Rollins Pass

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Rollins Pass
Riflesight Notch 1903.PNG
Riflesight Notch railroad trestle on the way up Rollins Pass in 1903.
Elevation 11,676 ft (3,559 m)[1]
Traversed by Unpaved road, natural gas pipeline
Location Boulder / Grand counties, Colorado, U.S.
Range Front Range
Coordinates 39°56′03″N 105°40′58″W / 39.93417°N 105.68278°W / 39.93417; -105.68278Coordinates: 39°56′03″N 105°40′58″W / 39.93417°N 105.68278°W / 39.93417; -105.68278[1]
Topo map USGS East Portal
Rollins Pass is located in Colorado
Rollins Pass

Rollins Pass, elevation 11,676 ft (3,559 m), is a mountain pass in the Rocky Mountains of north-central Colorado in the United States. The pass is located on the continental divide at the crest of the Front Range southwest of Boulder, at the boundary of Grand and Boulder counties.


Rollins Pass (also known as Corona Pass) sits approximately 5 miles east and above the popular ski areas around Winter Park, between Winter Park and Rollinsville. The pass is traversed by two unpaved roads, mostly the former roadbed of the Denver, Northwestern, and Pacific Railway, that later became the Denver and Salt Lake Railway. This route was abandoned in 1928 when the Moffat Tunnel opened to replace the hill route of Rollins Pass. This high altitude railroad was known as the Moffat Road. The Boulder Wagon Road (BWR), which predates the rail route, also uses much of Rollins Pass to cross the Continental Divide.

The majority of the route of the Moffat Road is open, except for a long, deteriorated trestle just east of the pass, and sections leading to the Needle's Eye Tunnel, a short high altitude railroad tunnel which was closed in 1990 after a rock fell from the ceiling injuring a Denver firefighter resulting in a below-knee amputation.[2] Since then, the tunnel was sealed by Boulder County and the USFS. The original Boulder Wagon Road (BWR) also goes over Rollins Pass yet bypasses the Needle's Eye Tunnel (as it had not yet been constructed) by taking a steep route encircling Yankee Doodle Lake. The BWR is a four-wheel-drive road not suited to lower clearance two-wheel-drive vehicles. Although open prior to 2008 and in good condition, this road remains to this day a subject of much controversy between its users and some officials who want it closed. In 2002 the James Peak Wilderness and Protection Area Bill (a.k.a. Public Law 107-216) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The Bill specifically created a narrow road corridor between the Indian Peaks and James Peaks Wilderness areas and states that if any of the affected counties (Grand, Gilpin or Boulder) request, the Secretary of the USDA will cooperate and assist with the repair of the Rollins Pass Road and until that time the attendant road (the BWR) will remain open to motorized use. Boulder County officials and the USFS-Boulder Ranger District have resisted the wording of the law and have closed the BWR. Both Grand and Gilpin Counties have made numerous written requests to the Secretary for the repair of Rollins Pass Road but to date there has been no repair of the road or the barricaded Needle's Eye Tunnel. The reopening of the BWR, and/or repair of the Rollins Pass Road, and even the facts surrounding the 1990 accident in the tunnel, have become contentious and ongoing issues.

2006 photo of the Needle's Eye Tunnel, near the summit of Rollins Pass. Wire mesh and dowels were installed throughout the years to help prevent additional rock falls and preserve the condition of the 120-year-old tunnel.

Rollins Pass is a popular recreational location for its spectacular views, wildflowers, hiking, and photography during the summer months. The road up to the pass on the western side from Winter Park is in fair condition starting from U.S. Highway 40 in Winter Park, and can be traveled by regular 2WD (although 4WD high-clearance vehicles fare better) automobile in the summer in good weather, or by snowmobile in the winter. Official snowmobile tours (on the Winter Park side) follow much of the summer road from Arrow to a bit after Sunnyside (located further uphill and past the Riflesight Notch trestle). However, the tour does not go higher than Ptarmigan Point and does not reach the summit in the winter.

The only access to the actual Rollins Pass from the east is via the disputed 4WD BWR due to the tunnel closure. From the Peak-to-Peak Highway (State Highway 119) at Rollinsville East Portal Road runs west, parallel to South Boulder Creek and the current Union Pacific Railroad tracks, to the entrance to the Moffat Tunnel at East Portal, and then rises on the abandoned railroad grade via the Moffat Road to the closed Needle's Eye Tunnel. From Rollinsville to East Portal, the road is an all-weather gravel road which can be traveled by regular automobiles. However, beyond East Portal the road becomes very rough due to lack of maintenance. Although not steep or loose, it is recommended that a high clearance 4WD vehicle be used. This section of road is open to just beyond Jenny Lake where there is a barricade approximately one half mile before the Needle's Eye Tunnel. The road is open for hiking beyond the barricade to the entrance of the closed tunnel, and a rough trail continues above the tunnel for those on foot to bypass the closure.

The pass provides a route over the Continental Divide between the Atlantic Ocean watershed of South Boulder Creek (in the basin of the South Platte River) with the Pacific Ocean watershed of the Fraser River, a tributary of the Colorado River.

The sign at the summit of Rollins Pass

Rollins Pass: prehistoric Native American presence and use[edit]

Native Americans were the first to utilize Rollins Pass as a natural, low crossing over the Continental Divide for the purposes of communal hunting of large game, including big-horn sheep and elk. There are more than 96 documented game drives that are found largely above timberline and near the summits of multiple mountain ridges. Handmade rock walls drove prey towards hunters waiting in blinds. These unique high-altitude constructs were built, refined, and continually used over millennia.[3] Currently the game drives are being studied by Colorado State University archaeology graduate students led by Dr. Jason M. LaBelle, associate professor, Department of Anthropology, Center for Mountain and Plains Archaeology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins.

Rollins Pass as a toll wagon road[edit]

The first recorded use of the pass by a wagon train was in 1862. It is named for John Quincy Adams Rollins, who constructed a toll wagon road over the pass in the 1870s, providing a route between the Colorado Front Range and Middle Park. The pass was used heavily in the late 19th century by settlers to drive cattle over the continental divide to Middle Park, and at one time as many as 12,000 cattle at a time were driven over the pass.[4]

Rollins Pass as a railroad line[edit]

In the early 20th century, David Moffat, a Denver banker, established the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway with the intention of building a railroad over the Front Range in the vicinity of the pass. The line was known as the Moffat Road, ran 23 miles over the pass, with a 4% grade along many stretches, and was one of the highest adhesion (non-cog) railroads ever constructed in North America. Along this route is the closed Needle's Eye Tunnel (not to be confused with lower and longer Moffat Tunnel constructed some 30 years later). Other notable landmarks on the route included Riflesight Notch, a loop where trains crossed over a trestle, went through a loop, and passed through a tunnel underneath the trestle. A small rail stop called Corona was established at the top of the pass, with a restaurant and lodging, which allowed workers to help keep the rail line free of snow in the winter. Despite the fact that the line was enclosed in almost continuous sheds near the top of the pass, trains were often stranded for several days during heavy winter snowstorms because the snow could fall through the wood planking of the sheds. It was these heavy snowstorms that were the demise of the Moffat Road and the incentive for construction of a tunnel. Because the route was intended to be temporary, it was constructed as cheaply as possible - using high trestles, 4% grades and switchbacks instead of high fills, iron bridges, and tunnels. Because of the high-altitude nature of the route, the route utilized wyes instead of turntables to turn locomotives around.

"Snow cuts on Rollin's [sic] Pass, Moffat Road, Colo." This is a colorized sketch of McClure photograph 257-8067, the actual photo description stating, "Snow scene, summit Rollin's Pass: elevation, 11,660 feet; on Moffat Line R. R., three hours' ride from Denver. Photograph taken in May, 1906. The region of perpetual snow. Photograph by L. C. McClure, Denver."[5]

Much of the right-of-way is still intact, although some of the trestles have collapsed. A small wye on the passing siding at the eastern portal of the Moffat Tunnel marks the spot where the Rollins Pass line would have merged into the modern route if it still existed. This wye is currently utilized for short-turning some services.

The first attempt to tunnel under Rollins Pass met with both engineering and financial failure, and its remains can still be seen at Yankee Doodle Lake. The second attempt, to build a longer tunnel at a lower elevation, was better planned and financed. Although Moffat did not live to see his tunnel completed, his enterprise was continued under a different name, and the Moffat Tunnel opened just south of the pass on February 26, 1928. The new tunnel route became part of the mainline across Colorado of the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad, later the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and now the Union Pacific Railroad. The Moffat Tunnel continues to serve as the route for the Amtrak California Zephyr between Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California, and until summer 2009, for Ski Train passengers between Denver and Winter Park.

The tracks over Rollins Pass were not immediately dismantled after the Moffat Tunnel opened. In fact, they had to remain usable as an emergency route. It was used as such in July 1928 when several wooden planks inside the Moffat Tunnel collapsed. Permission to dismantle the rails on Rollins Pass was not granted by the ICC until 1935. Sometime in the seven years between when the line was abandoned and when the tracks were removed, a mysterious fire destroyed several of the snowsheds near the summit and the hotel at Corona.

Rollins Pass as a scenic road[edit]

From 1955-1979, Rollins Pass served as a complete road over the mountain pass for automobiles until a rock fall in Needle's Eye tunnel in 1979 closed the path over the pass. In 1988, after several studies and structural strengthening of Needle's Eye was accomplished, the complete road was re-opened only to close permanently in 1990.

Recent events[edit]

On July 30, 2006, a single engine airplane on its way to Boulder crashed on Rollins Pass. The two occupants of the 1969 Citabria 7KCAB were killed on impact.[6]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]