Rollins Pass

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Diverting from the Divide toward the Denver area, I seek a new route over the mountains.  Last year, I crossed the Front Range through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road.  Another option crosses further south at Loveland Pass above the Eisenhower Tunnel and I-70, while a third option crosses Georgia Pass and Kenosha Pass on the Colorado Trail from the Breckenridge area into Waterton Canyon, about 20 miles south of downtown Denver on the east side of the mountains.  Trail Ridge Road and Loveland Pass are both paved, while the Colorado Trail is mostly singletrack in this section, with some steep rocky pushes.  A final route crossing Rollins (Corona) Pass offers the most direct route and a pleasant ride on dirt roads over 11,666 ft.  A portion of the route follows an old railroad grade called the Moffat Route which is now partly maintained as a Forest Service road, but to the benefit of the hiker or cyclist the entire route isn’t passable by motorized vehicles due to the dilapidated and barricaded Needle’s Eye Tunnel, which limits traffic.  Several small rockfalls near the top of the east side further inhibit motor vehicle traffic.  Continuing in the spirit of the Great Divide Route, Rollins Pass is the perfect detour into the Denver/Boulder area.

From County Road 3 on the Great Divide Route south of Kremmling and the Williams Fork Reservoir, turn toward the east on Keyser Creek Rd/FR 139 (County Rd 32).  The Divide maps identify that this spur is the way to Winter Park (and Fraser), and from this intersection you are about 19 miles from the town of Fraser in the adjacent valley.  Climb away from the Divide on the main road for 8.6 miles until the intersection with the Beaver Creek Road at the top of the unsigned pass.  Several signs are missing along the way, however, selecting the more-traveled path will get you to the top.  Intersecting the signed Beaver Creek Road (County Rd 50), turn right toward Fraser and begin a fast ten mile descent to town.  At the intersection of paved Hwy 40, the main route in the valley, turn right onto the bike trail alongside the road for several miles to the town of WInter Park. Two miles further as the road begins climbing more moderately toward the ski resort, a sign will direct you to turn left onto the Rollins Pass Road or the Corona Pass or Moffat Hill Road– a road of many names, with a storied history.  From this point, the surface turns to dirt and climbs 14 miles to the pass, almost entirely through USFS property.  Turning onto this road at night, I ascend a thousand feet to a campsite overlooking the lights of Winter Park.  Amidst an old clearcut, I light a fire in an existing fire ring for some hot tea and ambiance.  Cool, clear Colorado skies send me to sleep.

Soon after entering the Arapahoe National Forest on County Rte. 3, turn left away from the Divide Route onto this road:

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Intersecting County Rte. 50/Beaver Creek Road, turn right down to Fraser:

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The west side of the pass is a little rough, but not atypical of USFS roads.  Sandwiched by wilderness to the north and south at the top of the pass, continue toward the east on the obvious railroad grade, barricaded and signed “Tunnel closed…”.  Several small rockfalls in the first mile are rideable, if a little rough.  Two wooden trestles are in good shape, and within a mile from the top of the pass the Needle’s Eye Tunnel is encountered as Yankee Doodle Lake is visible below on the left.  The tunnel is in disrepair and is impassible, although two short trails lead over or around the tunnel.  Riding over the top of the tunnel, I hike down the back side which is loose and steep, but passable.  Back on the main Rollinsville Road, continue downhill for about 15 miles, passing the east end of the railroad tunnel that replaced the overland route.  Unfortunately, the several thousand foot elevation loss is not a fast descent, as the road is impregnated with angular cobbles.  Picking your way through and around potholes and rocks is fun, although tiring.  In Rollinsville, intersect the Peak-to-Peak Highway: turn right for Arvada and Denver, turn left toward Nederland to descend into Boulder.  Riding north on pavement toward Nederland, turn right onto the unpaved Magnolia Road for a low-traffic alternate to Boulder Canyon and Boulder.  Continuing to Nederland, you can ride north on the Peak-to-Peak Highway toward Estes Park and Fort Collins, or down the paved Boulder Canyon Road into town.

Climbing out of the trees on the Moffat Hill Road/Rollins Pass/ Corona Pass Road, Winter Park is visible across the valley.  A consistent mild grade makes for a quick ride to the top.

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Expecting a rapid descent into Boulder, I quickly realized I’d be picking my way through rocks and riding the brakes.  Although this is an unimproved trail, this is the most inspiring “rail-trail” I’ve ridden.  With trestles and a tunnel, as well as some brief hikes, the ride over the pass makes for a fun day ride and a great way to connect the Divide with Denver.

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A local rider directs me to the lower portion of the Jenny Creek Trail which eventually connects to the town of Nederland.  Enticed by a sign marking the upper portion of the trail, I cut left in search of a nice forested descent.  Instead, I find slow-speed rock-crawling.  A highly specialized red Jeep admires the Pugsley, remarking that it seems like a good idea to have big tires.  City people don’t often understand, while rock-crawling country folk never try to highlight the shortcomings of fat tires.  They get it.

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At once, my saddlebag is hanging near my rear derailleur.  Replacing worn leather straps, two nylon gear straps are hiding in the bottom of my framebag for such an occasion.  The thin steel bag loops on most leather saddles places extreme stress on the straps used to support and stabilize the saddlebag.  These leather straps have attached the bag to the bike all summer, but failure due to the design of the bag loops is inevitable.  Spare straps are a necessity on a longer trip.

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Back on the Rollinsville Road, conditions are still a little rough.  Even on suspended motorbikes, standing helps alleviate the discomfort of angular cobbles.

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Descending into shade and smooth roads.  Finally able to let loose of the brakes, I pedal on to Rollinsville.

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I miss the turn for the Magnolia Road and find myself in Nederland, so a quick descent down Boulder Canyon shuttles me to the big city.  The first Friday night since students have returned to town ensures a vibrant scene downtown, and a lot of curiosity about the bike.  Downtown Boulder is a world away from Rollins Pass.

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Up and over in CO

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Some classic bike touring days; you don’t plan to be riding in a cut-off t-shirt at 12,000ft on the 2nd of October in Colorado. To experience days like this, you risk rain, snow, and freezing nights– with some luck, comes sunshine, 70 degrees, and brilliant foliage.

I left Boulder (5200 ft) with a riding companion– a cousin– who showed me a locals-only route up Boulder and Fourmile Canyons; Gold Hill Road, Sawmill Road, and a final mile up Lefthand Canyon to the town of Ward (9200 ft) and the secret roadie grocery. This mixed-terrain route is exactly what my bike does well, and delivered us to Ward with a minumum of bike traffic and rewarding views of peak-season foliage. In Colorado, fall foliage is no more than some yellow aspens, but their brilliance is stunning against blue skies and scrubby pines, and can be counted on seasonally.

In Ward, I washed down a cinnamon roll with a carton of whole milk. I now know why the legs of touring cyclists are unlike the legs of roadies– liters of whole milk and a seventy pound bike.

I followed the Peak-to-Peak Highway toward Estes Park (7500 ft) descending into this bustling tourist town at the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park. Mating elk disturbed my sleep through the night; at this time of year, the meadows of RMNP are like a cheap motel with hourly rates.

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Trail Ridge Road was built to shuttle motor vehicles up into the alpine tundra, which begins at about 11,400 ft. The road replaces the first route designed for motor vehicles in the park– Fall River Road (still unpaved and closed to cyclists in season, come on NPS!)– and in doing so, climbs up into the tundra at greater heights, with a gentler climb, and offering greater (more broad, and far off) scenery. Trail Ridge is the highest continuous, or “through” road in the US. I was disappointed that no marker existed at the road’s peak elevation of 12,183 ft. I was actually going to have a picture taken. It wasn’t meant to be; but it was snowing, to my delight.

Four-thousand foot descents are fun.
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West above prisoned eyes

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Two thousand miles and 5000ft from my hometown in New York, the “Rockies” are every bit of splendor imagined. Composed of many narrow ranges, conglomerated into a whole– from a distance they become one. The silhouette, the names of places, the arid valleys and basins; all are iconic, and American as Kansas.

Boulder, and Denver and Fort Collins are all myths come to light. These are real places after all; I’ll no longer wonder how a city differs at a mile-high (it doesn’t), or how a city can be home to so many breweries (Ft. Collins, somehow), or why everyone loves to hate Boulder (because it’s great). Putting faces to names, I’m solving the Colorado puzzle. I’m looking forward to solving the westslope soon, back on the Divide.

I don’t think that Denver needs any more millions of easterners, but towns in decline and tollways and beltways make Colorado seem easy. There’s still lots of space here, and the air and water is clean. Who’s to blame for the Chesapeake and the Everglades?; if Colorado’d had east-coast industries and millions of people a hundred years ago I’d be telling you about the prettiest Superfund site in the country. In some cases, mining has made quick work of what easterners took decades to do.

With circumstance and luck, the people came later and some hard lessons had already been learned in the east. By the time the modern population boom
hit Colorado, Aldo Leopold and John Muir were resting below ground, and on bookshelves countrywide. And by that time we’d learned to appreciate inhospitable, rocky landscapes for their ecological and aesthetic value; or their property value.

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