Summer Biking 2003: Rollins Pass

Biking 0503

Winter Park, Colo.

When Colorado entrepreneur John Quincy Adams Rollins carved a road over the Continental Divide in the 1860s, he did more than open a route for wagons: Rollins bestowed future mountain bikers with an epic ride over the top of America.

Cyclists huff past treeline, skirt highland lakes and watch clouds billow over the Divide as they chug toward 11,671-foot Rollins Pass. Once on top, they pedal along a windblown ridge dappled with fleeting summer green before dropping down the westward slope for a 14-mile scream into Winter Park and its 600 miles of trails. The 30-mile ride from Nederland to Winter Park is perhaps the best-known over-the-Divide mountain bike route in Colorado.

My girlfriend and I decide to make the trek into a three-day, resort-to-resort adventure: We'll ride from Eldora Mountain Resort to Winter Park on the first day, explore Winter Park's trail network on the second, and return to Eldora and our home in Nederland on the third. We pack light, carrying only water, food, one change of clothing and rain gear, then depart at 7:30 a.m. to ensure we're over the Divide before noon, when summer lightning storms can blow in unannounced. From Nederland, 30 minutes west of Boulder, we loop behind Eldora to access the Jenny Creek Trail, a rock-strewn, 11-mile ascent that's not for beginners. A gentler option is to drive south on Highway 119 to neighboring Rollinsville, turn right on Rollins Pass Road at the railroad tracks and continue about 10 miles to the East Portal train tunnel.

Park here, then pedal 14 miles up the dirt Rollins Pass Road to the Divide. Jenny Creek intersects with Rollins Pass Road just below Yankee Doodle Lake at 10,700 feet, where we emerge from the trees after three hours of hard effort. We pause to watch wind-swept ripples glide across the lake, which lies at the foot of a sheer slope where two backcountry skiers were swept away by an avalanche several years ago.

From Yankee Doodle Lake, the dirt road swings up and around Jenny Lake and snakes up to Needle Eye Tunnel (never mind that the sign says Neddle Eye) just above treeline. Thanks to the collapse of the tunnel, four-wheel-drive vehicles can no longer cross the Divide here. The tunnel's collapse also means we must shoulder our bikes and scramble several hundred feet up a boulder field. Moments later, we are on the Divide. From here, cyclists can take the road that Rollins carved or ride the former railroad track that hugs the far slope. Both intersect at the Corona site, where a railroad station, hotel and restaurant operated during the early 1900s. Nothing remains of these structures, the wood having been scavenged long ago. Here the rail bed intersects Corona Pass Road, which descends into Winter Park.

Halfway down Corona Pass, where we share the road with cars, we detour onto the "Broken Thumb Trail," a four-mile section of technical singletrack that dumps onto FS 128, which reconnects with a dirt road for a final coast into Winter Park.

Fatigued but elated, we arrive at the Vintage Hotel seven hours after leaving Nederland. (Departing from the East Portal shaves several hours off the trip.) If cresting the Divide is the reward, tooling the trails of Winter Park is an added bonus. Which is why, the next morning, we break our pledge to take it easy and instead explore Blue Sky, Chainsaw, Flume and other favorite trails.

Pedaling back toward Rollins Pass on Day 3, our only regret is not staying longer in Winter Park. But the Divide calls, the sun again shines bright, and old John Quincy Adams Rollins shows us the way home.

Making Tracks
Before riding the Divide, visit Happy Trails (303-258-3435) in Nederland. Buy a latte, rent a bike, and ask Randy to customize a route for your skill level. Spend a night in Nederland at the Best Western Lodge (303-258-9463) to ensure an early start. Pack light, forget the tent, and reserve a room in Winter Park (; 800-979-0332). You'll be ravenous after your 30-mile ride, so feast on pulled pork at Smokin' Moe's Rib House. Save your legs for the ride back over Rollins Pass by getting a lift pass ($21) and cruising the resort's 50 miles of trails. For repairs, stop by Beavers Sports Shop (970-726-1092). Ask for Keith.