Monday, August 31, 2009
Riding to "Top O' the World" at Rollins Pass
Rollinsville to Fraser/Winter Park
Mountain bike, 40 miles each way
with Caleb and Tico
I feel like an old railroad man
Getting on board at the end of an age
The station's empty and the whistle blows
Things are faster now
And this train is just too slow
And i know i can walk along the tracks
It may take a little longer but i'll know
How to find my way back
-- "Railroad Man" by The Eels
Most Coloradans are familiar with the ski train from Denver, which goes under the divide through the Moffat Tunnel before screeching to a halt in Winter Park. Scenes of the ski train in Warren Miller films draw raucous applause from local audiences. Similar to the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels near Loveland Pass, the Moffat Tunnel replaced an earlier route that went over the Continental Divide. This earlier route, built at the turn of the 20th century, went over Rollins Pass, also known as Corona Pass, and snaked 15 miles up from Rollinsville to what was advertised as "The Top O' the World." The top of the pass had snow sheds to protect the train from the elements and allow workers to keep the tracks clear of snow, as well as a restaurant and hotel. After the Moffat Tunnel was completed, the original route was abandoned, and is now a rough but scenic 4x4 road. But that's not all! The short "Needle Eye" tunnel just east of the pass partly collapsed in 1990, and has been closed ever since. (Apparently, this was due to a single missing rock bolt!) The closing of the tunnel is probably a blessing for mountain bikers, as it filters out motorized through traffic, which otherwise dominates the lower part of the route.
So, there's our history lesson. Caleb, Tico, and I had been looking forward to riding this route all summer, and finally arranged it for the last week of August. The weather was looking good, and the plan was to spend the night at Mike "Bailey" Bailey's house in Fraser, before heading back the same route on Sunday. Starting from Rollinsville, this meant 40 miles each way with our gear.
We parked near the "Public Restroom" (a port-a-potty) in Rollinsville, and began riding at 8AM. The first 9-mile warmup is a smooth, gradual uphill along South Boulder Creek.
After these first 9 mile, the rocky 4x4 adventure begins, near the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel. There is a pulloff and parking area here for exploring the Portal, while the actual road begins a gradual switchback east. We take a quick break to fix a flat tire (our first of 3, with mine being the other two), and start heading up. The road here is very scenic, passing by several lakes, such as Jenny Lake and Yankee Doodle Lake, and nice pull-off camping spots. The last wisps of summer wildflowers are still evident. We keep an eye on the weather, with dark clouds forming in the West, but cannot predict which way the clouds will move. As it turns out, the pass itself ended up staying relatively nice, as the weather stayed pinned by the larger mountains to the North. Finally, around noon, we arrived at the Needle Eye Tunnel:
The tunnel itself is shorter than we envisioned, and is clear enough to get through, only there are 10-foot walls on either side preventing entry. Other parties are investigating the tunnel, including a mountain biking group from Estes, and a few 4x4 guys who walked up to check it out. In order to avoid the tunnel, one needs to make a steep hike above it. The mountain biking group has done it either way and considers it a wash. We decide to try it once each way, and head through the tunnel. This definitely only works easily with 3 people, with one on each side and one on top of the wall.
After the tunnel, it's even more fun, as we cross a few abandoned and rickety railroad trestles. The riding is actually smoother and flattens out a bit.
Finally, we reach the top -- the Top O' the World! The views are glorious, and we share the summit with the group from Estes. It's after noon, but it's neither storming nor raining. We take a lunch break and some pictures.
Coincidentally, at 11,600 feet, I wonder where my wife is. As in, how high she? You see, she started out just after 4AM with her friend DJ, hoping to hit the trail to Quandary by 7am. With the right conditions, they should have already enjoyed the summit and been on their way down. Still, there's a good chance she's still higher than me -- how awesome is that?
So now we get what we earned: downhill! The West side downhill is roughly 15 miles down to Winter Park. Make no mistake, this side is less rocky and more fun in both directions. However, the pine beetle kill here is evident, even with barely any sides of it on the east side. New spur roads branch off for forest-thinning work, and areas are routinely cleared to outflank the beetle's march, while new signs prohibit entry. We can imagine, though, that over time, new mountain bike routes will develop from this work, for better or for worse.
We cruise down over the rocks as fast as the bikes will roll...until I get my first pinch flat. My rear blows instantly and I slide to a stop at 20-some mph. After a fix and a few breaks, we finish the descent.
We ride partly on Hwy 40 and partly on the Fraser River Trail, eventually rolling into Winter Park. Back to "civilization," I suppose, as throngs of tourists squeeze out the last bits of summer from the mountains. (OK, that's what we were doing, too!) Turns out this weekend is also the last race of the Winter Park Mountain Bike race series, the Tipperary Creek route, which is coincidentally the only other ride I've done in Winter Park (as a ride, not a race).
We finally roll into Bailey's yard around 3pm, 7 hours after our journey started. We sit on the couch in a daze and he offers us some beers. We're happy to sit and catch updates of the Twins and Tigers scores, partly napping and eventually showering, before heading out for dinner. We lightly debate Mexican versus pizza, as Caleb and Bailey previously scouted out the food scene and assure us we can't go wrong either way, so we settle on a Mexican-sounding pizza place: Hernando's. The pizza...is...awesome!...The thick crust and salty cheese especially. Basically the perfect food at the perfect time. Hernando's is decorated with the colored dollar bills of patrons, and can get crowded, but luckily we're there with our ravenous appetites closer to senior hour.
We grab some extra food from Safeway, then head back to chill out, playing around with the house dog, Jackson, and playing a game outside which is variously called "Ladder Ball" or "Dangle Balls," which I will refer to as the former ("Ladder") in order to suppress giggles. While outside, the sun sets, and the mountains exit the eastern stage in alpenglow. We catch the end of a televised Texas high school football game -- my, Texas, what large high school stadiums you have! -- before heading to bed early. I claim the futon outside, and sleep quite comfortably in the alpine air, glad that I brought my sleeping bag.
We awaken before 6:30 as Bailey heads out to work, and we start rolling again by 7. After a quick coffee stop in Safeway, we start rolling, and feel surprisingly fresh compared to the night before. Caleb spots some wild raspberries off the edge of the road, and we stock up on antioxidants, just in case we encounter oxidants.
Soon, Winter Park is below us again:
We take a steady pace up the road, and quickly reach the bottom of Riflesight Notch trestle again. Caleb heads up the road, Tico decides to try the steep singletrack. I head up the road so Caleb knows to wait, but secretly think the singletrack might be better. After catching my breath at the top, it turns out the road is indeed faster. We check out the trestle for a bit and meet some bow-hunters who just came off of Roger's Pass trail. We look at the map and think about Roger's Pass across the divide as an option, but decide against it since we don't know the terrain. Next time?
We make good time up to the pass, and the weather still looks good, so we hang out a bit more. Some skiers have parked up the pass and are hiking to a glacier -- nice to get turns in August! Tico and I head to a nearby snowfield to check it out, then we make our way down.
Again we hit the trestles, which are more scenic in this direction. I take a short video and some pictures.
We hit the Needle Eye tunnel again, and decide to go over this time. This ends up being significantly more work, as the West side especially is steep and affords little purchase for the gentleman hoisting his bicycle up the rocks. On the other side, as we adjust our gear, we're greeted by the echoes of gunshots. Welcome to the Wilderness! We spot a likely shooter below us, and it looks like he's plinking down there, not shooting upward. Hopefully.
We descend the rocks, and today's word of the day being "Adit," we check out an abandoned mine. Caleb takes some samples and suggests that they may have been seeking mica.
We continue descending, sure to make it by 2:30, when Tico wants to get back to the car, until I get another pinch flat! Final score: Mike 2, Caleb 1, Tico 0. Yargh. Although I ran a bit higher pressure today then yesterday, it still appears I was too low, at least with having an extra 20-30 pounds of gear and pounding over rocks and potholes. In fact, I bent the bead of the rim, and we're unsure if the tire will seal. Luckily it does, and I'm more cautious on the way down. Finally we get off the rocks and back onto the road, which somehow was uphill the whole way there but is now rolling. So it goes. An overly cautious car waits to pass us, then some jerk dirt bikers make it 3 abreast on a blind curve. No doubt they're in a hurry to make their shift as emergency surgeons, to volunteer at a puppy rescue, or defend their PhD. theses, so I wish them godspeed.
And so it goes as we make it back to the trucks, at 2:29.30PM. Tico is off to sell beer at a Broncos game, and Caleb and I head back to the Fort. A good time was had by all.