Biking Rollins Pass, Epic, Historical and Unforgettable

By Bill Plock

Biking over Rollins Pass was Epic, but far from historical. For thousands of years, people have been traversing Rollins Pass. Native American hunting parties even built rock walls in the scree near the top to funnel game long before the first horse-drawn wagons paid a toll to cross the Continental Divide in the 1870s. In 1904 trains began to make the arduous trip passing through tunnels, twisting like a corkscrew and making their way to the top at 11,600 feet. The road grade had to be kept at less than 4% to make it possible, but the biggest challenges came in the Winter when massive snow drifts would make it impassable. 

On our bike ride we learned all about those drifts, but back in the day, particularly on the West side of the pass, huge snow sheds, miles long, were built in an attempt to keep the tracks clear. In fact, near the top, above the tree line, a small village named Corona (ironically) sprouted from the harsh landscape and housed stranded train crews and service personnel to provide a brief respite from the bitter conditions. 

Old Timbers from the “town” of Corona

Gazing at that once-used timber still cluttering the landscape on our ride made me long for its protection as we crossed the continental divide barely beating the sun dipping under the horizon. The long summer twilight lit our way most of the way down to highway 40. I imagined what it must’ve been like somewhere around 1920 emerging from a long trip from Denver to play in the summer snow and take a snort from the lodge that once stood. Back then tourists would escape the summer heat by playing in the advertised “arctic in July” which was the playground we know as Rollins Pass.

Store in Ward

We had been on our playground for about 13 hours when we arrived at the Summit. We left Longmont at 7 am and rode up Left Hand Canyon to Ward, rich in its own mining history, now home to an eclectic mix of residents some of who came from California in the late 60’s fearful of the “big quake”. One must wonder if some of those cars parked along the road got them here and never started again. 

Sporting some Eleven Pine bike shorts after lunch

After a lengthy, most enjoyable lunch in Nederland, a town with an interesting vibe as almost a suburb of Boulder (about 20 miles away) with notable ex-pro cyclists and Olympians living there among those with a lifestyle rooted in the outdoors, music and arts. The notable Nedfest Festival and Frozen Dead Guy Days attract a wide variety of artists and followers and it feels like a festival is about to break out every time I’m there. People just seem to want to hang out after playing in the mountains.  

Kenny, Matt, Bill, Courtney, LJ

But for us, and many times on this journey, the song Ramble On by Led Zeppelin crept into my head often as a tribute to another group of adventurers seeking more than a treasure—perhaps an understanding of themselves as they encountered perils and people of all descriptions. Was this us? A group of five similar but very different people came together in this perfect adventure of known and yet unknown. Maybe looking for a treasure like the Hobbits? Looking for an answer to the mysteries of an ancient ring drawn by Mt. Doom?  Looking for our own mysteries and answers?

In my head were the lyrics as we rolled toward Rollinsville where a new adventure would begin:

Got no time for spreadin’ roots

The time has come to be gone

And through our health, we drank a thousand times

It’s time to ramble on

A couple of miles west of Rollinsville

In Rollinsville, we left the pavement for good. By then we had ridden 50 miles and gained over 5,000 feet of elevation and the hard part hadn’t really started. We then hit the dirt for 16 miles to the top. It was the last two hours after departing the protection of the trees that things began to feel really Epic. Where we could feel the ghosts of all of those before us. 

Epic and Rollins Pass go hand in hand. From the days of hunters to pioneers, to railroaders and tourists, whether through feats of endurance or acts of engineering, to cross the continental divide here is no gimme. 

Our effort was filmed by Kenny Withrow, check it out!

The “vehicle” we chose was a gravel bike, or for those not familiar, a road bike with wide tires essentially. Some would argue that wasn’t the wisest choice as the last eight miles clearly warranted a mountain bike, or at the very least, for me, a bike with gearing more suitable for the slow-moving, rocky, somewhat boulderish road. I rode a 34-tooth front chain ring with a 28-tooth rear as my easiest gear. If I did it over, I would max out the rear cassette with a 32. Yes, front shocks like on a hardtail mountain bike wouldn’t have hurt either, especially on the first five miles descending on the west side. But I do believe with the right gearing, a gravel bike is doable as well, especially depending on your approach to Rollins Pass. 

The famous Needles Eye Tunnel on Far Right, or the entrance to Mt. Doom? 🙂

Greeting us above the tree line were several snow slides offering us a chance to “post hole” through the highly pitched patches while trying not to slide down the hill as we carried our bikes. Wearing something other than bike shoes would’ve helped no doubt, but it was all part of the adventure. I love history and kept thinking about those before us who endured far harsher conditions. Many of them at least got paid to endure, we were there for fun—remember that Bill….

find a smooth path??

Of the 80 miles we traveled, about five miles of it was on foot. Other than being sore and tired, I never once thought we wouldn’t make it. Luckily, optimal weather prevailed and only the threat darkness played with our will. 

Matt, Courtney, and LJ

Even a couple of weeks later I find I am missing my friends who shared this ride with me. There was an equal vulnerability and we all had our moment of hitting the wall. Luckily we avoided injuries or any mechanical failures. All of us are Ironman veterans so we knew when each other entered those dark times so familiar and we knew we could pull out of them.  But for the rest of our lives, even if we never saw each other again, I have so many fond memories of each person on the ride, and that, for me elevates this to Epic. Had I been alone, this ride would’ve simply been pretty much miserable. I know at some point I would’ve felt elation and joy, but I would’ve thought about quitting many times. Not once did I think about quitting—thanks to Matt, LJ, Courtney, and Kenny. 

Last push to the top

But for me, the journey was far from over when we arrived in Winter Park. 

In our team’s gear drop the day before I asked Matt Miller (our captain) to leave my road bike thinking I would spend the night and road ride home over Berthoud Pass. What I hadn’t planned on was waking up feeling so spent. 

Kenny shooting some pics in his Eleven Pine Shorts

I think the combination of the rough ride and the toll the bouncing took on my body and pedaling and walking for 14 hours added up to more than I anticipated. This is where having done Ironmans is a blessing and a curse. I often think “I can do anything,” no matter the training or amount of preparation,  which in general serves me well. But in this case, waking up feeling so spent, made me ponder the idea of riding home way too long!  Because we arrived so late, getting a good meal was next to impossible. My lack of proper re-fueling combined with a lot of fatigue screamed at me loudly not to ride home.

But it was Father’s Day—oh there is that! And while I could’ve stayed another night and lavished in Winter Park’s finest dining, my daughter had been planning to make me dinner. Now that’s real pressure!

California Zephyr Pulling into Fraser

But how to get home? As I thought of various ideas I heard the screeching of a freight train on the distant tracks and bam, there was my possible answer. The TRAIN. Amtrak’s California Zephyr travels through Winter Park daily and arrives in Denver at about 6 pm. I then could either ride home or take the light rail to Old Town Arvada. 

After a couple of clicks and a $45 charge, I was all set. I was so excited. I love traveling by train. Sure it’s not as fast as driving, but it’s the same feeling I get sitting around a campfire. There is something nostalgic, soothing, and reflective about train travel. 

The quiet of the steel wheels rolling on the smooth steel tracks interrupted occasionally by the horn of the train announcing itself at crossings is mesmerizing.  It harkens to an era I have only read about or seen in the “moving pictures.” Trains remind me of a time when people traversed the country in lavish Pullman cars wearing suits and dresses with some sort of mystery. Or a generation or two before that when land grabbers and gold seekers pushed through the very same mountains in not so much luxury toiling and rattling along with no idea what greeted them at the end of the line. My mind bounced back and forth in time between coal, steam, and diesel all while seeing some of Colorado’s most remote scenery only an hour west of Denver. 

entering the front range from Eldorado Canyon

As soon as we passed the Winter Park ski area we entered the famed Moffat Tunnel—a 7-mile tunnel under the continental divide. A twin tunnel exists that delivers water that normally would make its way to the Pacific Ocean to Colorado’s front range and eventually the Atlantic Ocean (side note, Colorado is the only state where all rivers lead out of the state—thus our complicated water laws as we feed so much of the nation with our headwaters). 

The Moffat Tunnel was a true game-changer for the state of Colorado. Until its completion in 1928, trains either utilized the treacherous and time-consuming Rollins Pass route we had just ridden or headed north along what is today basically I-80 through southern Wyoming. The Moffat Tunnel brought national train travel through Denver. The long-standing “war” between Cheyenne, Denver, and Pueblo as supply towns became a lot more interesting. In fact, had Pueblo not been flooded a few years earlier, and millions of tax dollars been diverted to its rescue, the location of the “great tunnel under the divide” was being hotly contested between the Moffat Tunnel (owned by Denver) and a route out of Pueblo. Back then both cities were similar in size and stature and constantly competed for Colorado supremacy. But the state legislature having previously diverted millions of dollars to Pueblo gave the nod to the group building what would be the Moffat Tunnel. It was not an easy route to build as there are dozens of tunnels between Eldorado and the Continental Divide. 

Drawn by my Uncle, trains run deep in the family!

As we descended for more than 10 minutes in the pitch-black tunnel, I reflected. Just 24 hours earlier, and a few thousand feet higher I had navigated an ancient path on a journey that while on a bike, for me might as well have been on an old train. I have always been fascinated with trains. In fact, in high school, I wrote a well-received short story about a boy living in the mountains and his reliance on the train as it represented the strength of the father he lost in a tragic accident. He relied on its sustenance to chug through the mountains and show its strength. As I kid I would play with a train set like on the Adams Family with my dad. Those were wonderful days. The train has always represented adventure, power, and strangely, grace. 

Tired but great to get home to enjoy fathers day!

So standing on the top of Rollins Pass, persevering like the train, like the pioneers and native Americans, doing something I love, cycling, couldn’t have been more epic. Riding the train home to see my daughter completed the circle, or maybe in railroad terms, was the golden spike that completed the journey…..

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1 Comment

  1. Ben Lockett

    Ironically, a friend of mine and I rode up from Fraser to Rollins and back to Fraser last week, so this article caught my eye. The idea of riding from Nederland to WP/Fraser is appealing, but I saw a photo yesterday which shows big concrete barriers at the beginning and end of a small tunnel that blocks riders and hikers from moving through it. Can you just go round it?


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