Traffic as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t prepared for this. I expected traffic in Washington, DC, but not on I-70 in rural Colorado. Nevertheless, a line of cars and trucks were bumper to bumper east bound all the way up to the Eisenhower Tunnel.
A Shortcut Gone Wrong
Our 4-hour drive from Grand Junction to Boulder had turned into a much longer odyssey. Desperate to escape this gridlock, I consulted the Colorado map. The paper kind, not the smart phone kind.
I saw a thin, gray line connecting the town of Winter Park to the town of Rollinsville. From there, it looked like a relatively easy drive into Boulder via Highway 119.
As we exited the tunnel descending down in altitude, I barked directions to Bryon.
“Get off at Empire, Highway 40. It looks like there’s a road we can take through the mountains that will be a short cut.”
As we drove over Berthoud Pass, we marveled at the scenery of the mountains stretching in all directions. Colorado appeared to be every bit as beautiful as we had heard.
As we got closer to the town of Winter Park, I looked for the sign indicating our “short cut.”
“There it is, take a right here.”
We headed up a dirt road. As we continued, the road progressively got bumpier. I worried that our little Mazda hatchback would bottom out. Was this the right road?
A Maze of Roads
We kept coming to intersections, where one road went right, one left. There were no signs to indicate which way we should go.
After ten more minutes of driving, I knew we we had made a grave mistake. A bright orange sign by the side of the road clued me in.
“Road closed nine miles ahead.”
I sighed. We turned around and headed back to Winter Park, ultimately driving back to I-70.
As I learned over the years since, we are not the first, nor we will be the last, to make the mistake of thinking we could drive over Rollins Pass as a short cut from the one side of the Continental Divide to the other.
A Second Journey to Rollins Pass
This past weekend, we finally made it to Rollins Pass from Winter Park. Both our car and our expectations were vastly different from the fateful day so many years ago. This time we knew the road ended at the pass, and we drove our trusty all-wheel drive Subaru Forester for the rough road.
Finding the road is not so difficult. Shortly after passing by Winter Park Ski Resort, a sign indicates the road as Corona Pass. It is helpful to have a more detailed map or Gazetteer to help you know which way to turn at the first few intersections. The road is bumpy with an occasional ditch to drive through, but is perfectly doable in a 4-wheel drive with high clearance. We had no problem with our Forester, and saw several other SUVs as well as pick-ups on the road. I would not recommend it for a 2-wheel drive with lower clearance.
As you climb the road, pines and firs line both sides of the roads. Your first clue to the road’s past history as a railroad comes about nine miles up, when you encounter a large wooden trestle bridge. You can take photos, but cannot walk on this particular trestle due its state of decay.
Views and History
About a mile after that, you rise above timberline and cross the tundra. Views abound from all sides, including the high peaks of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, the ski trails of Winter Park, and even the plains way off in the distance.
As you near the crest, you’ll see a large parking area near the sign denoting Rollins Pass. There’s plenty of room to park and take a stroll from here. Colorado’s Continental Divide Trail crosses through here going north and south. Or better yet, continue on the old railroad grade going east.
Here you will walk the old trestles, and see the remains of the wooden snow sheds built to protect the trains from snow slides. If you are inspired to walk at least two miles, you’ll encounter the remains of the old Needle’s Eye Tunnel. Railroad workers blasted out the granite to create the tunnel which the trains went through. After the railroad closed, cars drove the old road through the tunnel until it collapsed in the early 1990s.
Today, you can’t go all the way through the tunnel, but you can explore the remains and hike over the top.
Rollins Pass serves as an interesting Colorado history lesson on its railroads, as well as an amazingly scenic destination for 4-wheel drive enthusiasts.