Mountain Biking Winter Park to Boulder via Rollins Pass (aka Corona Pass) and Jenny Creek Trail

On 29 April, 2013 by denvercx

If you happen to find yourself in Winter Park with a mountain bike, a way to shuttle a car to Boulder and a hardened countenance, then this ride is for you. There is a lot of history surrounding this old rail route, so please head over to the good folks at Wikipedia to learn more.

At 8 am on a crisp late August afternoon (2012), we began the ascent to Rollins Pass just north of Winter Park at start of Country Rd 80, aka “Corona Pass Road.” The entrance to this road is off Highway 40, and there is a nice commemorative sign.

Team Lumbago, 0800, 30 August 2012. We always line up in order of height.

Team Lumbago, 0800, 30 August 2012. We always line up in order of height.

After double checking our gear, tire pressure, and that at least one of us was wearing a kit worthy of such epic nature  (Rapha), we began the journey up the western side of the Continental Divide, uncertain what exactly would lie ahead. Fortunately, on the western slope, what laid ahead of us was a relatively well-maintained dirt road that anything, including cyclocross and mountain bikes, four wheelers, and Chrysler K-Cars, can safely arrive at the top of the pass from the west (Winter Park) side. Going down the east side is another matter altogether, however…

Nicely maintained, low grade steady climb of 2-4%.

Nicely maintained, low grade steady climb of 2-4%.

Beautiful Aspens greeted us early on.

Beautiful Aspens greeted us early on.

We were having a great time, just lolly-gagging along, enjoying the beautiful scenery as we climbed out of the Winter Park valley.

Lots of fun, beautiful morning.

Lots of fun, beautiful morning.

We were even reminded to watch our manners and share the road with our motorized, four-wheeled, off-road brethren.

Lots of ATVs use this route, I gather.

Lots of ATVs use this route, I gather.

There were some perfectly cut switchbacks to enjoy as well. After having backcountry ski-toured on poorly designed, inefficient, lumbar road switchbacks, I have a new appreciation for a good turn.

AJ pounding another shot of bourbon, just to prove "he can and will."

AJ pounding another shot of bourbon, just to prove “he can and will.”

Pretty soon, however, we began hearing thunder and noticing the sky quickly darkening to the north. “Smells like rain,” I sagely observed.

With rain clouds gathering, we stop to double-check the map.

With rain clouds gathering, we stop to double-check the map.

Larry getting down to business with the threat of lightening and a thunderstorm.

Larry getting down to business with the threat of a thunderstorm.

Soon, we came upon our first great landmark of the day – the Riflesight Notch Trestle and Tunnel. The tunnel is long since been closed/collapsed, but the trestle is still a sight to behold.

Riflesight Notch Trestle and Portal/Tunnel (from below)

Riflesight Notch Trestle and Portal/Tunnel (from below)

For comparison, this is what it looked like in 1903, which the train went over the trestle, looped down the side of the mountain, then came back through a tunnel underneath the trestle, not too dissimilar to the flyovers we cyclocross racers are so fond of (image credit: Wikipedia):

Riflesight Notch Trestle and Tunnel, 1903. Credit: Wikipedia

More pictures of the trestle, just because trestles are cool and unusual in my day-to-day life.

Riflesight Notch Trestle, from below.

Riflesight Notch Trestle, from below.

Riflesight Notch Trestle

Riflesight Notch Trestle, closed for business

The Riflesight Notch Trestle., above.

The Riflesight Notch Trestle., above.

With the thunder getting closer and a few lightening strikes far off north, we decided to make haste for the pass. We also decided it would be quite prudent to keep each other within earshot in case we were caught exposed during a storm. According to our maps, we weren’t far from the top of the pass, so we motored. But not before Larry could document the absurdity and embarrassingly poor aesthetic of a GoPro helmet mount.

I can Rapha all I want, but this GoPro reverses all aesthetic gained.

I can Rapha all I want, but this GoPro reverses all aesthetic gained.

So, off we go, now riding north, right smack toward the storm and into the wind.

Starting to feel really exposed now, about the Riflesight Notch Trestle.

Starting to feel really exposed now, about the Riflesight Notch Trestle.

Still a little snowmelt even this late in the summer.

Still a little snowmelt even this late in the summer.

Pumphouse Lake, just below the pass now.

Pumphouse Lake, just below the pass now.

I really liked what I was seeing now, beautiful alpine lakes.

Pumphouse Lake

Pumphouse Lake

Brian was pushing the pace, so we made the pass very quickly.

Obligatory Sign Picture. Sorry.

Obligatory Sign Picture. Sorry.

We had reached the top of Rollins/Corona Pass at 13.9 mi, which took us about an hour and 50 minutes. We could have gone much faster, but we did stop several times for photographs, glances at the map, and general merrymaking. The storm seemed to be holding, at least initially, so I took some time to look around a bit. A trail leading north from the pass parking lot seemed inviting, so I followed it, and I spied another sign, so I took a picture of that one too.

Larry's Scott hard-tail 29er. Perfect for the trip.

Larry’s Scott hard-tail 29er. Perfect for the trip.

Turns out, this trail is part of the 3100 mile long, Mexico-to-Canada, Continental Divide Trail. What I soon saw was breathtaking. King Lake was nestled into a breathtaking basin. A trail led down to the water’s edge, but I didn’t have time for nonsense such as hiking.

King Lake

King Lake

As mentioned previously, I did have my GoPro on me that day, so here’s the edited footage of King Lake, crossing the twin Devil’s Slide Trestles, and all the beautiful scenery, set to a handpicked Calexico soundtrack.

Back to the story at hand…

The wind started howling from the north, so I figured I’d better get back to the task at hand (not dying in a thunderstorm while mountain biking on an exposed ridgeline). I caught back up with the other guys who have more sense than I do but were waiting patiently. After a brief map consult, we decided that we should take the second easterly oriented road that took us through some “road closed” barricades, and off we went, teetering along the ridge, following the old railroad. Below, I thought I should include a Google Earth snapshot of the routes one can take. There are two roads that will take you to the Needle’s Eye Tunnel and the Boulder Wagon Road (BWR).  We decided to take the old railroad line, which cuts alongside the ridge going east, and is the more northern of the two roads. The southern road, cuts higher along the ridge, so it’s probably a little safer, but it doesn’t include the trestle crossings that the railroad did.  My GPS data trail is outlined in blue on this screenshot. Mind the compass – this screenshot is with an “east is up” orientation for the purpose of clarity.

Google Earth, my GPS data in blue

Google Earth, my GPS data in blue

Realizing what the men and women went through before our modern conveniences to get from point A to point B, especially in the mountains, gives one great pause. The gravity of the fact that we were hooting and hollering while riding modern mountain bikes along the same route tourists and workers would have done a hundred years ago hit me like a sledgehammer. We were soon ripping east on a slight decline at over 20 mph on the side of the mountain with jaw-dropping views to the north and east, and the earth falling away at 1000 ft below. Pretty soon, we came to a slightly technical section of fallen rock.

Rock slide, slightly technical

Rock slide, slightly technical

Once through, we got our first glimpse of what we had been after- the Twin Devil’s Slide Trestles, so named for their precarious perches and deathly drop-off. Crossing these trestles was certainly a high point of the whole day (and trip).

Brian surveys the western Devil's Slide Trestle.

Brian surveys the western Devil’s Slide Trestle.

Peder crosses the western Devil's Slide Trestle

I cross the western Devil’s Slide Trestle

Looking back (west) at one of the Devil's Slide Trestles.

Looking back (west) at one of the Devil’s Slide Trestles.

Once across the creaking trestles, it was another mile or so of fun downhill two track to the Needle’s Eye Tunnel road. The old railroad path we had taken joined with the other road that followed the ridge higher and which have been an automobile/service road.

Decision Point

Decision Point

Google Earth GPS data of our course, this time, with a “north-is-up” orientation. My GPS data path is in blue.

Google Earth screen capture of our route finding from Rollins Pass to Needle Eye Tunnel, and down the Boulder Wagon Road to the Jenny Lake Trail near Yankee Doodle Lake.

Google Earth screen capture of our route finding from Rollins Pass to Needle Eye Tunnel, and down the Boulder Wagon Road to the Jenny Lake Trail near Yankee Doodle Lake.

Here, we realized that we didn’t know the map beforehand as well as we thought we had. Also, the maps that were available to us didn’t reveal all the trails and roads that were in plain sight to us. So, with a little luck and a lot of route-finding knowledge, we rode down to check out the Needle’s Eye Tunnel anyway, despite knowing that it had been closed for many years due to a falling rock that injured a worker.

Brian and I am taking a look at the portage situation.

Brian and I consider the portage situation.

Yep. Needle's Eye Tunnel is most definitely closed for business.

Yep. Needle’s Eye Tunnel is most definitely closed for business.

Portaging near the Needle's Eye Tunnel. When they say "road closed", they mean it.

Portaging near the Needle’s Eye Tunnel. When they say “road closed”, they mean it.

So, we road back to the “Needle’s Eye Tunnel Closed” sign, and made down the old Boulder Wagon Road. I learned something that I hadn’t known before – wagon roads are VERY steep. Switchbacks probably hadn’t been invented yet, so the gradient going down this thing was 25-30% (verified by STRAVA). Cameras and GoPros don’t even come close to conveying gradients like these.

Boulder Wagon Road  (switchbacks didn't appear to be original, as the original trail went STRAIGHT UP the mountain).

Boulder Wagon Road (switchbacks didn’t appear to be original, as the original trail went STRAIGHT UP the mountain).

Needle's Eye Tunnel, as taken from the Boulder Wagon Road.

Needle’s Eye Tunnel, as taken from the Boulder Wagon Road.

View back of the iron-rich mountainside near the Needle's Eye Tunnel, taken from the Boulder Wagon Road.

View back of the iron-rich mountainside near the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, taken from the Boulder Wagon Road.

The Boulder Wagon Road (BWR), does not appear to be maintained, and it is VERY rough going, filled with large rocks. Going down this way would be extraordinarily difficult with a cross bike or rigid mountain bike. (Hipsters, don’t you even think about bringing your single speed Schwinn or Nishiki down this way). Near Yankee Doodle Lake, the trail flattened a bit, and we came through another “Road Closed” sign. This time, there was a trail marker for what we had just been on, Trail 501, which must be the BWR. According to the NFS map, the 501 turns into the Jenny Creek  Trail (#808) here.

Having just come down the Boulder Wagon Road (Trail 501) and confirming the Jenny Creek Trailhead

Having just come down the Boulder Wagon Road (Trail 501) and confirming the Jenny Creek Trailhead

Jenny Creek Trail, eastwardly

Jenny Creek Trail, eastwardly

Through some minor-route finding and navigation and creek crossings, we took this very rough and somewhat steep trail down to the Eldora ski area, and boy, were we ever thankful to have found our way through thunder, rain, and wilderness back to the edge of civilization.

AJ surveying the scene as we engage our outerwear.

AJ contently surveying the scene as we engage our outerwear.

From here, we went through Nederland, and climbed up to the entrance for Magnolia off the Peak to Peak Highway. Beautiful scenery along this road, famous for it’s 20% gradients coming out of Boulder Canyon (the other direction).

Pastoral photo taken while on Magnolia Road, near Boulder, Colorado.

Pastoral photo taken while on Magnolia Road, near Boulder, Colorado.

Steep switchbacks of Magnolia Road.

Steep switchbacks of Magnolia Road.

Steep I tell you!

Steep I tell you! Steep! (Magnolia Road, just off Boulder Canyon).

From here, it was a leisurely ride down the shallow sections of Boulder Canyon and back to AJ’s home for some food and beers.

Brian and I surveying the Boulder Creek from the trail.

Brian and I surveying the Boulder Creek from the trail.

Boulder Creek

Boulder Creek

AJ and I knew what to do.

AJ and I knew what to do.

Happy guys, proud to be done, but forgetting to line up in order by height.

Happy gentlemen- proud to be done, but already planning the next trip.

So, the trip came to an end, but not without plenty of laughs, beers, and food to share. This is what cycling is about. A challenge together with close friends through wild country and history (and living to write about it). Peder

The stats:

  • Total mileage: 45.19 mi
  • Elapsed Time: 4:11:40
  • Average Speed: 10.8 mph
  • Maximum Speed:46.8 mph
  • Total Ascent: 3886 feet
  • Total Descent: 7065 feet

The gear:

  • Yeti ASR-5 carbon, full suspension, 26er MTB, stock 2×10 XTR setup, with Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires (tubeless setup)
  • Small Camelbak race hydration system + one water bottle on frame
  • Topeak seat post rear mounted rack with touring bag
  • Still cameras and GoPro
  • Two of the other guys rode hard-tail 29ers with great success (one carbon Giant, and one aluminum Scott).
  • Black Rapha Pro Team bib shorts, black Rapha Classic Jersey, all mated to S-Works MTB shoes (gotta look good, I suppose)

7 Responses to “Mountain Biking Winter Park to Boulder via Rollins Pass (aka Corona Pass) and Jenny Creek Trail”

  • A.J.

    Fantastic job, Peder! Really does the day justice. Hadn’t really looked at the stats before. We went up almost 4k feet! Can’t wait to get back out there.
    You a Kraftkwerk fan?

    • Was an awesome day for us. Did you see me put Larry into the gutter when the “road” narrowed before the trestle on the video? Ha!

      BIG Kraftwerk fan now, thanks to you. I’ve been spinning their “Autobahn” vinyl LP a LOT lately.

  • Taylor

    Wow, this looks like a fantastic trip!!!!!!!!!

  • Ryan

    Nice, very nice write up! What map did you guys use, and where did you get it? Thanks!!

    • Thanks Ryan. I think the map we used was just a National Geographic map, but I’m unsure which one it was. There’s certainly some confusion about the top of the pass on how to get back to Boulder. However, it’s pretty obvious what you need to do, once you’re up there.

  • Federico

    Nice write-up. We were doing some ATV riding last weekend and hiked from near road by Yankee Doodle over the Needle’s Eye tunnel and across the Trestles. We could see that trail over the divide in the distance from the Trestles. Do you happen to know how many miles it is from Needle’s Eye Tunnel to the end of the trail in Winter Park?

    • Round about 16-18 miles from Needle Eye Tunnel to US 40 then about 2 miles north to Winter Park. What ATVs were you using? We saw some gentlemen up there on the east side on 4 wheel ATVs hunting.

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