The Road To Rollins Pass

Sep 12, 2023

by Ken Rummer

“It might be a bit bumpy.”  That was my brother’s report as he briefed us on our planned adventure.

The train route over Rollins pass, completed in 1903, was the first to make it across the continental divide in Colorado. A Forest Service road now follows the old line up the mountain, and we were on it.

“A bit bumpy,” I discovered, is Colorado-speak for driving over stones as big a wash tubs and rocks still sharp from being blasted out of the mountain.

My brother, who was driving, had to read the road the way a kayaker reads the rapids, picking out a path that wound from high spot to high spot across deep ruts, trying to avoid rock scrape or worse to the underside of the SUV, splashing through water holes of indeterminate depth, steering right for the guardrail-free cliff edge before tacking back across the boulders. The vehicle pitched and jerked, bucked and shuddered. So did the passengers.

But there were compensations. We passed through aspens and spruce, glimpsed Fireweed and Indian Paintbrush, and wound through narrow cuts in mountain rock. Here and there the view opened to reveal the valley far below.

The trip was taking longer than expected, but we held out hope of reaching one of the two lakes near the top.

On the verge of turning back, we caught sight of a bit of water reflecting through a gap in the thinning trees. A little farther, and there it was, Yankee Doodle Lake, mirroring the mountain still above us with its remnant patch of snow. So beautiful.

We found a place to park near a shaded spot and broke out the picnic supplies. The altimeter on my phone read 10,780 feet, but we all agreed we’d round it up to 11,000 when we told the story.

Scanning toward the top of the mountain, our binoculars could pull in the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, the one that the first train used when it made it across the pass and on to the west. On the far shore of the lake, two fishermen kept the trout entertained. And before us, still water reflected rocks and trees and clouds back-lit by sunshine.

“Not many get to see that,” my nephew said later, and given the state of the road I could see why.

The downward trip was much the same as the one going up, winding our way through the water holes, over the sharp rocks and rounded boulders, bouncing and lurching, finally reaching the smoother gravel, and then the pavement, following the river all the way to Boulder.

Now, sorting through the pictures and the recollections, I wonder about a takeaway. Something like: If you’re still on the paved road, you’re not in the mountains yet. Or: Memories stick better when surviving the adventure is in at least some doubt.

Or maybe this story is about the possibility of beautiful surprises along difficult paths. I certainly found some on the road to Rollins Pass.


About the author: Ken Rummer is a retired pastor in the Des Moines Presbytery.