Rollins Pass & Moffat Road

The closed Needle's Eye Tunnel.
The closed Needle's Eye Tunnel. James Dziezynski
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For a great backcountry escape that avoids the dreadful traffic along I-70, the Moffat Road and Moffat Tunnel areas are just the spot. In addition to the spectacular scenery, you'll be immersed in the rich history of Moffat Road. The first recorded manifestation of the road comes from 1862, when a wagon train developed a crude path over the Continental Divide to connect Boulder with the Middle Park Basin (basically, present-day Winter Park). In the 1870s, John Rollins developed a toll road that helped ranchers move cattle between the Front Range and agricultural valleys to the west. Rollins Pass, as well as the small town of Rollinsville, are named in his honor.

In the early 1900s, an enterprising railroad developer named David Moffat engineered a railway that replaced the old toll road. At the top of the pass, a short-lived town named Corona popped up and served as a workers’ quarters along with a hotel and restaurant. Because of heavy snowfall, the upper section of the tracks were covered with a wooden shed that protected the tracks from getting buried — and to allow rail traffic year-round. It was just one of the many makeshift efforts that contributed to the high cost of maintaining the railroad.

In order to reduce operational costs, a project was started to drill a tunnel at Yankee Doodle Lake. The task proved to be too difficult, however, and was ultimately abandoned. Rollins Pass railway persisted until 1928, but the completion of the Moffat Tunnel at the base of the pass sounded the death knell of both the rail line and the town of Corona. The tracks remained functional as an emergency route until 1935, when they were removed and the town of Corona mysteriously burned down.

Looking down at Jenny Lake.
Looking down at Jenny Lake. James Dziezynski

In 1905, the Needle’s Eye Tunnel near the summit of the pass was built for the railroad and converted for automobile passage in 1955. It functioned as the gateway between the east and west sides of Rollins Pass for 4x4 auto traffic until rockfall and instability closed it permanently in 1990. As a side note, a thorough and rather nifty proposal for tunnel stability was completed in 2012 and can be seen here  — don’t worry, you don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate it!

Today, Moffat Road is a bouncy, low-grade 4x4 road that goes from the town of Rollinsville up to the closed section of the Needle’s Eye Tunnel from the east. The road resumes on the west side of the tunnel, where a slightly more accommodating dirt road goes past the ruins of Corona and into winter park. For those coming from the Denver/Boulder area, the east side of the pass is where the fun is.

From late spring to autumn, the road thaws out and allows passage to Yankee Doodle Lake and Jenny Lake, the latter featuring a number of primitive car camping sites. From the intersection with the maintained dirt road to Moffat Tunnel, the road is 9 miles to Jenny Lake. Aside from the great views, there are also plenty of hiking adventures to be had. The unnamed wall of mountains above the basin make up a section of the Continental Divide and there are several faint hiking trails that explore the rolling ridgeline. Another option is to go up and over the Needle’s Eye Tunnel and follow the road on foot to the Corona townsite. And the west side of the divide also features a fun, modest 11,315-foot peak called Mount Epworth — a nice little hike to round out a trip over the divide.

Mount Epworth from just below the ruins of Corona.
Mount Epworth from just below the ruins of Corona. James Dziezynski

Mountain bikers can enjoy taking the road up and over Rollins Pass and ending the day in Winter Park, a classic ride that covers over 25 miles and requires point-to-point shuttles (unless of course, you want to ride back over!).

Come winter, snows blockade the pass — but allow for opportunities to snowshoe, cross country ski, snowmobile, and backcountry tour in the area. Most lower aspects of the road are safe from avalanches, but be aware that unstable conditions can exist anytime there is snow on the hills.

Finally, if you’ve had your fill of the Moffat Road, the recreation potential from the Moffat Tunnel Trailhead (.50 miles from the turn off for Moffat Road) is excellent. Long hikes to alpine lakes, ice climbing, and ski touring are all accessible from this area.

Rollins Pass sign at the former Corona town site.
Rollins Pass sign at the former Corona town site. Wikipedia.com

Directions 
On the Peak to Peak Highway (CO 119), drive to the small village of Rollinsville about four miles south of Nederland. Head west from the center of town on the well-marked Rollins Pass Road. The road is dirt, but is wide and in good condition. The road is plowed all the way to the tunnel and even low-clearance passenger cars should have no difficulty in any season. Follow the road 8 miles crossing the active train tracks twice via at-grade crossings and twice via underpasses. After the fourth crossing around mile 7.5, bear right to head up the 9-mile Moffat Road or bear left at the junction for Rollins Pass and continue another half mile to the large trailhead.

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