We thought we’d beat the weather but mother nature said ‘not so fast’…
An early morning drive up Boulder Canyon to Rollinsville and a short jaunt down East Portal Road brought us to the Moffat Tunnel parking area and Rollins Pass Road. The drive along South Boulder Creek was gorgeous and the gravel road was in perfect condition, I thought it was a good omen for a day of exploring! This area has a long history, beginning with the Native Americans who hunted and conducted game drives here for 3,200 years; in 1862, white settlers established a road for wagon trains and would eventually charge a toll for the road over the Continental Divide; and then, in the early 20th century, a temporary railroad traversed this route complete with Corona Station, (including a restaurant and lodge), at the top. Severe winter weather and snowstorms caused the demise of the railroad line when trains were often delayed for up to 30 days. Railroad workers said there were two seasons on Rollins Pass Road – winter and August. A new route to the south, at a lower in elevation, and with a longer tunnel was forged in 1928 when the Moffat Tunnel opened linking the east and west sides of the Continental Divide and is still used today for passenger trains and the ski train to Winter Park.
Eight Petunia Mafia teammates met up for this ride. We discussed the route plan – up the old train bed on Rollins Pass Road, a short hike-a-bike over the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, across the trestles, to Rollins Pass at the top, and back. It all sounded pretty straightforward so with sunny skies overhead we set out. The dirt road was a consistent 4% railroad grade and as my tires dug in I flipped through all my gears just to remind myself of the options I had. Somewhere around mile 3 or 4, the road bed changed from dirt to rock and rocks scattered pell mell would line the rough road the rest of the way. Going up at a slow pace wasn’t so bad as we picked our way through but coming back was another story. It had rained the night before and water was still trickling down the road. Since water takes the path of least resistance, I road where the water was and found a little smoother ride.
At mile 10 we came to Yankee Doodle Lake, (how can you not love that name?), but we still had another 5 miles to go. From this point on, the road was exposed and we were riding above tree line. We had our eyes on a looming gray cloud off to our left but it seemed to be far enough away for the moment. Lightning is a worry anytime you’re above tree line. Up and up the road continued as it slashed its’ way across the mountaintop. A few Jeeps and ATV’s were climbing up the road with us as well but they had to stop once they came to the boulder barricade. We, on the other hand, carried our bikes over the boulders and continued on our way (there’s something to be said for human pedal power!).
The hike-a-bike at the collapsed Needle’s Eye Tunnel, (which is closed and barricaded), was a mad scramble over loose rock and soft soil. I had sorely neglected cross training this summer so my upper body strength was tantamount to a prepubescent 10-year old boy who spends his days playing checkers. The heaviest thing I’d lifted all summer was my carbon frame road bike which weighs maybe 0.2 ounces. My sturdy mountain bike felt like an anvil. When it came to choosing between lifting the bike and suitcasing it up or grabbing the handlebars and pushing, I chose the latter which worked for awhile. When the pitch became steeper and I was searching for traction, I gladly accepted an assist to the top from my teammate, Laura. Getting up to the top was only the first hurdle, going down the other side was even steeper, (and we were coming back the same way!).
Once we crested the top of the Needle’s Eye the entire western half of Colorado stretched out before us but we also saw that that one gray cloud had friends as a wall of threatening black sky faced us. We were only a mile or so from the trestles and maybe a mile and a half from the top of the pass so we decided to try to make it but also made a pact to turn around at the first raindrop.
The train trestles were the best part of this ride and we stopped to take pictures and videos but then that first raindrop fell. As agreed, we bagged the last half mile to the top of the pass and turned around to started pedaling like mad retracing our route trying to beat the storm. Back to the hike-a-bike, (now the steepest section was a slog of loose soil that we had just dug up on the way over and provided almost no traction), back to the boulder barrier, and back to the tree line. We regrouped just as we hit the trees and the rain started to really kick in. We thought we’d made it past the worst but then the flash of a lightning bolt overhead in a pitch black sky and the immediate crack of thunder told us we were anything but safe. No discussion needed, we all clipped in and road like mad down, down, down.
Riding for your life down a wet, rock strewn, dirt (now mud) road felt like operating a jackhammer while riding a jet ski. By the end, my hands and arms ached from gripping the bars on the jarring terrain and my quads screamed from hovering over the saddle. It had taken us 3 hours to climb to the top and I think we made it down in a record time of an hour and half. By the time we got back to the cars the sun was out, the rain had stopped, and we all thanked our lucky stars. Once again, the lesson learned was: always respect the mountain.