A treacherous trail: Grand County revisits discussions about reopening Rollins Pass

McKenna Harford/Sky-Hi News
A trestle on Rollin's Pass shows serious erosion damage. Other structural concerns include the lack of space to expand, rockfall and weather damage.
Kate and B. Travis Wright/Courtesy Photo

GRAND COUNTY — Despite the Needle’s Eye Tunnel at the top of Rollins Pass being closed to traffic for 30 years, the area sees thousands of visitors annually, which has prompted conversations in Grand County about reopening the road.

However, a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday suggested there may be other ways to encourage recreation and stimulate the economy without reopening the route between Winter Park and Boulder.

Kate and Travis Wright, historians and authors of the book “Rollins Pass,” spoke about some of the concerns the pass is facing today, including a lack of infrastructure.

“It’s very narrow and steep kind of all across the pass,” Kate Wright explained. “On Giant’s Ladder, on the east side (of the pass) … really on this stretch we just pray that we don’t encounter another car or line of cars because one of the parties is going to have to back up quite a ways and there’s really no room to expand (the road).”

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In its 113-year lifespan, the Needle’s Eye Tunnel, which sits at the top of James Peak, has been abandoned, rediscovered and collapsed twice, most recently in 1990, when it was closed to traffic.

Many sections of the Rollins Pass are narrow with little to no room for expansion and since it was closed, erosion and rockfall have changed the road, Kate noted.

“There are sections (of the pass) that are wide, could even fit four cars next to each other, but then a lot of sections where you tell your truck to ‘suck it in,’” she said.

Currently, the portion of Rollins Pass Road in Grand County is open to recreation and vehicles, but only up to the tunnel. The portion of the road that runs through Gilpin and Boulder Counties has been closed to vehicles.

The Wrights reported multiple instances of damage to the James Peak Wilderness area surrounding the tunnel, including illegal roads in the preservation area, offroading and vandalism.

“It takes 100-500 years when a single car drives on tundra, for that damage to be repaired,” Kate said. “The tire tracks really lead to nowhere, you can tell that people are just going out and having fun.”

A truck that had driven past the wilderness sign is just one example of the many instances of vandalism, offroading and damage from irresponsible visitors.
Courtesy Kate and B. Travis Wright

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Beyond intentional damage to the road and surrounding areas, Travis added that Colorado’s population has increased significantly since the last time the pass was open to through traffic, which could mean more traffic than the one-lane road could handle.

A few suggestions the Wrights made include increasing law enforcement on the pass, improving signage for recreators and visitors, encouraging responsible tourism and, perhaps most importantly, designating parts of the area as historic preservation sites, including cites with Native American heritage.

“We found an artifact … (that’s) the oldest human made artifact ever discovered on Rollins Pass; it’s a Scottsbluff projectile point,” Travis said. “It’s missing its point, but there’s enough of that story there to actually rewrite the history books. It’s 11,000 years old, so it adds another 10% of history to the Rollins Pass story.”

The commissioners seemed to agree with Commissioner Merrit Linke noting the importance of historical preservation.

“I think all three counties would be on board with preserving history,” Linke said. “That, to me, is the biggest downside of this whole thing, is we’re losing history and whatever that looks like to preserve it is what we should focus on, which may or may not be opening the road.”

As for opening up another county thoroughfare to traffic, the Wrights suggested the commissioners look to Moffat Tunnel, potentially by expanding ski train rides or even hauling vehicles via the train.

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