. The lake is tiny and remote. From here you can either walk straight up to Jenny Lake and from there again to the trackbed to Corona or continue with the car for about another mile and a half. Here you will find a place to park the car and a Trailhead for some trails.
From here you can continue on foot up the long straight to Needles Eye Tunnel. Do not climb into the tunnel, somebody died here from falling rock. There is a trail over the top of the tunnel past some remains of houses to the other side. From here you have a magnificent view down to Yankee Doodle Lake. Continue the parallel trail (parallel to the old right of way) and be sure to make a small detour down to the Devils Slide Trestles but do not walk on them. They are unstable.
After a relatively level while you will reach the site of Corona where you can see the foundations of the hotel and the roof.
Hooray, you made it. Be aware that you are at high altitude her, air is thin. Take something to drink and some warm clothing and good shoewear.
For a walk from Car - Corona - Car (from the trailhead) you should count at least 2 1/2 hours.
From the West the road conditions are better. The road leads past the old townsight of Arrowhead and eventually ends at Rifle Sight Notch loop and tunnel. The tunnel is caved in but the trestle is a marvellous sight. You can park your car below the trestle and continue on foot up to the pass.
I have been up the Pass three times now, from both sides. Going by car is only possible in July or August. Mountain Bike is also possible you can rent bikes at Winter Park. In June 1998 there were still snow patches so I went up on foot. I started at Ladora (near East Portal) around 9.00 and was at Corona around 15.00. I used a GPS receiver to go down through the forrest and managed to get back to the car at 18.00.
The West side is easier. Good shoes are a must. Look for a blue sky day and if it gets cloudy return home. Take some warm clothes, just in case and som water to drink.
And dont miss your camera - this is really a beautiful place.
Last Update: Mar 1st 2008
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